Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, ‘Prefabs’ Book Review

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs (Historic England, 2018)

We thought we’d reached paradise.  The bathroom, indoor toilet, central heating, kitchen fitted with an oven, refrigerator and folding table were miracles of luxury. The spacious bedrooms and living room, the integral drawers and cupboards, the huge windows, the large garden and Anderson coal shelter were, to us, more palace than prefab.

Those are the words of Neil Kinnock, describing the South Wales prefab he lived in from the age of six till he went on to university (‘the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university’ if you remember his speech when elected Labour leader) at the age of 18.

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They capture much of the vital story of these prefabricated homes so finely and fully captured in this new book from Historic England. It reminds us these were, predominantly, working-class homes for generations of people moving from the slums. It tells us that, contrary to the cute, folksy image that understandably prevails, these were modern – indeed modernistic – homes, embodying a cutting-edge technology and providing unheralded amenity and convenience for their new residents.

We’re talking here of the post-war prefabs, part of a £150m programme inaugurated by the 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act under which some 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country by 1949.  An appendix provides full details of the range of forms and technology applied.

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Wake Green listed Phoenix Prefab, Birmingham © Elisabeth Blanchet

Designed to last around ten years, there were still 67,353 in use in 1964 and in London some 10,000 were occupied into the 1970s. A few survive to the present and some are now listed: six on the Excalibur Estate in south London, 16 on Wake Green Road in Moseley, Birmingham (the latter can be viewed on open days on the 6 and 7 September this year).  Others have been adapted and preserved, notably in Redditch and around Inverness Road in Ipswich where the 142 prefabs form the largest surviving estate of their type.

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Tarran prefabs in Ipswich, 2016 © Elisabeth Blanchet

For all that longevity, these post-war prefabs were temporary homes. The wider value of the book lies in its full coverage of prefabricated homes planned as permanent. This longer history and the range of non-traditional forms devised and constructed will surprise many – it surprised me and I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert.

In this, private enterprise has played its part.  Henry Munnings ‘portable colonial cottage’ from 1833 will be new to most; the Sears Roebuck mail order homes in the US are better known with over 100,000 sold between 1908 and 1940.  It’s interesting to learn – and somehow entirely appropriate – that IKEA are currently pioneering a form of emergency flatpack home in conjunction with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But true to form, I’ll focus on the role of the national and local state and here the recurring motif is the desire to meet pressing housing needs as rapidly and economically as possible when traditional brick-built housing was proving both too slow and expensive to build

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‘Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings’, Eldon Street, Liverpool, 1905

Liverpool City Engineer John Brodie built the prefabricated ‘Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings’ in Eldon Street as early as 1905. A version was featured in the Cheap Cottage Exhibition in Letchworth Garden City the same year and it survives (Grade II* listed) at 158 Wilbury Road.  The exhibition brochure expressed an intent and context which would persist in different forms across the years.  This, it said, was a ‘system of building’:

designed … with the special objective of providing a thoroughly sanitary and economical building, suitable in every way for the housing of the poorest classes displaced owing to the demolition of insanitary areas in Liverpool.

Eleven years later, in the midst of the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers devised the hut that bore his name. One-hundred thousand Nissen huts were erected to serve military needs by 1918. It’s pleasing that a few were built for peacetime housing purposes in the 1920s, though sadly – as this recent blog post records – not with any great success.

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Nissen-Petren houses in Ryme Intrinseca, Dorset © John Boughton

This was part of a broader wave of experimentation in non-traditional construction methods, promoted by the 1919 Housing Act and the newly-established Standardisation and New Methods of Construction Committee. The Committee received 90 proposals of which 75 were approved. The steel-framed Dorlonco homes of the Dorman Long Company, Airey’s Duo-Slab system combining precast and in situ concrete, and Lord Weir’s steel-clad, timber-framed homes were among the more widely built. In total, some 50,000 prefabricated homes had been erected by the end of the 1920s.

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Dorlonco housing, King’s Road, Aylesham, Kent © Aylesham Heritage Centre

A second world war – and, with it, the same urgent need to provide decent housing for the many who needed it – provided a new impetus to prefabricated housebuilding.  (A 1945 White Paper estimated that 750,000 new homes were required immediately and a further 500,000 to replace existing slums.)  The wartime government anticipated a repeat of the shortages of skilled labour and traditional materials that had hit construction in the early 1920s and set up the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction (the Burt Committee) in 1943.

To the Architects’ Journal in June 1943, as to many others, there was:

one solution only to the problem of post-war housing. It can be expressed in three words – use the machine

The book again provides an invaluable guide to the range of new prefabricated homes constructed. There were steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation) houses, for example, designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, of which 40,000 were built.

Airey House

Airey Houses © Historic England

Other designs utilised precast reinforced concrete (PRC).  Here the Wates (60,000 built), Airey (26,000), and Orlit houses (17,000) stand out. The so-called Cornish Units, developed by the English China Clay Company using concrete in which aggregate was a fine sand by-product from their mines, are an interesting variant; around 10,000 were built principally in the south-west.

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Cornish Units, Hoo Street, Werburgh, Kent © Historic England

They and the 17,000 aluminium-framed AIROH homes, developed by the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing illustrate another aspect of the prefabrication drive – the desire to maintain wartime industries in full production in peacetime conditions.  Conversely, some 5000 timber-framed houses – the so-called Swedish houses – were imported in flatpack sections from (you guessed it) Sweden.

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Swedish Houses © Historic England

Generally, these homes have stood the test of time though construction and materials flaws emerged in some (nearly all the Orlit homes have been demolished due to a defective concrete mix) and others have required substantial renovation in recent years. Some were disliked due to their unconventional appearance. Generally, cost savings were small if any. Traditional brick-built houses remained more popular and, but for a small spike of prefabricated construction during Macmillan’s housing drive in the 1950s, took centre-stage once more as shortages eased.

This was not, however, the end of ‘the machine’.  An era of mass public housing, rooted in the determination to end slum living forever, took off in the sixties and, in the confident modernity represented by what Harold Wilson had called the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’, system-building emerged as the seemingly obvious solution to the need to build at pace and at scale.

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Building the Aylesbury Estate: the LPS method in operation

The Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, currently suffering a slow demolition against residents’ protests, and the Hulme Crescents in Manchester are among the best known, both variants of the very widely employed Large Panel System of construction (LPS).  Due to what was in too many cases very poor build quality and the problems which followed, such estates were rapidly dubbed ‘notorious, none more so than Ronan Point, a Newham LPS tower block which partially collapsed after a small gas explosion in May 1968, killing four.

Ronan Point seemed to mark the end of the apparently hubristic hopes placed in system-building though – suitably modified – system-built schemes continued to be built into the early seventies. A closing chapter of the book, however, tells of a small-scale revival of prefabricated construction in the present housing crisis, both in the UK and globally, and suggests – lessons learned, rigorous standards ensured – that prefabrication remains a plausible and perhaps necessary means of building the affordable homes many millions need.

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Catherine Bazell’s family in front of their prefab in North London, 1950s © The Prefab Museum

This brief summary – focusing as it does on numbers and forms – might suggest a dry history but a huge quality of Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova’s work is its focus on the lived experience of those that have lived – and continue to live – in prefab homes over the years.  This is a rich social history, full of colour and detail, beautifully illustrated, replete with resident memories and testimonies – a powerful and humane telling of a story in which technology was mobilised to serve human need and societal necessity.

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A ceremony marking the completion of the 100,000th, Wandsworth, 1947 © Historic England

Though the authors’ closing words take us back to those seemingly quaint post-war prefabs, they might stand for the broader enterprise this fine book describes:

Although modest to the modern eye and by no means perfect, these temporary prefabs really did change people’s lives by giving them the opportunity to be masters of their very own detached homes – their ‘little castles’. The tenants considered themselves lucky, and the prefabs were a testament to the will to make life better for people after the trials of the Second World War.

You can sample the book via this link. You’ll find publication and purchase details here

The Prefab Museum is an online archive containing further information, images and testimonies illustrating the history of the temporary post-war prefabs and an interactive map of their past and present locations.

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Orchard Park, Hull, Part II: ‘It’s never had it better than now’

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We left Orchard Park in Hull in last week’s post in a bad way, in some ways a typical peripheral estate with what by now seemed the usual problems but in other respects an example writ large in terms of its poor quality design and level of social disadvantage.  A further element was introduced by what appeared to be rising problems of criminality and antisocial behaviour.  In this week’s post, we’ll examine the ongoing attempts to revive and improve such increasingly stigmatised estates for which Orchard Park was a significant test-bed.

