When Central Government suggests that it will offer tax incentives to manufacturers and suppliers of prefabricated or modular housing, you know there is a housing crisis. Every time one occurs, and the reasons are always the same - lack of product and an inability to build fast enough, prefabrication is seen as the answer. After WW2 it was complete houses (to be built using redundant aircraft factories), and in the 1960s and early 1970s it was the concrete panel systems to make building quicker. And yet every time you see a television programme or TV news bite it shows a couple of brickies’ building a wall in the traditional way. Why is this, why is prefabrication never quite the panacea it is supposed to be?
Surprisingly perhaps, Dulwich was at the forefront of the prefabrication revolution after 1945. Over 300 temporary houses or ‘prefabs’ were built in the area, 156 in East Dulwich (of which there are still two left - in Lordship Lane and Underhill Road), and 147 in West Dulwich. The largest number (90 units) were located at the junction of Rosendale and Park Hall Road - where the Rosendale Gardens Estate now stand - David Wales’ recent article on the post WW2 POW camp on Croxted Road described the site next door.
There was little room for 1960s high-rise flats in Dulwich, though there are several blocks on the perimeter, at Hurst Street in Herne Hill and between Romany and Hamilton Roads in Gipsy Hill. These were built using the Wimpey ‘no fines’ concrete system - the panels were cast on site and lifted into position by crane. The original appearance of the blocks has changed as they were clad with rendered insulation in the 1980s to overcome heat loss and cold- bridging problems. There is also another little-known example of prefabrication in Herne Hill, in Matlock Place off Poplar Walk, the pleasant tile-clad old people’s bungalows are one of the only examples in this country of the Dutch 4L heavy concrete panel system.
At the southern end of Dulwich, in Farquhar Road, the demolition of the Crystal Palace High Level Station in the late 1950s allowed the London County Council to use the site for another ‘prefab’ estate, and the temporary houses remained until the site was redeveloped in the 1980s with the award winning eco-friendly Spinney Gardens.
However, the future of prefabrication is definitely not large panel systems or probably whole houses brought to the site on the back of a truck - though there have been recent social housing schemes of this type in Merton and Lewisham. The future is the house kit, or in Ikea terms, the flat pack - why can’t houses be like furniture? The Huf houses in Woodyard Lane show how it could work - albeit at the rather less affordable end of the market. Think of a plastic model kit, you buy a bag with a series of parts in it and you put it together. In the case of the Huf house, you select the size and layout you want, where the windows are etc, the factory manufactures it (via computer), packs it on the back of a truck and transports it to your site - and best of all perhaps, a team of German engineers puts it together for you. While you have to put in foundations first and the range of actual designs are somewhat limited, it comes with all the services fitted and it takes very little time to assemble - just like furniture. If this type of system could be made more affordable it could be the way to go.