During the 1920’s and 1930’s nearly 5 million new homes were built in the UK, which represents approx 25% of our total housing stock (excluding flats).
Houses now had electricity, sometimes only for lighting, and proper bathrooms. Central heating was virtually unknown, and rooms were heated by individual coal fires. A new private built semi could be bought for around £500, this sum was about twice the annual salary of a middle ranking civil servant. Mortgage rates were stable at 4.5%, and houses could be bought for a modest deposit of less than £50.
Ground floors were suspended over a concrete oversite and roofs were still cut over (175×75) purlins and mainly hipped. Walls were cavity with either two leaves in brick or possibly the internal wall in breeze block. Wall ties (often galvanised) held the two leaves together. Floors were either square edged boards or T&G on joists and the ceilings were still lath and plaster.
The explosion of house building still left over half a million slum houses waiting to be demolished in 1939, and another one third of a million on the brink of becoming slums. Of the quarter of a million homes built each year, the majority were built by the private sector. Builders tended not to employ architects, so a familiar pattern of semi and detached houses sprang up along main roads leading out of towns.
The 30’s was a boom time for the semi-detached house with thousands being built around the country, and many sporting the familiar bay window. With the country getting back on its feet after the war, these were well constructed and with sensible garden sizes have altered little today. The growth of building society’s encouraged people for the first time to buy their own homes, this was something previously only achieved by the upper classes. Between 1932 and 1947 there were several major acts and legislation to provide planning and public health laws, but these were influenced by the garden city approach and land was beginning to become a premium.
The 30’s also saw a distinctive influence in house design gained from the Arts and Craft movement. The rapid growth of Suburbia in many towns gave speculative builders the chance to experiment with quite unusual designs, some half timbered (Jacobethan), some half pebble-dash, others with tile-hanging and even weather-boarding. A more modern style was called the sun-trap or International Style, giving priority to receiving as much sunlight as possible via the curved windows.
Housing Societies were started in the late 20’s to address the need for new rented accommodation, and the Swaythling Housing Society built many successful developments in a Neo-Georgian style. Although built in single brick, the terraces are still popular today, and a three bedroom one sells for £300,000. (click here to go to the Swaythling Housing Society history pages)
The Modern Movement also referred to functionalism as in all forms of art was a revolt against the establishment. Architects from America ( Frank Lloyd-Wright ), Germany ( Walter Gropius ) and Switzerland ( Le Corbusier ) were to have a considerable impact on British architecture, unfortunately not always for the best.
The HOME is a series of spaces defined by walls and interconnected. Each space (room) has a function, and the functionality depends on our needs. We create a lifestyle in these spaces, and to each person or family, that is their idea of HOME.
Le Corbusier, probably the most influential of the new breed of ‘modern’ architects was not trained in the traditional way. He saw the potential of reinforced concrete as a means to make mass produced houses, similar to the production line for making cars. None of the internal walls were load-bearing, so giving the occupant the choice to re-arrange the space to their requirement.
Le Corbusier was determined that his architecture would reintroduce nature into people’s lives. Victorian cities were chaotic and dark prisons for many of their inhabitants. Le Corbusier was convinced that a rationally planned city, using the standardised housing types he had developed, could offer a healthy, humane alternative. Click here to read an extract from Modern Architects.
All this sounded new and exciting, and perhaps if it wasn’t for the second world war, much of le Corbusier’s ideas could have been successfully applied in Britain, but as explained later, many failures of his would-be imitators led to Le Corbusier being blamed for the problems of western cities in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Second World War 1939-1945 did little to encourage house building, in fact there were some 200,000 homes lost to bombing, as well as damage to about 25% of the entire building stock. The Government reacted with substantial grants to local authorities to fill this gap in housing, and Corbusier’s idea of mass production houses was the catalyst to enable 150,000 pre-fabs and 500,000 system houses to be built between 1945 and 1955. Many of these have now been demolished, but those that are still in use suffer from poor thermal insulation, and the reinforced concrete can be attacked by carbonation that will result in corrosion of the steel reinforcing.
Of the more traditionally built houses, local authorities were forced by lack of finance to build to a utilitarian standard, and with a shortage of timber this led to the introduction of the trussed roof, a factory made roof that requires little skill to erect, and provides no attic space.
So thanks to the war, plasterboard developed to repair bombed out houses, was now used to finish internal walls, electricity was used to not only light houses but also heat them, and yes we had a minimum standard of loft insulation of 50mm, today it is 200mm.
In the 1950’s we saw the high rise blocks of flats as a solution to land shortage and quick replacements of bombed out city areas. These were mixed with two and three story cheaply constructed maisonettes and terraces mainly constructed in concrete, which was readily available and required less skill than traditional building. In the larger blocks of flats facades were treated to panelwork above and below windows, which could be of tiles, weatherboard or corrugated plastic.
Truly this was not a time of great domestic architecture with money being the driving force, and with the baby boom of 1946 more and more homes were required.
Several schemes of group housing layout were experimented by local authorities, the Radburn style gave a cul-de-sac approach, on-site garaging, communal front gardens with footpaths leading to community facilities including bus stops.