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Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

It certainly qualified as a hard-to-let estate, a phenomenon identified by the Labour government of James Callaghan in 1978 and then targeted in the Priority Estates Programme (PEP) inherited by the Conservative government which succeeded.  Its emphasis was on modelling systems of local management and repair and promoting tenant participation.  A growing assumption was also that particular housing forms encouraged crime.

A retrospective Home Office study of three PEP estates (two in Tower Hamlets, London, and the other the Orchard Park Estate) concluded that while all ‘had high crime rates and adverse design’, Orchard Park ‘had a greater level of disorderliness, associated with youth in particular, which fostered a greater sense of insecurity amongst residents, particularly women’. (1)

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A worthy entrant for the gardening competition? © Charlie Baker and used with permission

All this played into the mix of changes carried out in Orchard Park in PEP-related activity from 1986 to 1992.  A local estate office was established to deal with repairs, caretaking and lettings. Neighbourhood Management Committees were set up in 1989; various security and environmental initiatives ensued.  A Gardening Competition for residents inaugurated in 1993 takes us back to the domestic respectability promoted by similar such competitions in the cottage suburbs since the 1920s. (2)

There was also some attempt to use the lettings policies in supporting established residents and engineering a more socially beneficial mix of new tenants. The Home Office report captures the contradictions and limitations of such a policy in the face of the intractable realities governing council housing allocations in a period of growing shortage and increased hardship.

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Lingcourt, Orchard Park

The report concluded that ‘Territoriality, social cohesion and “empowerment” increased among the residents of the houses’.  Among new tenants, the single mothers, generally provided houses (rather than flats), seem to have complemented the more established residents living disproportionately in the estate’s low-rise homes and contributed to their relative low turnover and ‘respectability’.

At the same time, the combination of a declining economy, homelessness legislation and the shortage of council housing stock ensured that:

a greater number of young poor people and those discharged from institutional care were coming on to the estates. Their arrival at a time of high unemployment and into conditions of poverty created a destabilising influence, swelled the numbers of vulnerable tenants and encouraged more disorderly activities and lifestyles.

These new tenants were housed disproportionately in high-rise flats and:

Despite a programme of improvement to the security of the tower blocks, and better management of the estate as a whole, the newcomers – that is the young, childless poor – displaced many of the previous, elderly residents and attracted crime to themselves, both as perpetrators and victims, concentrating crime in their part of the estate.

It’s all a reminder that council estates are disproportionately required to bear the burden of social and economic problems beyond their purview or, as I would argue, that estates are a victim of societal failings but not their cause.

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Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

The Home Office report (found, appropriately, on the National Police College website) focused on crime prevention and the various attempts to ‘design out’ crime.  It epitomised a critique and prescription for troubled council estates which became mainstream from the mid-eighties, aimed at, in its words:

1. Creating better dwelling security and more ‘defensible space’

2. Halting a spiral of deterioration … [by] reducing ‘signs of disorder’ and fear of crime

3. Investing in the estate so that resident’s will develop a positive view and thus a greater stake in their community …

4. Increasing informal community control over crime both through increased surveillance and supervision by residents and housing officials and facilitating the development of a set of norms and expectations against offending on the estate.

That’s a pretty good summary of the ‘design disadvantagement’, ‘defensible space’ theories that were popularised in the UK (and simplified) by Alice Coleman in the mid-1980s though, in Orchard Park (its high-rise blocks notwithstanding), it was applied not to modernist, multi-storey housing but to a generally low-rise estate.

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Knightscourt © Ian S and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Another, perhaps not altogether disinterested, account celebrates the design modifications implemented across the estate. (3)

Monotonous, unkept [sic] pathways in front of terraced houses were transformed by creating fenced off private yards for each household. A programme of colourful redecoration to external areas did much to brighten the estate’s formerly drab façade.

And ‘attractive tiled canopies were erected around the entrances’ of the three Mildane high-rise blocks, ‘creating a pleasing appearance, as well as giving protection from falling objects’.

At the same time, entryphone systems were installed and CCTV within lifts and ground floor communal areas, the latter at the time apparently accessible to view by tenants on a dedicated TV channel through a communal aerial, bringing a whole new level to our obsession with crime drama on the box.

The article concludes that offences committed by non-residents ‘virtually ceased’ and that the ‘few cases of theft and vandalism’ that persisted were attributable to ‘a minority of residents’.  The changes clearly represented an improvement and there’s no need to sneer at sensible crime reduction initiatives which reduced its prevalence and meaningful environmental improvements even if the overall argument seems a little overstated.   Generally, things were looking up; the chair of the Danes Management Committee concluded ‘The estate is a cleaner, happier place. Repairs are done quickly, the local office is run efficiently.’ (4)

Nevertheless, Orchard Park remained a ‘problem estate’ into the 2000s even as, of course, it continued to provide a decent home to most of its residents.   Of those homes, Right to Buy having wrought its changes even in this apparently unpromising terrain, only around 68 percent were social rented by 2011 with now nine percent let by private landlords.

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‘Tinned up’ homes in Feldane Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

It remained an unpopular estate to outsiders; when some choice existed between 2001 and 2003, the vacancy rate stood at 26 percent and the average re-letting period at 322 days, three times worse than any other Hull estate. Fifty-two percent of OP residents were satisfied with their neighbourhood against an average of 72 percent city-wide. (5)

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Ribycourt

When the urban design consultancy Urbed worked with Gateway Pathfinder to create (in their words) ‘an engagement and capacity building programme for tenants and residents’ in Orchard Park, the vision of some seemed modest at first glance though the attitudinal shift they wanted might have been life-changing for some: (6)

My vision for Orchard Park is that it comes in line with all the other communities in Hull and it’s not singled out, when my son is eighteen and goes for a job he isn’t discriminated against because his postcode is HU6.

The veteran local Labour councillor Terry Geraghty articulated a similar ambition:

We need to get away from the idea of Orchard Park being on its own; we are all one community and we need to break down those barriers. The image the area has is not deserved, 90% of the people that live here are incredibly hard working people and we need to get the information to those in business that just because someone lives in Orchard Park it doesn’t mean they are any less capable of doing the jobs that everyone else in Hull can do …

At the time, unemployment among the economically active was at 27 percent on the estate, compared to 12 percent in Hull as a whole and six percent nationally.  The Estate was among the five percent most deprived in the country; the Danes, tainted by its original design and construction flaws, was in the worst one percent. Meanwhile, for all the previously lauded design modifications, the Estate suffered the highest crime rate in Hull. (7)

Martin Crookston, an advocate for the cottage suburbs and their revival, concluded uncharacteristically that:

Orchard Park, created at the tail-end of the long years of estate-building, and at the outer edge of its city as that city started to run out of economic steam, was probably always an estate ‘too far’ – at the problem rather than potential end of the corporation suburb spectrum.

He counselled ‘radical change’.

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High-rise and clearance © Charlie Baker and used with permission

In many ways, the Council has acted on that advice.   The first three of the high-rise blocks to be demolished went in 2002, including ironically two of the Mildane blocks improved by those ‘attractive tiled canopies’ back in the eighties.  The twenty-two storey Vernon House in Homethorpe was demolished in 2004.  In 2008, the council began planning the clearance of the remaining seven.

This obvious, apparently radical change wasn’t universally welcomed.  With little in the first instance to replace them, one local resident feared it as a sign of ‘managed decline’.  An elderly resident of one of the tower blocks, confounding stereotypes, lamented their loss: (8)

I like the flats as they are, I don’t want them changed at all. I leave my door open most of the day but I lock it at teatime … We’ve got beautiful views, you must admit, you get away from everybody, you don’t answer the door if you don’t want to. I would miss my view, I would never go and live in a house and look across at somebody’s back yard.

She suggested they reserve her block for those aged over 55, a solution to tower block living adopted in two of the estate’s towers.

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Highcourt demolition, March 2015 © Keith Jackson

Despite initial stays of execution for Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe blocks in 2012 (such was the housing shortage), demolitions continued.  Twenty-storey Highcourt, was demolished in March 2015. Residents’ comments capture the mixed feelings of the event: (9)

I was a young girl living in north Hull when this block of flats was built. I remember the new building being celebrated because there was a houses shortage at the time but now it’s demolition is being celebrated.

For another, it was an eyesore but he’d miss it on his morning walk.  The last of Orchard Park’s high-rise blocks went with the demolition of the Gorthorpe flats in 2016.

Meanwhile, Orchard Park and Hull more widely was subject to the initiatives governing housing policy and finance nationally.  The Housing Market Renewal or Pathfinder programme laudably aimed to ‘provide lasting solutions for communities blighted by derelict homes through investment and innovation’; its chosen means – which seemed to focus on the demolition of sometimes decent housing and market-led solutions – were far more controversial.

