The Mass Housing Drive – Case studies

Miles Glendinning

In this essay:

Individual Case Studies

The Prefabs

In 1944, to help alleviate the worst wartime housing shortages, and to preserve the potential capacity of munitions factories, the government passed a Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, for the manufacture and supply of several hundred thousand prefabricated single-storey bungalows. The Ministry of Works in London, through a Directorate of Temporary Housing, directly ran the programme. Local authorities simply requisitioned the numbers of bungalows they needed. 32,176 were built in Scotland in 1945-9, including 235 in the landward areas of East Lothian, at the County Council’s request (the sprawling street layouts not being suitable for old or dense burgh settings); the first, outside Prestonpans, were ready in 1946. There were a number of different types, all of two rooms and kitchen and 670 sq ft, and making use of a standard Ministry prefabricated kitchen/bathroom unit. The average cost was £1,168, of which £135 was accounted for by distribution and transport costs.

The most technologically advanced of the types was the ‘AIROH’ aluminium bungalow, produced in the Blackburn aero factory in Dumbarton, and delivered to the site in three large pre-assembled segments. The only surviving ‘AIROH’ group in Scotland is quite near to East Lothian – a modified ‘permanent’ development of 1947-8 at Moredun, Edinburgh. The prefabs illustrated in this article are ‘Seco’ (or ‘Uni-Seco’) types, designed and erected by a contracting organisation originally formed in 1940 to build airfields. The house has a timber frame with asbestos cement sheets. 5,000 ‘Secos’ were provided in Scotland, including this group of five in Maxwell Road, Dirleton, built in 1946 and demolished in 1981. The houses included garden sheds made out of Anderson shelters.

Harbour Housing Development, Dunbar

Alongside its intermittent building of ordinary council houses and overspill dwellings, Dunbar Town Council made repeated efforts in the post-war years to tackle the regeneration of the historic but decaying harbour area, which was full of ruinous buildings. The 1930s had seen the first infill projects to rehouse local fishermen, including a vernacular-style terrace of 1936 by Basil Spence. In 1948, a further group of four small sites was identified, on a steeply sloping site in Victoria Street adjoining this terrace. The Town Council decided to make a start by building twenty fishermen’s houses, half being for local men and half for outside fishermen. Spence was engaged to produce plans once more, with the emphasis now on a kind of irregular, dense design combining elements of the Modern Movement (including steel casement windows and concrete external stairs) with highly site-specific ‘traditional’ elements, such as pitched, pantiled roofs, re-used red sandstone rubble (mostly re-used from demolished buildings on the site, or the harbour wall), and lime-washed walling above. The development received a Saltire Housing Award for 1951.

Each of the four small sites had its own characteristics, but mostly the houses are arranged in vertical ‘pairs’, with a ground floor flat and a maisonette with balcony access above. The houses vary in size, but the average was a four-roomed house of 966 sq ft. Technologically, the dwellings were not of fully-fledged Modernist type, having open coal fires rather than any sort of central heating, and conventional load-bearing brick and stone cavity wall construction. The storage areas under some of the blocks were designed to accommodate fishing nets, to echo the ‘traditional Dunbar atmosphere’ (Spence).

Cuthill (Inchview) Courtyard Housing Project, Prestonpans

In contrast to the picturesque density of Dunbar, Spence’s old fellow-student at Edinburgh College of Art, Robert Matthew, was responsible for a different and somewhat more ‘intellectual’ form of development at Prestonpans, in 1961-3. In 1958-9, as part of his strategy of building up his Architecture Department at Edinburgh University, Matthew founded a Housing (later Architecture) Research Unit, under Eric Stevenson. The HRU was tasked with carrying out social and architectural research into low-rise alternatives to tower blocks. Matthew’s students were already involved in the design and building of a 30-dwelling SSHA scheme at Pinkie Braes, Musselburgh (1958-63). Matthew proposed that the new HRU should separately research two sites, an urban high-density site in Cumbernauld and a rural, lower density one in East Lothian. In 1959, after ruling out one site for the rural project at Macmerry, he settled on a site at Cuthill, one of the County Council’s landward development areas outside Prestonpans. Terraced houses built by the Summerlee Coal Company had been cleared from the location in 1947. Next-door was one of the County’s typical large low-rise garden suburb schemes, built from 1948 to 1958.

The HRU plan for Cuthill comprised an interlocking grid of 45 L-shaped ‘patio’ houses, all single-storey and each with its own integral small private open space (divided off by slatted pergolas), and linked by a network of straight, partly covered pedestrian ways. The development had a large communal green at its centre. All in all, this traffic-free cluster of dwellings was a radical departure from the traditional norms of outer urban and rural housing, with their extensive provision of roads and open spaces, and segregation of different elements. The density was fairly low, at 45 persons per acre, but it had quite an ‘urban’ feel, echoing the ‘low rise high density’ movement of the ’60s, with its overtones of the Kasbah. The designers hoped that the dense network of windowless alleys would provide a way to reconcile ‘urbanity’ and people’s desire for private open space. Internally, the houses were all-electric, with open plans and underfloor central heating. Construction was fairly conservative, with rendered brick walls and flat Siporex roofing. Built by contractors Smart Bros., the total completed cost was £128,863.

The tenants mostly came from the adjacent ELCC cottage scheme: it was expected that they would be mainly miners, but in the event only five tenants had any mining connection. As part of the research project, in-depth follow-up interviews were carried out with the occupants in the early ’70s. They generally liked the privacy but attacked the low level of heating and insulation. The project suffered dampness from the outset, and was renovated in 1980s with pitched roofs. Similarly complex low-rise projects were subsequently designed by the HRU/ARU at Park 3, Cumbernauld (1963) and in several locations in London.