Property: Absolutely prefabulous

Loved by their inhabitants, reviled by purists, temporary houses are here to stay, writes Felicity Cannell
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The Independent Online
An unlikely candidate for elevation to architectural and historic importance is a little concrete and metal shed: a "very temporary" solution to the post-war housing crisis, derisively referred to as the prefab.

Built in military-style rows on odd patches of urban land, the prefab survives as a rare example of post-war architecture, with an ingenuity of design and function superseded only by the Tardis in Doctor Who.

The prefab's popularity has waxed and waned over the years. When they were first built, everybody wanted one. For many people they offered modern amenities for the first time - fitted kitchens and bathrooms, a fridge, albeit a gas one, and a warm air heating system. In the Sixties and Seventies, when traditional building methods returned, they were laughed at. Now they are back in vogue. But for many prefabs the applause has come too late.

Between 1944 and 1948 more than 150,000 of these factory-made, single- storey dwellings were erected around Britain as emergency accommodation as a result of the 1944 Temporary Housing Act. Although built to last just 10 years, while bombed-out streets were being rebuilt, hundreds are still standing. But equally, thousands have been demolished regardless of their still habitable condition because their sell-by date is up.

The Arcon, Universal, Tarran, Phoenix, Hawksley: each area of the country provided varying models. They sound like Second World War aircraft and that is virtually what they are. Because of the severe shortage of bricks and timber, the houses were constructed from aluminium sheeting, recycled from scrapped war planes, and stuck on to steel, concrete or aluminium frames.

Fifty years on the steel may be starting to corrode. This was the problem facing Stroud District Council, in Gloucestershire. The council was reluctant to demolish a number of prefabs that were found to be unsafe, but eventually had no option. Because of their huge popularity with the residents, the council is now building exact replicas from brick. "The use of floor area in the original design is wonderful," says Tim Bruce, of Stroud council. "But in terms of energy efficiency, [they were] a complete disaster." The original external walls were a mere three inches thick, so the replicas will have walls thick enough for insulation.

Residents soon learnt how to treat their homes. Lynn Allens, who lived in one in east London says: "Putting a picture on the wall needed a certain knowledge of screws and clips. If you banged a nail in, you ended up with a hole bigger than the picture. And with walls that thin, there were no secrets in our house!"

Prefabs are held in much affection by tenants and owners partly because the next government solution to the housing crisis was the tower block. "In the winter I used to moan about the cold," Mrs Allens says. "The inside walls would sometimes be wet with condensation. But looking back, it was perfect for children - like living in a caravan, but in the middle of town."

In areas where they still exist, councils get regular inquiries about the availability of prefabs. With a price tag to tenants of a few thousand pounds at the most, many have been snapped up under the right to buy. It isn't hard to spot these, with their tiled roofs, brick cladding and built-on porches.

In Nunhead, south London, Southwark Council, faced with a petition not to demolish its remaining 70 or so prefabs, is taking its responsibilities towards their preservation very seriously. Mike Anderson, the housing manager, who visited every resident, says: "It was an eye-opener. Not only because of the wonderful close-knit community among the prefab residents, but to see the conservation work inside, to update them.

"With the many modern methods of updating most aspects of the prefab, installing central heating, brick skinning on the outside, reroofing, it seems criminal to knock down a habitable house."

The National Housebuilding Council (NHBC) now looks favourably on prefabricated parts. "In modern house-building we welcome certain prefab elements, particularly foundations and wall panels, and as actual construction time is reduced the building is less exposed to the elements," says Richard Burton, of the NHBC.

"It speeds up production and reduces costs. It is the way forward for housebuilding."

In various war museums you can see an original post-war prefab. But in Birmingham, English Heritage is doing its best to preserve a number in situ. It is pressing the Government to grant Grade II listing to a row of 16 Phoenix prefabs in Wake Green Road.

According to a spokesman: "The scale and success of the prefab venture is an historic reminder of Britain's wartime organisation. This is a particularly well-preserved little group of a rare type - only 2,000 Phoenix prefabs were ever erected."

Although a few local councils have chosen to keep their prefab estates, at least for the short term, the future survival of the prefab is by no means guaranteed. When the steel frames start to corrode and the hardboard floors and ceilings start to rot, repairs are uneconomical.

So if you find a shining example, snap it up. Lenders are not keen to grant mortgages on temporary structures, but if you don't get a mortgage on the house with its over-generous garden, you may well secure one on the plot. And the chic minimalist metal construction and functional design will certainly attract attention.

Soon we may see a new generation of prefabs. To ease the current housing crisis, housing associations are now considering a home that can be erected within days, rather than months for a brick construction. The success of the prefab has been validated, and with modern technology providing anti-corrosive elements, insulation and sound-proofing, a new wave of prefabs may prove even more popular than the originals. And that is saying something.