The Hull and East Riding Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (or Hull Gateway) was established in 2005 but plans to tackle the Thorpes in Orchard Park came to nought and the initiative as a whole was defunded in 2010. (10)

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The cover of Hull’s PFI document, August 2010

The Council also entertained hopes that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), introduced by John Major but significantly expanded under New Labour, might enable the sweeping changes many nevertheless thought necessary.  The title of the 2008 bid document, The Transformation of Orchard Park – Shaping the Place, Creating a Fruitful Future, captures those hopes; its 16 sections and 29 appendices reflect their breadth; and the price tag – at £142m – suggests the extent of the work deemed necessary. (11)

In summary, the proposals envisaged the demolition of 752 council houses, 255 privately owned houses, and 33 council bungalows and their replacement with 1020 new homes in the private sector and 680 new homes for social renting. This was a net gain of 660 homes but the figure conceals a net loss of 105 social rented homes.

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Courtpark Road

It’s worth pausing – amidst the money talk and statistics – to examine what’s going on here and how powerfully it symbolises the policies and presumptions of the era.  Firstly, we have the dependence on private capital – the minimisation of state investment reflecting both a callow political fear of public spending (better understood as investment) and an unquestioning belief in the efficiency and ultimate beneficence of the market.

Secondly, perhaps less controversially still, there is the belief in so-called mixed communities (ignoring the fact that estates already accommodate a mixed community) and mixed tenure.  It marks a moment when council estates as such were deemed to have failed socially and economically.  For all the specific design shortcomings of Orchard Park, we might think it the victim of social and economic failure rather than its agent.  And we should certainly question why all these contemporary ‘fixes’ to long-term housing problems seemingly require the loss of desperately needed social rented homes.

The Orchard Park PFI was awarded £156m in July 2009.  In one of the first substantive acts of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, all new PFI schemes (including Orchard Park) were cancelled in November 2010.  Given the huge and ongoing expense of the PFI programme and its complexity and troubled implementation, that might seem a relief but it left Hull still scrabbling for finance and dependent on partnerships with private developers or housing associations which could access capital.

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New homes being built in Homethorpe © Humberbusiness.com

Nevertheless, some of that has borne fruit in the construction of new homes in the Danepark area and a recently completed scheme in association with Wates and the Riverside Group housing association at Homethorpe creating 52 new homes for rent including 16 one-bed council flats. A major refurbishment programme providing external cladding to the 1668 ‘No Fines’ homes in Orchard Park began in 2016.  The Harrison Park extra care apartments for those who need to assisted living are some of the finest in the country.

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The Orchard Centre

The £14m Orchard Centre (a local council hub and health centre) opened on the southern fringe of the estate in 2009. A new community park and multi-use games area has opened.  Remodelling of the run-down shopping centre has made that a more attractive space.

How to conclude? What to conclude?  If you want an illustration of the power of selective narratives, let’s look at two recent press reports.   A March 2018 report in the local press recounts three recent stabbings and residents’ fears that violence on the estate was ‘getting out of hand’.   A few months earlier, another report had been headlined ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now’. Mrs Gray moved with her husband to their terrace house in Cladshaw in 1966 and has lived there ever since: (12)

I know some people have bad things to say about Orchard Park but we have had no trouble and we brought up our children here.

Let’s finish with that – not because Orchard Park has been untroubled or without failings, some of which could have been foreseen and forestalled with greater investment and better design, but because it reminds us it’s been a home to many thousands, usually a good one and, hopefully, an improving one.

Sources

My thanks to Charlie Baker for permission to use images contained in his report for Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006). You can find more of his evocative photography on his website.

My thanks also to Tim Morton for providing the 1993 PEP report referenced and Keith Jacobs for supplying photographs of the demolition of Highcourt.

(1) Housing, Community and Crime: the Impact of the Priority Estates Project (Home Office Research Study 131, 1993)

(2) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)

(3) Roy Carter, ‘Designing Crime Out of the Urban Environment’, Orchard Park Case Study, Architect and Surveyor, vol 64, no 9, October 1989

(4) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)

(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)

(6) Quoted in Charlie Baker, Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006)

(7) Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? 

(8) Angus Young, ‘Orchard Park’s Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe tower blocks to be demolished after Hull City Council U-turn’, Hull Daily Mail, May 2, 2014

(9)Quoted in Claire Carter, ‘Gone in Eight Seconds’, Daily Mail, 9 March 2015

(10) The Urban Rim website Gateway Pathfinder provides full details.

(11) The Urban Rim website also provides a full chronological account of the Orchard Park PFI.

(12) Phil Winter, ‘’”Orchard Park violence is getting out of hand”: Fear as estate sees three stabbings in under a monthHull Daily Mail, 21 March 2018 and Kevin Shoesmith, ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now‘, Hull Daily Mail, 30 September 2017

Orchard Park, Hull, Part I: ‘One of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’

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By the early 1980s, Orchard Park in Hull was described as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’. (1)  Anne Power was describing its relative affluence – or lack of it – but for many people her words would also reflect a judgment on the quality of the design and build of the estate.  The long story of Orchard Park might justify that – it’s a tale of good intentions, poor execution, hostile circumstance and, perhaps in the longer term, lessons learned.  In this post, we look at the apparent missteps and failings.

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A contemporary map of the estate © OpenStreetMap

Hull had built some 10,700 homes before the Second World War. As a result of wartime devastation – over 1000 hours of raids destroyed 5300 homes outright in the city and damaged almost 115,000 – and the prevalence of the remaining slums, post-war ambitions were even higher.

Bransholme, with a planned population of 26,000, was the largest Hull estate (though not, as frequently claimed, the largest in Europe).  Orchard Park, with 10,000 residents, was smaller but formed a significant part of the large-scale building programme. Overall the Council built some 35,400 homes in the post-war period and housed, at peak, in 1981 some 47 percent of the city’s households.

Orchard Park under construction

Orchard Park under construction

Planning for Orchard Park, on open farmland on the fringes of the North Hull Estate, had begun as early as 1951 but early proposals were stymied by the conflicting interests of the various local authorities and developers involved.  The present-day estate emerged from 1963 under the aegis of City Architect David Jenkin.

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Courtpark Road, the Courts

The estate takes the form of four so-called ‘villages’. The first, named ‘the Courts’, to the east of North Hull,  was completed in 1965 – 764 homes, almost all traditionally built two-storey houses with gardens front and back. It’s said to have ‘always been one of the more popular areas of the estate with a stable population’. (2)  The overall layout is a fairly crude form of Radburn with service roads and garaging provided to the rear of homes generally facing grassed open spaces.

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Milldane flats from Hall Road, 2008 © Paul Glazzard and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The original intention was to complete all four phases of the estate to similar design but, with a new City Architect in place in 1964, JV Wall, Village 2 – the Danes, on the north-western corner of the estate, took a very different form.  Radburn principles – that separation of cars and people – were maintained but the homes, predominantly two-storey, three- and four-bedroom houses, were built in long and – to critical eyes – monotonous terraces: (3)

In many ways, ‘the Danes’ are similar in appearance to old terraced housing – rows and rows of high density terraces, all facing the same way. It is almost as if the design is an attempt to recreate the community feeling of the old slums.

Another distinctive aspect of the Danes was the large-scale use of Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing, built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ.  The upside of the method was the speed of construction; some 27 ‘shells’ were completed weekly at peak.  But there were downsides to which we’ll return.

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Cladshaw, the Shaws © Charlie Baker and used with permission

Village 3, the Shaws, was begun in 1965 and finished in 1967.  This phase saw a return to traditional, brick construction, carried out by the Council’s own Direct Labour Organisation. The tried and trusted methods applied seem to have ensured this part of the estate remained popular and problem-free.

Finally in Village 4, the Thorpes, on the north-eastern fringes of Orchard Park, there were around 500 terraced and semi-detached two-storey houses and some 48 town houses plus three ten-storey towers each comprising 47 one-bed flats.

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‘View of blocks on Thorpepark Road’, 1987. With thanks to the Tower Block UK

Across the estate, eleven tower blocs were erected, most of 17 to 19 storeys with two at 22 storeys, the tallest residential buildings in Hull.  The intent here, in this basic form of mixed development, was to achieve some greater housing density among the generally dispersed low-rise estate and to offer visual interest and contrast within Orchard Park’s low-lying flat terrain. (4)

In all, housebuilding was complete by 1969. In contrast, community facilities followed slowly and a promised neighbourhood centre never materialised.  A modest shopping centre finally opened in 1974.  By then, the estate was already seen as problematic.

One issue was the system-built Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing.  As we noted, its speed of construction was impressive but a 1985 report from the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES) described it as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “crash programme”’ – and not in a good way.  It had been, they continued, ‘the root of many of the estate’s problems ever since’, unsurprisingly given the issues of condensation and internal rot and mould they refer to.

