In Defence of the Prefab

The prefabricated homes built across Britain in the 1940s were more than just emergency housing – they were a rapid response to crises of overcrowding and poor accommodation that were remarkably similar to today.

In February 2020, a month before the first lockdown of the pandemic began, I moved into one of the last remaining 1940s prefabricated houses in Britain. It’s the first time that I’ve had a front door that was mine and mine alone. I’m a property guardian, a living means of making a property secure and deterring flytippers and arsonists. For the majority of the pandemic, this prefab and the streets around it have been my world.

The prefab itself is a Uni-Seco Mark III, built from a flat kit within a couple of years of the end of the Second World War. Lewisham lost over 1,600 homes to bombing during the war, and the prefab is one of the few surviving of approximately 29,000 that were built across the country. Me and my neighbours live in the largest remaining prefab estate in the UK, which is in the middle of a long and protracted process of being demolished.

I’ve spent twenty odd years in homes of multiple occupancy (HMOs), sharing houses and flats meant for families with others. I will probably be the final tenant of this house.

Moving here was a desperate jump from a house-sharing situation that wasn’t working out. In retrospect it feels an act of prescience in a world where space, ventilation and the ability to control the boundaries of our own living environment have become vital elements in the fight against the transmission of a virus which is holding a mirror to all of the inequalities that we have let build up over decades.

Pandemics are by definition situations where infectious diseases outstrip the capacity of our modes of social organisation to control their transmission. To date, the response of the UK Conservative government has, in the main, privatised the costs of reducing Covid transmission and promised repeatedly a ‘return to normal’ to be just months away. The built environment we need for people to be able to both live as they choose and reduce the transmission of a potentially lethal virus doesn’t exist yet.

My prefab itself is a rectangular box, divided into quadrants. Two rooms face the road outside, one a living room with windows that cross the corner like the ship’s bridge, the other a bedroom with built-in storage. Another bedroom, with its own built-in storage, faces back onto a tumble of garden filled with birds and blackberries. There’s a narrow kitchen, the remains of its own fitted storage like the imprints of hill forts and Roman walls on a landscape. A small hallway from the front door leads to a toilet and shower room. There is no space that doesn’t have large opening windows. Despite being built to meet a housing need resulting from war, the prefab presents a model for housing design and housing construction that could help to build a world which is more Covid safe.

A December 2020 report by the Health Foundation singles out housing as a contributing factor in the spread of Covid-19, pointing to the decade-on-decade increase in people sharing housing and to overcrowding as situations that make social distancing and shielding more difficult. Going into the Covid-19 pandemic, the Health Foundation state, ‘one in three households (32% or 7.6 million) in England had at least one major housing problem relating to overcrowding, affordability or poor-quality housing.’ Those in residential care, concentrated together for economies of scale, could be added to that number.

When I moved in, the prefab had been boarded up for a couple of years: nothing but bare floorboards, central heating removed, only the most rudimentary electrical wiring. This is its last gasp as a home. There is space here, and light. About half of the original estate remains, building work halted by a mixture of legal challenges and the entropy of pandemic uncertainty. Arranged on a grid, the houses are arrayed in rows reached by alleyways like tunnels overhung by the shrubs from gardens, under a great expanse of sky.

Many of the houses show generations of modification, personal preferences filling in the gaps in the standard template of building. The placement of each house in its garden space is not uniform. Some are built at an angle, some with larger front gardens, some with larger spaces at the back. Despite being built in haste from kits, the houses are not uniform, each being a home rather than simply containers to store families of workers during evenings and weekends. Their value has been to the people who lived in them, not in the speculative housing market.

Structurally, the prefab is perfect for social distancing. It is possible to converse with someone through an open window as they stand in the street. The garden is accessible without passing through the house. The bathroom and toilet near the front door make it possible to implement a full sanitisation before entering, the hallway as a kind of airlock. Someone could, if necessary, strip and wash fully when entering and then when exiting. The windows in each room open enough to create a through draught that can change the air completely.

Facing the outside world, the prefab is barrier but not an obstruction: I can look out at sky through open windows that let the world in. The shape, placement and overall design of the prefab makes me feel connected to the outside world without making me vulnerable to it. In many ways, the pressure to erect houses quickly, and the government funds to do so, created an opportunity to build outside of the idea of the homes themselves as the repository of capital, a investment in the here and now, not in the retention of value through exchange later. It is possible for governments to bring into existence buildings in answer to specific needs and demands presented at a particular time.

There is an irony writing about living in a home intended to be temporary which instead has survived for fifty years or more beyond its sell by date. The market alone will not create the spaces people need to be safe. The cholera pandemic of the nineteenth century was banished by the combination of the infrastructure of sewers and clean water, and is now kept at bay by successful medical treatment where that breaks down. The world is full of low-cost, innovative prefabricated building designs. What it is not full of is people prepared to allow the change needed for them to be constructed.

Right now, there are no perfect solutions, but in times of crisis there seldom are. It is entirely conceivable that this pandemic or another following it will prove to be impossible to eradicate or manage without changes to the ways in which society is organised. Current responses are mired in a hedging of bets, of hoping that everything will be OK without anything much changing. As we enter a second year of pandemic, it becomes clearer that many who are most vulnerable are in that state because they lack control over their living conditions. Rich people keep safe and poorer people die.