Prefabs were supposed to be a short-term fix to the housing crisis after the second world war, a life of around 10 years until housing could be more permanently sorted. They needed to be constructed rapidly, and although hard to heat and cold in the winter, some with asbestos and other health and safety concerns, many households enjoyed the space, facilities and environment prefabs offered and – as a result – many prefabs remained peoples’ homes many years later than anticipated. There are far more around than you might expect, and some of them are listed.

The Misbourne Estate in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, was home to 46 prefabs from after the second world war and until 1987 and one example of the factory made “Universal House, Mark 3’ – the Amersham prefab – is now preserved at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, fully kitted out internally with period features and furnishings. It is steel frame, sheeted outside with corrugated asbestos cement and inside with plasterboard. Inside they were advanced for their time; internal amenities, heating and hot water (which many then still didn’t have) and fitted cupboards.

Some however had greater longevity than originally anticipated and there are numerous prefabs dotted around, including the Excalibur estate in Lewisham.  This estate’s future became something of a stalemate between residents and council.  Many wanted to stay there and my recent visit made me feel that this estate is still a treasured home for many: chats with residents, well-kept gardens, washing out on the lines and a generally calm, well-kept neighbourly feel. There’s lots of greenery and mature trees adding to its established ambience. Many have written about it and lots go to see this unusual, unexpected place in Catford. Municipal Dreams’ blog is worth a read.

With such interest in prefabs, there’s even a virtual Prefab Museum.

So what’s new?

This brings us onto some modern-day versions of ‘prefabs’ – some highly designer and desirable, which others now becoming more commonplace to help house growing numbers of homeless in the capital – but the emphasis here is on the ‘short term’.

It feels ironic that whilst Lewisham council is looking to redevelop the Excalibur estate where residents until recently had enjoyed long term security, it is also providing new temporary housing for its homeless households at PLACE, Ladywell. In something of a revision of the prefab, the UK’s first ‘pop up housing‘ uses a volumetric construction method and Lewisham Council has given temporary permission here.

This new, funky looking, colourful development is eye catching and is expected to be there for around 5 years, making interim use of the land whilst a longer-term plan is developed for the area. Having myself seen so many poor quality privately rented houses and the stress of short term tenancies, this looks like an attractive alternative, but I don’t myself have enough information about health and safety issues there, and I wonder what the full lifespan is and how secure residents feel, and what will happen to those who currently live there when they have to move on.

However, there are lots of advantages, including households remaining local, the ability to recycle the units. Other areas are following suit, such as this development at nearby Merton which has attracted wide interest.

Living in containers

This leads us into living in shipping containers. Internationally there are moves toward such ‘housing of the future’. Many have featured on Grand Designs (one of my favourite TV shows) and there are some fantastic designs, sometimes set in stunning environments . This longer YouTube film on Alternative Housing is also worth a look. But these are all for those who have housing choices, and enough income, or for those who share their home with their office.

Meanwhile …  at Marston Court, Hanwell, Ealing Council also has a new venture to house the homeless. Here, shipping containers are being used (the trendy name is ‘repurposed’) on land owned by the council as a ‘temporary’ fix. They are rapid to erect and can transform ‘redundant’ areas quickly.

I visited and it feels quite pleasant, tucked behind shops and on the edge of what I guess is now a majority owner occupied once large and proud council estate. There’s a small park for children there too. I don’t know how it is to live there though in respect of how warm they are in the winter, or how noisy between vertical or horizontal neighbours. Ealing are not alone in this: Brighton and Bristol are trialling shipping containers for the homeless.

The problem is of rising numbers of households struggling to find suitable housing at a price they can afford to rent or buy in London is becoming practically impossible. Councils are trying their best: it’s not their fault they have insufficient resource and are doing what they can. I can’t help but feel though that it really is a Tale of Two Cities and in times like these, we risk thinking that somewhere, anywhere to live must be better than nowhere. But when we accept this thought, we allow ourselves to say that some deserve less than others. I for one really don’t want to think like that. We really do need far more investment in housing.

With thanks to COAM for permission to use prefab photos taken there.