The problem here – as with system-built estates with similar flaws across the country – is not only the obvious discomfort for the residents directly affected but that estates (or parts of them) become unpopular and ‘hard to let’ and come to house typically those with least choice when it came to rehousing, the more vulnerable and disadvantaged of our community.

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Garages and open space, Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

The same CES report also criticised the layout of the Danes, noting the designers’ intention that each of its homes have, in effect, ‘two “front” entrances’, one linking with pedestrian routes, the other to the service areas.  This was a version of the Radburn system that existed across most of Orchard Park but, as Martin Crookston concluded, ‘so bastardised a version and so badly done, that the concept’s originators would not even recognize it’. (5)  The CES report noted a lack of privacy with pedestrian walkways up against front windows and ‘functionless “open space”, criss-crossed by informal “paths”’.

This combination of housing form and estate layout, in conjunction with the estate’s peripheral location, left Orchard Park in a parlous state.  Crookston, an advocate for the so-called cottage suburbs, is uncharacteristically critical of Orchard Park:

The overall layout has produced a lot of shapeless underused space which has no clear ‘ownership’ as well as a locality with no recognizable shape or sense of place.  A walking trip is a long plod through nothing very much, and bus stops on the main loop road … feel as though they are in the middle of nowhere … the housing itself [is] frankly unattractive – boxy little rows running off at an angle to the sweeping over-designed through-roads.

This, as he acknowledges, is a harsh judgment on a place many people call home but, superficially from an outsider’s perspective, it’s a hard one to disagree with.

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Orchard Park, later aerial view

All this comes to look archetypical of a certain form of edge-of-town estate characterised by the town planner and urbanist Sir Peter Hall in a 1997 article. It first identified a number of physical problems often associated with such peripheral estates: poor housing stock, ‘an impersonal and alienating physical environment’, lack of variety in housing types and sizes, geographic isolation.  Most of these can be applied, in part at least, to Orchard Park, as can the social problems the article linked to such estates. (6)

By 1981, unemployment in Orchard Park stood at 18 percent. This was four percentage points higher than the Hull average which itself was among the highest in the country. Youth unemployment on the estate was said to reach 80 percent.  Ninety percent of tenants were on Housing Benefit, by some way the highest proportion in the city (on the adjacent North Hull Estate, by contast, the figure stood at around 40 percent).  If we take larger families and single-parent households as metrics of relative social deprivation (I mean poverty), there too Orchard Park scored highly – almost 11 percent of households had three or more dependent children.

There were other indicators too of an estate with problems, seen most powerfully, in housing terms, in the 11.3 percent annual turnover rate for the ‘No Fines’ houses which were only marginally more popular than the estate’s high-rise flats where the turnover rate reached 12 percent.

Anne Power’s description of Orchard Park as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’ was more than justified and its associated problems of design and form seemed almost overwhelming. What could change?  We’ll take a look in next week’s post.

Sources

My thanks to Charlie Baker for permission to use images contained in his report for Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006). You can find more of his evocative photography on his website.

(1) Anne Power, Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850 (1993)

(2) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)

(3) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)

(4) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970 (Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017)

(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)

(6) Peter Hall, ‘Regeneration Policies for Peripheral Housing Estates: Inward- and Outward-looking Approaches’, Urban Studies, Vol. 34, Nos 5-6, 1997

Let our Municipal Dreams flourish once more

My first reblog and a little self-serving but I would also recommend Red Brick to anyone with an interest in contemporary housing policy. Apologies for the recent lack of original posting but normal service will be resumed shortly.

Red Brick

John Boughton’s ‘Municipal Dreams’ website was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared four or five years ago. The Government had ended direct investment in new social rented homes, the housing sector had all but given up the struggle, and the council housing finance reforms, developed by John Healey when Labour was in power but implemented by the Tories in 2011, which had offered hope for a new generation of council homes, had been undermined to the point where they had become almost worthless.

It felt like a last act of defiance when the SHOUT campaign for social housing was launched in 2014 – although things were to get worse (the 2015 Housing and Planning Act) before they started to get better. And then Grenfell changed everything.

‘Municipal Dreams’ took a different approach from the economic and political arguments that SHOUT deployed. The website started with the aim…

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Nottingham’s Council Housing by Bus and Tram

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A few weeks ago, I was in Nottingham to give a talk on my new book to the good people of Five Leaves, independent bookseller of the year in the 2018 British Book Awards.  It was a chance to meet in person some people I’ve got to know on-line and, of course, to visit the city’s fine and particularly interesting array of council housing.

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The definitive book on Nottingham’s council housing history – Chris Matthews’ Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses – has already been written so I won’t try to replicate that in this post.  You can also read the guest post by Alex Ball on this blog on Nottingham’s earliest council housing. What you’ll get here is an exploration and lots of photos – a journey undertaken principally on the number 35 bus (courtesy of Robert Howard, you’ll find an map of the route and many of its points of interest online here) with a tram ride and a fair amount of walking thrown in.

The 35 arrives regularly – every ten minutes or so – courtesy of Nottingham City Transport. It’s one of ten publicly owned bus companies in the country and is regularly voted UK Bus Operator of the Year.  (Technically, it’s run at arms-length with Transdev, a private company, owning a five percent shareholding.)   In Greater Nottingham, bus travel makes up 34 per cent of all journeys and is increasing whilst in sharp decline elsewhere. The case for public ownership and management of this public service – outlawed in the 1985 Transport Act – seems self-evident.

We’ll start at Lenton, just to the west of the city centre. The area to the south of Derby Road was once the site of the five Lenton tower blocks and a purpose-built shopping precinct replacing the shops demolished on Willoughby Street.  The 17-storey point blocks and their 480 flats were completed in 1967, system built by the Bison wall frame method.  They survived until 2014, structurally sound but poorly insulated, some in low demand. Nottingham City Homes, the arms-length management organisation in charge of the city’s council housing,  concluded their replacement better value for money than costly refurbishment.

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Palmer Court, Lenton

What you’ll see now is a brand new development. The showpiece is Palmer Court, 54 independent living apartments and winner of the 2017 Constructing Excellence LABC award for the best social housing development in the UK. I got to look inside and was very impressed by the quality of the building and facilities.

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New build in Lenton

In the surrounding streets are 88 family homes, an eclectic mix of houses, bungalows and flats. The overall total is 142 new homes, with ownership split between the City Council and Nottingham City Homes.  With around 25,000 fully managed homes, it is one of the largest in the country and, with currently almost 900 new homes planned or proposed, one of the biggest builders among them.

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The Lenton Centre

While you here, take a quick look at the Lenton Centre on Willoughby Road. It’s a social enterprise now but the Lenton Cottage Baths, as they were once known, were opened by the City Council in 1931 and originally comprised a washhouse and two sets of slipper baths, twelve for men and eight for women. The washhouse included two washing machines, innovative for the time, which could be hired by the hour.  A long proposed swimming pool, funded by the William Olds Trust, was finally added in 1966 and continues – alongside a range of other facilities – to serve a still evolving local community. (1)

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Wollaton Park aerial view (from Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates [1949])

Travelling east, the next stop is the Wollaton Park Estate, begun in 1926 in an interwar era when Nottingham, under City Architect Thomas Cecil Howitt, was among the foremost builders of council housing in the country in number – over 17,000 – and quality.  Wollaton Park exemplifies the garden suburb ideals of the early post-First World War period with leafy streets and cul-de-sacs radiating from Farndon Green, the attractive open space at its centre. You’ll notice two shops (one a miraculously surviving local post office) with Arts and Crafts detailing, and then, as you enter the estate proper, among the 422 homes, a local peculiarity – the Crane bungalows.

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Wollaton Park, Farndon Green

William Crane was a building trades businessman and the Conservative chair of the Council’s Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957. In the early 1920s, a time of rising costs and severe shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour, there was considerable interest in finding innovative means to build prefabricated housing, generally using concrete or steel.

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Wollaton Park, Crane bungalow

Crane’s solution was a steel frame house (nearly all the Wollaton Park examples are, in fact, bungalows) completed with walls of precast concrete. (I discussed a similar form of construction, though one of very different appearance in my recent post on Nissen-Petren houses.) He persuaded the Council to commission 1000; presumably it helped that he was chair of the Housing Committee though the homes also received the necessary imprimatur of the Ministry of Health.

