Ipswich Icons: Prefabs were just one of the emergency solutions to a post-war housing shortage in Suffolk

Prefabricated buildings were only meant to have a lifespan of up to 15 years, but many are still in

Prefabricated buildings were only meant to have a lifespan of up to 15 years, but many are still in use - Credit: Archant

The Royal Exchange in London was built in 1567 and ‘opened’ by Queen Elizabeth on January 23, 1571. Fairly obviously it is not a pre fabricated building, or is it?

The roof was constructed from oak trees felled on Sir Thomas Gresham’s estate at Ringshall, Suffolk and sawn, where they fell, into usable timber. The joints where then cut by Suffolk craftsmen and the pieces assembled, marked and then taken apart for transportation to London. A prefabricated timber framed roof structure.

Unfortunately the Royal Exchange has suffered from two major fires since the mid 16th Century, the original roof long lost to the flames but the technique of prefabricating buildings continues.

Prefabs came into their own immediately after the Second World War, when the returning service personnel needed accommodation, and needed it quickly. One of the key builders of prefabs was the aircraft industry. A large number of factories had been geared up for aircraft production during the war effort and they were able to turn their hand to mass producing housing, typically aluminium bungalows but also two storey steel framed dwellings.

The Temporary Housing Programme

In 1942 the immediate threat of invasion had passed and so attention turned to the possibility of post-war housing, even at that stage it was estimated that some 3 to 4 million new homes would be required. The pressure was on the Government (even though housing was a local authority responsibility) thus it was the Government that decided and promoted prefabs.

In 1944 prime minister Winston Churchill announced the commencement of a Ministry of Works emergency temporary, factory-made housing programme.

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• Emergency – immediately after the war there was a lack of skilled building workers.

• Temporary – to persuade the public to accept lightweight (instant) construction.

• Factory – made by selected manufacturers (some of whom also erected the prefabs).

However, the passing of time confirmed that the majority of prefabs were not temporary but were to last typically 40 to 50 years.

Churchill’s temporary housing programme of 156,000 homes were built between 1945 and 1949. Designed to last 10 or 15 years, a surprising number remain today, including those in Inverness Road, Ipswich.

The term prefab encompasses a range of different construction methods from homes that arrived complete on the back of a truck to system built houses that required the wall infill materials to be added using either local materials or, in some cases asbestos, corrugated steel sheeting or concrete panels.

In Ipswich prefabs were constructed in Bramford Lane and off Sidegate Lane, in a variety of different formats. The 150 bungalows in Inverness Road and Humber Doucy Lane were Tarran Bungalows and have survived for some 65 years.

Tarran Industries of Hull was a private construction company that had been involved in prefabrication since the mid 1930s. Tarran was the contractor for the Quarry Hill flats in Leeds city centre built in 1935, the largest pre-war experiment in prefabrication. During the war Tarran supplied more than 9,000 prefab timber huts to the War Department and by 1943 was exhibiting its single storey concrete mark III model. It had walls of sawdust concrete and a flat roof covered with three layers of bitumen felt. Robert Tarran announced to the press that his company could manufacture 100,000 per year.

Tarran bungalows were framed structures with bolt-on concrete panels.

As an exercise to get the public to accept prefabs as homes in which to live likely residents were invited to contribute to the design process. Asking the public for a contribution was almost unheard of either before or during the war. This was however very much along the lines of ‘you can have it any colour you want as long as it’s black’ ie. you can contribute to the discussion on the number of kitchen cupboards but you’ll still have to live in a prefab!