BISF Permanent Houses – Not Temporary Prefabs

During the Blitz of World War II, over 250,000 homes were destroyed in Great Britain and over 43,000 people lost their lives at the hands of the German Luftwaffe.

At the end of the War, Britain faced a huge housing shortage of monumental proportions. Hundreds of thousands of houses across the country had been laid to waste by heavy bombing, and thousands more properties suffered severe structural damage, and were unfit for occupancy.

A huge house rebuilding programme began in 1945 with the aim of building 750,000 new homes across England and Wales, primarily to house the homeless and the many thousands of soldiers returning home from overseas fighting. The countries birth rate had risen alarmingly whilst many thousands of people continued to live in squalid, overpopulated slums that needed to be cleared if a health crisis was to be avoided.

Skilled labour and traditional building materials were incredibly scarce. This forced the Government to look toward alternative methods of construction using alternative building and construction methods.

The main aim was to build  houses quickly and cheaply using the minimal amount of materials whilst employing fewer skilled workers.
The use of steel and aluminium was an obvious choice, amongst many other non-traditional building materials that were considered. Factories that once manufactured and produced bombs, aircraft and munitions for the war effort, could easily be adapted to manufacture a variety of temporary bungalows and other buildings under the newly formed Emergency housing act. These houses were built in a similar way to how static caravans are built today but without wheels or a chassis. Each individual factory home was manufactured in two halves which when joined together, formed a complete dwelling.

These structures were literally loaded onto the backs of lorries before being driven to their intended destination. A small team of semi skilled workers then fully assembled the structures on top of basic foundations, before connecting the required services. Despite being designed to only last 10 years or so, many of these so called ‘Prefab’ bungalows still exist today.

The term Prefab, literally means Prefabricated (or Pre-Made) and this is exactly how these bungalows were constructed.  All the required components were pre-manufactured rather like the individual pieces of a large interconnecting puzzle, which were assembled on site.

The B.I.S.F House on the other hand, was constructed in a slightly different way.

This house was designed to a permanent structure from the very start. At the very least, the design brief stated that the building should have an expected lifespan of at least 70+ years, This being comparable to the expected lifespan of a traditional brick built dwelling of the time.

The steel frame which formed the basis of the BISF construction, was formed using strong steel I-Beams . This frame was much stronger in comparison to the majority of frames used in the alternative temporary dwelling programme.

The steel framework of the BISF House was also pre-manufactured inside factories but the framework was produced as individual components to ensure exact replication. The original Architect, Sir Frederick Gibberd and his engineer Donovan Lee, purposely designed the house to accept a wide range of internal and external building materials, which could be applied during site construction. Internally, walls and ceilings could be fitted out with sheets of drywall, fibreboard or even hardboard, and examples of these variable materials are still evident in large numbers of these houses today. Many houses in the West Midlands still retain the original hardboard walls and fibreboard ceiling panels, although the latter material is now considered to be a fire hazard.

Externally, the lower elevation in the majority of BISF Houses was constructed using cement render which was applied onto metal lathe ribbed blades. The upper elevation, in most cases was fitted with overlapping pressed steel panels, which were anchored onto horizontal steel support bars.

The lower elevation was specifically designed to accommodate render on lathe or solid brick when available, as seen in the early demonstration house below.

The rigid steel frame of the BISF house was one of the few sections that was designed to be standard across the board, but even this was adapted in some instances, to create rows of terraced BISF houses which can be seen dotted around the country. Many of the external components of the house could effectively be constructed using a wide range of materials depending upon availability at the time. Internally, we also see variations in the materials used. One example relates to the variation of wall panels that were used to cover interior walls which include drywall, fibreboard or even lightweight hardboard.

The original Architect Sir Frederick Gibberd designed the B.I.S.F House along with engineer Donovan Lee.

The New Towns Act 1946

New towns were introduced to deal with the problem of overcrowded city centres. 14 new towns were planned in the 1940s and another 14 built in the 1960s. New towns contained a variety of house types. Shops, schools and leisure facilities were within easy reach. New towns were built in Scotland at Cumbernauld, Glenrothes, Livingston, East Kilbride and Irvine.

BISF Steel Framed Houses were built as part of the Post WWII rebuilding program replace thousands of homes that had been damaged or destroyed during the war.

During the War years, hundreds of thousands of British homes were destroyed due to Hitler’s relentless bombing campaign

Many other Temporary Houses were also built during this time, including the factory made Prefabricated or ‘Prefab’ Bungalow, that was often clad in steel panels that appear similar in design to the upper storey panels used to construct BISF Houses. This similarity is partly responsible for many people, wrongly assuming that the BISF house, was a semi-detached version of the temporary prefabricated bungalow.