Unusually also, the homes were originally built for sale; a semi-detached house could be bought for £490 on a Council mortgage with a £40 deposit and weekly payments of 14s 6d (75p). Though there don’t appear to have been any build issues with the new homes, they didn’t sell very well and only 500 were built. A large proportion of those which didn’t sell were added to the Council’s housing stock and offered for rent. (2)

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Lenton Abbey Estate, Woodside Road

Further evidence of Howitt’s influence is seen at our next port of call, the Lenton Abbey Estate straddling the tree-lined dual carriageway Woodside Road, also built in the later 1920s. Again, it’s a classic cottage suburb – all crescents, greens, avenues and closes – of very attractive appearance.

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Lenton Abbey Estate, street sign. Alan Sillitoe, the novelist and chronicler of working-class life in Nottingham, was born at no. 38 Manton Crescent in 1928.

Look out too for some early street signs of a type you’ll still see dotted around the city’s estates – a distinctive circular sign on a short single post. With all the current talk of place-making, I hope the Council will retain these and replace them appropriately when necessary.  There have been changes. Many of the homes – those not bought under Right to Buy – now have thick white thermal cladding. Somehow, the present mix of white cladding and red brick seems to work.

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Lenton Abbey Estate

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Grangewoood Road, Wollaton Vale

Back on the 35 bus, it’s a six minute hop to Grangewood Road in Wollaton Vale. The mid-1970s estate of low-rise flats was a North British Housing scheme originally envisaged as Phase II of the larger Balloon Woods development just to the north.

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Balloon Woods Estate

Rosedale Avenue, Wollaton Vale (1)

Kirkdale Close, Wollaton Vale

Crossing the railway line, you’ll see a small social housing estate built in the late 1980s, a mix of traditional brick-built bungalows and semis. It couldn’t – very purposefully, one assumes – be more different from the housing it replaced. The original Balloon Woods estate was a concrete, system-built housing estate (developed by the local authority consortium the Yorkshire Design Group) comprising some 647 flats in fourteen seven-storey and nine six-storey blocks. Completed in 1970, it lasted fourteen years.

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Bilborough Estate, Stotfield Road Tallan Newland house

Four stops on the 35 gets us to Stotfield Road.  We’re in Bilborough now which, with neighbouring Broxtowe and Aspley, contain huge swathes of council housing, begun before the Second World War and expanded massively after.  Though most of its houses now look like conventionally built post-war semis, you’ll see some surviving examples of the original and unreconstructed housing.  These homes were originally Tarran Newland prefabs.

We’ve seen how shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour impelled an examination of non-traditional methods of housebuilding after the First World War. Similar pressures, alongside even greater ambition to build at scale, were anticipated in the Second.  A Ministry of Works competition inviting designs for prefabricated construction attracted over 1400 entries.  Tarran Newlands houses comprised a concrete and steel frame with infill precast reinforced concrete panels.

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Bilborough Estate, Byley Road

Byley Road, adjacent, offers just one example of the traditional brick-built housing which predominated even as, by 1951, over 156,000 prefabricated homes had been built across the country. 

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Bilborough Estate No-Fines houses

Hop back on the bus and travel north, you get to Burnside Green where you’ll see further examples of post-war non-traditional housing.  The Wimpey No-Fines homes were built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ. Traditional brick and blockwork and a generally rather grey weather-proofing rendering completed the building.  You’ll see a range of such homes in this area, some recently renovated but a few reflecting their more austere original appearance.

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Bilborough Estate BISF houses

You can walk the next bit onto Bracebridge Drive. You’ll see a health centre, a library and shopping parade here (still anchored by the Coop as was often the way when the new estates sprang up), and for our purposes, you’ll find various examples of yet another form of traditional hosing briefly trialled in the post-war period, the BISF house.

These were produced by the British Iron and Steel Federation to a design by Sir Frederick Gibberd.  Naturally enough, given its provenance, it’s a steel-frame house with a characteristic steel-trussed sheeting panels on the upper storey (hence the ‘tin tops’ name the homes are sometimes given.  Across Bilborough, Nottingham City Homes has added external cladding to around 450 Wimpey No-Fines and BISF houses to improve insulation and appearance.  It’s an unremarked irony of Right to Buy that if you look around estates now, it’s as often as not the socially-owned homes that are better maintained, especially when it comes to the higher costs improvements sometimes needed with certain types of building.

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Bilborough Estate, bungalows off Bracebridge Drive on prefab sites

Walk to the end of Bracebridge Drive and Monkton Drive and Staverton Road which lie off it to the south and you come to a dense network of bungalows, separated by narrow walkways. It’s a surprisingly intimate ensemble, unusual in its scale and form – and it has a simple explanation.  These are homes built to replace around 90 post-war one-storey prefabs erected as a temporary measure. Expected to last about ten years, the prefabs here weren’t demolished until the early 1980s.  Even then when they were finally cleared, their residents liked them so much that they were able to persuade the Council to replace them with the small homes you see presently, built on the existing footprint of the prefab bungalows they replaced.

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Broxtowe Estate, Whitwell Close

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Broxtowe Estate Bradfield Road

Back on the 35 and a ten minute ride takes you into Broxtowe (the Nottingham estate, not the neighbouring borough). Broxtowe was built in the 1930s to rehouse those displaced by slum clearance.  Its boxy neo-Georgian housing is a little plainer than its predecessors built in more generous times but it retains the same Garden Suburb ideals exemplified in its curving streetscapes and occasional closes and greens.  It’s now among the ten percent most deprived areas of England but the housing and estate look well-maintained and it remains to serve its founding purpose – the provision of decent, affordable housing to those who need it.

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Aspley Estate, Broxtowe Lane

Travel ten minutes by bus to the east to the Aspley Estate, over 2800 homes completed in the later 1920s, you see that earlier era and ambition in full spate with the striking Arts and Crafts-inspired gable ends and mansard roofs of some of its houses.
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Cinderhill Estate, Munford Circus

Ten minutes on, the Cinderhill Estate takes us to the 1930s and a more economical style, perhaps reflecting the impact of the Great Depression. Dulverton Vale and its solid red-brick semis provides the suburb; Munford Circus, just off it, offers some garden.

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Leonard Street rebuilt Tarran Bungalows

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Leonard Street unmodified Tarran Bungalow

Finally, on the 35, we’ll travel towards its terminus and Bulwell.  Towards the end of Cinder Hill Road, there is a series of small closes on your left and another set of bijou bungalows.  These are the late-1990s replacements of another early post-war Tarran scheme, this time prefab bungalows. Among them, on Leonard Road itself towards the end of the estate, you’ll see a few in their original state.

For all what is now their rather archaic appearance, these were once state-of-the-art homes with a ‘plumbing unit’ containing a cooker, refrigerator and sink unit. The bathroom contained a heated towel rail and the living room fire provided a form of central heating through warm air ducts into the two bedrooms. Generously supplied fitted cupboards completed this modern ensemble. (3)

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Cinderhill Walk

A short walk further on is a rather undistinguished 1970 scheme, Cinderhill Walk (part of the Crabtree Farm Estate) though the mature trees and greenery provide a pleasant environment and, no doubt, the flats themselves represent an advance on what was new and up-to-date in the late 1940s.

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Victoria Dwellings, now Park View Court

That’s the end of the bus journey.  If you’re following the route, you can take the tram from Bulwell station and alight at David Lane for a ten minute walk to Stockhill Lane. This, with the exception of two unusual tenement schemes built for Corporation employees in the 1870s (the Victoria Dwellings, now renamed Park View Court, now privately owned, remain in Bath Street).

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Stockhill Lane

The Stockhill Lane scheme was commenced in 1919, the first in the city built under the Addison’s Housing Act of that year.  The 225 semi-detached houses, some along Stockhill Lane itself, the rest grouped around a central circular green, are distinguished by their pitched roofs, prominent gables and painted pebbledash exteriors.  The privet hedges remain a characteristic feature of Nottingham’s interwar council housing.

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Hyson Green

Retrace your steps to take the tram four stops further on to Hyson Green Market. Hyson Green was another troubled 1960s council scheme. The mix of 593 flats and maisonettes was a system-built estate using Bison wall frame. Construction defects – water penetration, condensation, poor heating and soundproofing – manifested themselves early and its design – with walkways connecting the various blocks – would also be criticised as fashionable ‘defensible space’ theories blamed it for problems of crime and antisocial behaviour. The hard-to-let estate became a troubled area as it came to house disproportionately more vulnerable tenants with little choice as to where they were housed.

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Hyson Green, Braidwood Court, now The Pinnacle

The scheme was demolished in 1987, replaced by the mix of new houses and the Asda supermarket you see today.  Of the original buildings, only the 17-storey Braidwood Court remains, now in private ownership, subject to a major refurbishment in 2006 and now renamed The Pinnacle.

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Victoria Centre

Back on the tram, four more stops takes us back to the city centre and close to the Victoria Centre.  This was another unusual scheme, begun in 1967 when the Council was under Conservative control and intended to provide a modern city centre with accommodation provided above a large new shopping mall.   The accommodation element, designed by the private architect Arthur Swift, comprised 464 flats arranged in a series of conjoined towers rising at peak to 22 storeys.

These council flats were built on a 99 year lease from the shopping centre developers who purchased this prime city centre site from British Rail when they closed Nottingham’s Victoria Station. Rented as social housing, they have had special lettings policies applied for much of their lifespan, with the added irony that the flats are no longer subject to the Right to Buy due to the remaining length of the lease

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Brightmore Street

It’s a five-minute walk to the south to get to a small 1937 council scheme on Cranbrook Street and Brightmore Street off Goose Gate.  At this time, the Council was demolishing the inner-city slums and building small developments on the cleared plots. It’s a little bit of council suburbia in the heart of the city.

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Narrow Marsh slums

Red Lion Street redevelopment

Red Lion Street improvement scheme, 1923

This is more strikingly the case in the Cliff Road Estate, a ten-minute walk to the south. This was once Narrow Marsh, one of Nottingham’s most notorious areas of slum housing.  Clearance was first mooted in the Red Lion Street improvement scheme of 1923; the modified scheme you see today was built in 1934.

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Cliff Road Estate

It’s an unpretentious estate but the ambition to build these little redbrick houses with gardens in an inner-city location is impressive and made more so by their location, perched beneath the sandstone outcrop of St Mary’s cliff and the dense urban development atop and around it.

From there it was a short walk to the station and trains elsewhere.  If you’re more fortunate, you’ll have more time to explore Nottingham and I dare say there’s a few of you that won’t spend so much time looking at council housing.  For the latter, there’s plenty more to explore including the large estates to the north and east of the city which, together with those we’ve explored today, provided the over 50,000 homes which once housed almost half the city’s population.

A special thank you to Dan Lucas, strategy officer at Nottingham City Homes, for his guided tour of the new Lenton scheme and nearby estates and the guidance and detail he provided to support the visit described above.

My thanks also to Chris Matthews and Robert Howard for sharing their own local knowledge of the city and its housing.

Chris has written guides to Aspley, Broxtowe and Cinderhill and Beechdale, Bilborough and Strelley which cover many other local points of interest as well as housing.  You’ll also find Chris’s research and writing on his blog, Internetcurtains.  

Robert Howard’s own deep knowledge of Nottingham history is referenced above and his illustrated blog of a walk through Bilborough and Strelley can also be found online.

Sources

(1) Robert Howard, ‘About the Centre

(2) ‘The Crane Houses Of Wollaton Park: Simply Ahead Of Their Time?’, Lenton Times, issue 1, October 1988

(3) ‘Council’s Choice of “Prefab” Bungalow Full Description of the “Tarran” Type’, Christchurch Times, 24 February 1945 (pdf) [With thanks to Roy Hodges]

 

 

 

Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing

My apologies for not posting much on the blog recently. My book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April and things have been hectic since then. I’ve more posts in the pipeline – on Nottingham, Hull, Thetford, Liverpool and London but just need to find the time to complete the research and write them up. Guest posts from people with expertise in their local area are also still very welcome.

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In the meantime, there have been some great reviews for the book – from Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian, Rowan Moore in the Observer Hugh Pearman in the Spectator and Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times amongst others. And lots and lots of media interest – I’ve been on ‘You and Yours’ on Radio 4, on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio London and local radio stations in Hull and Newcastle with Lancashire and Leeds forthcoming.  I also did a slot on Sky News and recorded an interview for BOOKTalk on BBC Parliament.  I’ve done talks on the book to groups in London, Manchester and Nottingham with more coming up across the country.

So that’s my excuse but, if that comes across as self-important, I want to say two things. Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has read and supported the blog since it began over five years ago.  Your interest helped the blog succeed – it’s had over 960,000 views to date – and the book which followed would not have been possible without you.

Secondly, that welcome for the book and media interest tells us that its subject-matter is timely and important.  This reflects, I think, both a very broad concern over the current housing crisis and an increasing belief that a significant programme of public housing is needed to solve it.  People are hungry for a positive (but open-eyed) narrative of council housing which records its past achievements and testifies to its potential.

Nearly all the interviews have revolved around three key questions.

One, ‘why council housing?’  The simple answer is that the private sector has never been able or willing to supply decent affordable housing on the scale required, not in the nineteenth century, nor today.

Two, ‘what went wrong?’  I will always challenge the premise and prejudice of that question; beyond the stigmatising stereotypes, so much didn’t go wrong for so many.  But I also try to explain what did change and how, in many ways, council estates are better understood as the victim of that change rather than its agent.

Three, ‘can we build again?’  The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.  We have built huge numbers of decent council homes in the past when the country was poorer than it is at present, sometimes in periods of genuine austerity. We have the means to build; we require the political will and vision.

In an interview with Forbes Magazine, I made the economic case for a renewed programme of public housing as both an investment in our people and their well-being and as an essential part of any broader housing market. Currently, we choose to subsidise an inefficient market system and private landlordism.  Investment in secure, decent and affordable social housing would improve the lives and well-being of millions and in the longer-term, pay for itself.  In the shorter term, it might – as the tragic case of Grenfell Tower reminds us – save lives.

And that brings us back to the moral case for properly funded and resourced public housing, as compelling now as it was when the long, proud story of council housing began in the mid-nineteenth century.

Panelák Prague: Communist Social Housing in the Former Czechoslovakia, Part Two Housing the City

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I’m pleased to feature the second of two posts by Ben Austwick on Prague’s post-war public housing.  You should also read Ben’s earlier posts on the Amsterdam School, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living.  Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick. He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart

In part one of my essay on communist housing in Prague, I looked at prefabricated concrete construction and the central role Czechoslovakia played in its development. As the technology was refined, Czechoslovakia was able to speed up its rehousing programme, building large estates on the outskirts of its towns and cities. In part two of my essay, I will be looking at Prague’s communist housing estates.

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Krč © Ben Austwick

The first of these estates – sídlište in Czech – were built in the early 1960s. I visited two from this era, Krc in southern Prague and Malešice in the west. The five-storey blocks of Krc retain socialist realist elements that belie their age, with grand, austere classical doorways and pitched roofs with crenellated decorations. In a layout that was to become familiar, roads are kept to the rear side of the blocks with paths winding through landscaped grounds at the front. There were mature trees, planted when the blocks were constructed, so many that the open spaces felt like woodland. The blocks are painted in bright yellows and blues, with the occasional one in plain brown render, applied over the concrete panels but yet to be painted.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

Krc was probably my favourite of the sídlište I visited, the solid, well-built blocks obviously from a more careful era than some of the later ones I saw, mature trees as tall as the buildings themselves submerging the estate in woodland, winding paths and benches sat in dappled shade. Malešice in the west was similar, five-storey blocks nestling amongst the trees, and I saw a couple of rare, raw blocks of concrete panels amongst the cladding, clean and pristine and possibly in the middle of renovation. The cladding of concrete panels in render began in the late communist era.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

As in the West, grey concrete went out of fashion in the 1970s and there was a move away from standardisation to individualism. It started with subdued browns and burgundies, then brightly-painted balconies, moving towards brightly painted blocks in the 1980s, a process that sped up with the end of communism and the era’s reaction against anything reminiscent of that past. It is rare now to see visible concrete panels or even unpainted render, pastel blues, pinks and yellows being the most popular colours. Although not exclusively a Czechoslovakian phenomenon, as in other areas of social housing construction Czechoslovakia does seem to be a pioneer. The suburbs of Budapest are overwhelmingly grey and concrete in comparison. Relative wealth no doubt plays a part.

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Krč © Ben Austwick

The five storey blocks of Krc and Malešice are very much of their era. In the Soviet Union a massive programme of social housing construction in the 1960s built millions of flats in ’Khrushchyovka‘ (named after Khrushchev, the then leader of the Soviet Union), five-storey concrete panel blocks that still dominate the towns and cities. It is interesting that despite Czechoslovakia’s innovation in this area, in many ways ahead of the West, the Soviet Union employed a French company to build the panel factories and guide construction. The Czech economy was simply too small to take on such a gigantic programme. This shows that despite Churchill’s rhetoric of an ’Iron Curtain‘ separating the communist East and capitalist West, which unfortunately has very much informed our view of East-West relations in this period, there was considerable cooperation in solving a housing crisis that affected the whole continent. Academics and engineers in Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France and even the United States exchanged ideas and attended each other’s conferences, and there is evidence of this cooperation everywhere. For example, the Uni-Serco temporary prefabricated bungalows that Britain built as a short-term solution to the housing crisis after World War II draw on Czechoslovakian and Scandanavian design.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

It is in this light that we must see the rapid progress of panelák technology in the 1960s. By the latter half of the decade, giant blocks containing hundreds of units were being built. The largest, on Zelenohorská in Staré Bohnice, is 300m long with 18 entrance doors. I visited Nové Dáblice in the northern suburbs, where similar gigantic slabs stretch at right angles from an arterial road, parkland, sports pitches and community buildings filling the gaps in between.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

These blocks still carry echoes of socialist-realism in their plain lines which, along with rows of chimneys for the communal heating systems, plant them firmly before the next phase of panelák building, which was to dispense with all superfluous trim. It was the logical end point of a process that had increasingly moved away from architecture into industrial design.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

I visited two of communist Czechoslovakia’s later housing developments while I was in Prague. The first, Jižní Mesto on the eastern outskirts, is famous as the setting for Panelstory, Vera Chytilová’s 1980 film drama concentrating on life in a Prague sídlište. This is an important film for anyone interested in communist housing, being the only one to escape the censors while being made, although it wasn’t long before it was banned.