The BISF house was highly favoured t the time, due to the speed in which it could be constructed and the need for fewer skilled tradesmen to do so. Firm backing by the British Iron & Steel Federation ensured a regular supply of steel, essential for use in the construction process.

In summary, the BISF House is not a Prefabricated house in the true sense of the word. It is in fact, a Steel Framed Non-Traditional, System Built House, incorporating a number of prefabricated materials and components. The Steel frame was manufactured off site just as an RSJ (Steel Girder) is today. Unlike true Prefabs, which were often craned onto site, in two halves, the BISF house frame was constructed on site, onto which additional and varied building materials were added.

Each BISF house cost the local council £1307 and this di not include the cost of the slab foundation that also needed to be constructed on site. Amazingly by todays standards, the comparable cost would be over £65,000.00! A typical standard construction house at the time cost just £1,170 almost £150 less than a BISF house. As the nationwide building program took hold, these costs increased significantly due to production and delivery issues.

Today a typical BISF house has the same expected lifespan as a standard traditional built property, providing that it has been maintained correctly.

In 1987 the BRE  Building Research Establishment published the following report:

BR113 Steel framed and steel-clad houses: inspection and assessment.

The report gave guidance on the inspection and condition assessment of steel framed housing, which was based following on site investigations of a number of systems. The Building Research Establishment team concluded that:

“The vast majority of steel framed dwellings have given levels of performance not very different from many traditionally built dwellings of the same period and, provided the right repairs are carried out there is no reason why steel framed and steel-clad dwellings and cast iron dwellings should not give good performance into the foreseeable future, and certainly on a par with the life conventionally assumed for rehabilitated dwellings built-in conventional construction.

 

Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing a great set of images.

    That’s an excellent shot of the stripped down fireplace and full support frame. I expect that will be of great benefit to other users planning on undertaking a removal.

    It’s good to see the standard party wall fully exposed too.

    I initially set up the site so that our users could contribute and share images such as these for the benefit of everyone and your post is a perfect example of this happening.

    I too try to drop in when I see builders working on a house. It’s amazing what you can see and what you can pick by a quick 5 minute drop in.

    Thanks again for the great share!

  2. Thanks for the reply. I recently photographed one of the last untouched BISF houses on the Oxhey estate – the  late occupier had lived there since new in 1948.  I spoke with the builders renovating the house and they let me into the stripped out house to take some pics – fascinating stuff. All of three flat roofed ORLIT homes were demolished in the 1980’s A total of 502 BISF houses were built on the estate.

    [unitegallery bisfrefurb]

  3. I’ve had a quick look in one of my manual but I don’t think I have managed to find the flat roof house youre talking about so far but I’ll post some of these for you to see just in case.

    Are none of the originals still standing?

    [attach]282,281,280,279,278,277,276,275,274,273[/attach]

  4. Hello Tintown

    The warmest of welcomes to our community!

    We are always looking out for historical information relating to BISF Houses and other builds too.

    I have a couple of similar images deep in my research archives somewhere that might be a match. I’ll have a root around and see what I can find. 

  5. Hi folks – first time poster – i’m a local historian for the South Oxhey area. Tis was a large estate built by the LCC in Herts just after the war and a sizeable proportion of homes built were BISF – one area of the estate – predominantly comprised of BISF houses was known as tintown! Another style built were made pf precast concrete panels assembled on a concrete slab on site. They were flat roofed and had a tin chimney stack projecting through the roof protected by no more that what appeared to be a couple of paving slabs on end – bridged by a third! Any ideas what type of houses these would have been?

  6. I was always told they were only built to last for ten years and I always thought this was true untill now.

    It’s information like this that makes this site great for finding really good reliable information.

    Now I make sure that i correct everyone who throws the 10 year life span at me and it is so satisfying to see their faces :0)

    Thanks to everyone on this site, you all do a great job and create some amazing posts!

    SinD

  7. Another great post Marc.

    The £1307 is presumably per dwelling rather than per unit (the combined cost of 2x dwellings, ‘semi-detached’) are you able to confirm that?

    These houses are definitely not temporary, lifting a floor board almost an inch thick puts a late 80’s detached house & local 30’s semi to shame. I’m astounded by the quality of work & materials used throughout my BISF house.

    I’ll post a few pics of the lower part of some of my stanchions some time soon, I don’t anticipate a problem with them :D.

    Presumably any metal degradation could be cured with an angle grinder and oxy acetylene welding kit (trying not to warp the frame)?