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Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

Panelstory focuses on community relationships with Jižní Mesto as a backdrop, but we do learn some things about the estate – that people were moved in when it was half built, having to cross building sites and climb wooden crates to get to their doors; that there was a five year waiting list for families to move in, and waiting lists to register with a doctor as amenities lagged behind housebuilding; that flats were let partly furnished, with cookers and fitted kitchens; that some of the fittings were of poor quality, with doors and windows being flimsy and unpredictable. Mainly though the themes of Panelstory are the universal ones of their time – urban alienation, the isolation and domestic drudgery of women, the anonymity of the new housing.

22 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

As the date of the film attests, Jižní Mesto was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the high-rise building boom in the UK was over. It is vast, housing 100,000 people. Blocks are large, but not as large as the 1960s blocks of Nové Dáblice. New building techniques added plastics to the concrete, allowing for more rapid, lightweight construction, but also meaning poorer sound insulation. They are very plain, as Czech communist social housing reached an end stage of uniformity and utility. It is hard to imagine how oppressive this huge estate would be in grey concrete panels, although by the time they were built it is likely that an application of render and paint wouldn’t have been far away – although from the lessons of Panelstory, this may have taken some time to complete. The estate is now mainly painted yellow, green pale blue and salmon pink, but I saw some bare concrete panels.

23 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

On a summer morning it was quiet and empty with lawns of parched grass between the blocks – none of the mature trees of the older sídlište. I walked a small circuit westwards of Háje metro station and was surprised that the estate ended within a short distance, disappearing into woodland. Maps show that it rises again beyond this, contradicting the idea of a vast, uniform expanse. Planning was obviously a concern. Nevertheless Jižní Mesto was the least successful of the estates I visited, although that being the result of its construction in the late stages of Czech communism was contradicted by a visit to two other late 1970s-early 1980s sídlište, Nové Butovice and Hurka on the western outskirts.

24 Novo Butovice

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

The time of day undoubtedly helped. I walked out of Nové Butovice metro station in the evening sun among commuters hurrying home to their flats, and the place felt like a busy, living community. It is also beautifully planned: the metro station opens onto a narrow plaza between commercial premises topped by panelák blocks, the striking modernist Slunecní Church in the distance, painted the same pastel blue as the paneláks.

25 Novo Butovice

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

Between Lužiny and Hurka stations, the B line of the Prague metro crosses a valley in a stunning red tube of a viaduct, built in 1990 just after the fall of communism, briefly leaving one hillside and disappearing into another. It passes over a man-made lake surrounded by parkland, which on this summer evening was filled with families. Panelák blocks in pastel shades surround, one with the date of construction – 1979 – stencilled below the roof like the nineteenth-century buildings of the city centre.

26 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

It’s here that the end of communism mingles with the architecture of the period after, not as radical a change as you might think. Investment in the far-flung concrete suburbs marks the Czech Republic’s attitude to its communist housing stock and invites comparison to the West. The communist nations of Eastern Europe were not the only ones to use system-built mass housing.  In Britain, the 1960s and 1970s saw the building of similar estates using similar construction techniques. The mixture of social and construction problems these estates suffered led to abandonment and demolition from the 1980s onward. In Prague this hasn’t happened; the sídlište have been kept and renovated.

27 Hurka

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

In Britain, there were significant construction problems in panel system housing, often the result of subcontractors cutting corners, for example not using the requisite number of bolts to tie panels. As examined in Adam Curtis’s early film The Great British Housing Disaster, the buildings were seen as beyond saving and demolition as the only answer.

28 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

Why this didn’t happen in the former Czechoslovakia could be down to a number of reasons. There is the possibility that they were better constructed, not being subject to the convoluted chain of subcontracting that allowed the corner-cutting and outright corruption seen in Britain. While the sídlište certainly had their problems, soundproofing being the most notorious, that they are still standing shows they weren’t as badly built as Britain’s were perceived to have been.

29 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

This perception is important, as the demonisation of Britain’s council estates saw some perfectly decent ones demolished along with the badly built. As still seen today, local authorities in league with property developers are often keen to redevelop social housing into something more profitable, and there can be pressure from private companies to demolish and rebuild just for the sake of it, paid as they are for doing so.

30 Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

The pressure to do this might not be as strong in the Czech Republic. It isn’t as wealthy as Britain and there may be more of a need to make do. A much bigger proportion of Czechs are housed in system-built estates – 3.1 million out of 10.5 million, in 1,165,000 apartments in 80,000 blocks – and their large scale demolition might just not be practical. Whatever the reason, Prague’s sídlište were renovated, transport links improved and new business and shopping areas built, as around Nové Butovice metro station. They followed a very different trajectory to Britain’s shunned, abandoned then demolished estates.

31 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The most important legacy of this is a proliferation of cheap, good quality, well-connected housing in a large, desirable city, at odds with much of Western Europe and particularly in our opposing example, Britain. In the communist era, rents were as low as 1.6 percent of family expenses in 1958 and were never higher than 5 percent. They are still kept cheap by rent controls. Studies have shown that Czechs like their prefabricated homes, a 2001 survey finding that 64 percent of panelák residents thought their accommodation was ‘ideal‘. Even Panelstory ends on a positive note, as a woman gazes at the sun setting over the tower blocks and says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

32 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

After decades of undesirability, Prague’s panelák blocks are also becoming fashionable, something Czechs in the era of Panelstory would find very hard to believe. This is part of a phenomenon that has seen British Victorian housing, hated and demolished en masse in the post-war era, become desirable from the 1970s onwards; and good quality modernism, hated in the 1980s, become desirable in the present day. Nostalgia, historical interest, the demolition of the worst examples and the renovation of others, contribute to a phenomenon of rehabilitation so common as to seem inevitable and ubiquitous. That something so formerly hated as Prague’s mass communist housing should now be the subject of exhibitions, blogs and interior design shoots should be noted in planning and herald a less wasteful approach to regeneration.

33 Novo Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

The extraordinary scale of panelák building, and the urgency it was embarked on not just in construction but in theory, science and design can provide lessons in a new era of chronic housing shortage. Perhaps more controversially, the subservience of architecture to design could be re-examined, and ideas of mass prefabricated housing revisited using modern technology. While anonymous high-rise estates are far from the pinnacle of what is possible in architecture, decades of underinvestment have not left us in a position to be choosy, and I would certainly prefer to live in one than my insecure, substandard and overpriced privately-rented home. The political will to do this is another thing altogether – but as we have seen, it is possible.

With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda

Ben Austwick is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.

Bibliography

Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)

John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015

Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016

Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)

Web

Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-life/a-look-behind-the-thin-walls-of-czech-panelak-apartment-buildings

Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)

Cemented In: Prague’s Panelák Estates

Film

Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)

Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)

Panelák Prague: Communist Social Housing in the Former Czechoslovakia, Part One Design and Development

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I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Ben Austwick who also contributed two fine posts on the Amsterdam School earlier in the blog, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living.  Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk  and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.  He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart

1 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

Prague survived World War Two with a rich architectural heritage. Its famous medieval centre is ringed with nineteenth-century apartment blocks, decorated in plaster reliefs, statues and ornate stonework. Art deco gems are scattered amongst them, along with examples of two rarer schools of architecture, Cubism and Constructivism. Architects from Jože Plecnik to Frank Gehry have iconic buildings here, and the city’s architecture is a major tourist draw.

2 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

However, around half of Prague’s population live in the communist-built concrete tower blocks that make up much of the city’s suburbs. Long derided and ignored, history and hindsight invite a deeper study and even appreciation some thirty years after the last ones were built. There are lessons for the present day housing crisis in their rapid planning and construction, one of Eastern European communism’s few positive legacies, and their recent rehabilitation nods to long-term trends in architecture that should be given more credence in planning and urban regeneration.

3 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

The Czechoslovakian Communist Party came to power in the 1946 free elections, winning 38 percent of the vote in the only democratic communist victory in post-war Europe. Inevitably, it consolidated its power by banning opposition parties, and by 1948 Czechoslovakia was a dictatorship. As in much of Europe, these early post-war years were marred by a chronic housing shortage. In Prague, families shared rooms in dilapidated nineteenth-century apartments, and migrant workers from the poverty-stricken countryside slept in parks and under cars in the streets. It was one of the most urgent problems facing the country.

4Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

Czechoslovakia was an advanced industrialised nation, and the communist government inherited a sophisticated research and development complex as well as the industrial base to carry out a large-scale housebuilding programme. The Department for Cast and Prefabricated Buildings, established in Zlin in 1940, had developed a prefabricated concrete panel type of building construction – the panelák – in 1943. Further work had been stopped by war, but the communists were keen to continue research where they saw the possibility of an innovative solution to the housing crisis. The problems of cost and speed could be solved by the use of the factory production line, as they had in other industries.

5 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

Renamed the Department of Prefabricated Buildings, the department worked with the might of a nationalised building industry behind it. The first experimental buildings were built in Zlin where it was based. Three-storey housing units, with large balconies to ease the transition from the traditional house, were built using prefabricated concrete frames. Skilled builders were still needed on site to infill the frames with brick, and the units had to be held together with wire and scaffolding until the roof was put on. It was haphazard and expensive, but clearly an early stage in a process that would be refined.

6 Novi Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

Czechoslovakia wasn’t alone in researching the possibilities of prefabricated building. The field was led by France, which began construction of the world’s first housing estate of prefabricated concrete panels (later to become infamous as a Holocaust transit camp) at Drancy in 1929. The Scandinavian countries, which had a history of prefabricated wooden construction, also had programmes. There was a considerable exchange of ideas between the countries at conferences and through academic journals, despite the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.

7 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

An early Prague scheme was the 1200 unit Solidarita project of two-storey terraced houses, still standing in the suburb of Strašnice. Solidarita was influenced by developments in modern housing outside Czechoslovakia, in particular the Præstehaven estate in Aarhus, Denmark. By 1949 Czechoslovakia had developed standard requirements for floor area and living space, which translated into standardisation of materials such as concrete panels and fittings to be mass produced in factories. These two-storey terraces are typical of early, experimental prefabricated concrete housing, as structural issues were tested and monitored.

8 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The development of prefabricated housing signalled a move away from architecture into design, something earlier modernist movements such as Bauhaus had aimed for but never quite achieved. The need to build rapidly at low cost led logically to the development of standardised, interchangeable parts that could be manufactured on production lines. Everything from brick sizes to the socialist-realist decorations that can be seen on some of the earliest blocks was standardised.

9 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The Minister of Building Industry, Emanuel Šlechta had lived in the United States in the 1920s and was a specialist in mass production, having studied Fordism and Taylorism – pioneering time-and-motion theories that gave rise to the production line and the space-saving kitchen – and seen their application in industry. As material innovations were made, so were organisational ones. A flow construction technique was developed, where workers were given repetitive tasks in a moving assembly line from the factory all the way to the construction site – a precursor of the now ubiquitous just-in-time stock control method developed in Japan in the 1960s. Investment in new housing was high and considerable support was given to research and development. These innovations were concerned with the scale of the housing crisis and possible long-term savings more than short-term cost, and the need to house large amounts of people quickly.

10 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

These developments culminated in the BA system, named after Bratislava, where it was developed by Vladimír Karfík. Pre-stressed concrete frames were infilled with lightweight, reinforced concrete panels, fastened together with steel bolts. Weight was supported by the exterior walls, allowing for flexible floor space with no load-bearing internal walls, developed so the system could be used in industrial buildings as well as housing. The BA system was a breakthrough in the development of prefabricated housing, and can be considered the first true panelák system. It rapidly led to a boom in housing construction.

11 U Prefy

771 U Prefy © Ben Austwick

The first panelák block was built at 771 U Prefy, in Dáblice on the outskirts of Prague. It is easily missed, an unassuming building in a village separated from the suburbs by a couple of miles of country roads. Like most of Prague’s paneláks, the once visible concrete panels are concealed by recently applied render and a coat of brightly coloured paint, and it would be unremarkable but for the decorative roof details and the classical forms of the windows and doors. But unremarkable is a feature of panelák architecture, which was to eschew any decoration and individualism in later years, focused solely on the need to house people.

12 U Prefy

771 U Prefy © Ben Austwick

This early building is small, just three stories high and the size of a large house. Blocks like this were built as infill in the centre of Czechoslovakian cities, an ad hoc approach that suited a still developing technology. I didn’t see any in central Prague, a compact inner city that escaped wartime bombing. Any that were built may have been lost to post-communist redevelopment.

We have to go forward a few years and a few miles out into the suburbs for the next examples of panelák architecture. These are the sídlište, the estates that grew around Prague as panelák technology improved. I will be visiting these in part two.

With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda

Bibliography

Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)

John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015

Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016

Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)

Web

Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)

Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)

Cemented In: Prague’s Panelák Estates

Film

Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)

Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)

Nissen-Petren Houses: ‘Not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to pay an economic rent’

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If you’ve travelled along the A303 in Somerset, you may have noticed, like many thousands of others since the mid-1920s, a rather strange sight to the north of the village of West Camel. Amidst the green rolling English countryside, four chimneyed semi-circular red roofs add a touch of rolling exoticism.  They look like a domesticated version of the army Nissen huts familiar to older generations and that, indeed, is pretty much what they are. This is their story; the story of one of the most unusual attempts to provide the cheap and decent council housing our country has needed.

SN West Camel distant 2

West Camel

The four pairs of semi-detached homes in West Camel were erected in 1925. Their prototype was developed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers some nine years earlier in April 1916 in the midst of the Great War whose execution demanded such economic and easily assembled buildings to house its personnel and services on an enormous scale.  Production began four months later and by war’s end some 100,000 of these eponymous Nissen huts had been erected. (1)

The end of the war saw an unprecedented commitment to provide ‘homes for heroes’ for those whose sacrifice had secured victory but the idealism and financial generosity of the 1919 Housing Act was short-lived – quashed by austerity measures imposed in 1921. And while new Housing Acts passed in 1923 and 1924 were intended to boost council housing, shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour continued to hinder its construction.  The search for new cheaper and labour-efficient methods was on and in 1925 the Ministry of Health (also responsible for housing) allocated £34,000 to support the building of demonstration homes using non-traditional methods in 86 local authorities across the country. (2)

Ten councils were already pioneering such efforts.  A bewildering variety of systems was on offer though broadly differentiated by those using steel, timber or pre-cast concrete factory-made components for on-site assembly and those using pre-cast or in-situ concrete components manufactured on-site.  (3)

The Somerset houses were designed by John Petter and Percy J Warren, a local architectural practice appointed Borough Architects to Yeovil Town Council in 1911.  The obvious debt to Nissen was acknowledged in their formation of Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – a company established to market their new design to local authorities – with Nissen on the board of directors, alongside Sir Ernest Petter, a Yeovil industrialist and founder of Westland.  (Petren was a compound of Petter and Warren as you’ve probably worked out.)

NP advert Times 7 April 1925 SN

Times advert, 7 April 1925

These were steel-framed houses, obviously so given their dominant feature – the semi-circular steel ribbed roof (covered with ‘Robertsons’ Asbestos Protected Metal’) bolted on to concrete foundations – with, in this first iteration, pre-cast concrete cavity walls. The company’s advert in The Times proclaims the advantages of this revolutionary and unusual design – it required only half the skilled labour needed to build traditional brick-built homes and could be erected in half the time.  Another benefit: the early erection of the roof enabled ‘the work of filling in the walls and building the fireplaces and chimney backs to be proceeded with independently of weather conditions’. The estimated cost of construction, at £350, was reckoned £100 less than that of traditional housing. (4)

SN Goldcroft Yeovil

Goldcroft, Yeovil

The first two of the Nissen-Petren houses, commissioned by Yeovil Town Council, were erected on Goldcroft in the town in 1925 and the Council’s pride in its pioneering role was amplified when it was visited ‘by a large and distinguished company’ including ‘representatives of the War Office, the Air Ministry, various municipalities and members of the London Press’ in March. The delegation was conveyed by car to the Borough Restaurant where it was addressed by Sir Ernest Petter who stated his hope that the experimental houses ‘would prove to be the solution of the housing problem of the country’. (5)

There were cavils about the appearance of the new homes (to which we’ll return) but these were swept aside by the Mayor:

when the model of the new houses was first shown to the Council many of them were not enamoured of them but they felt that there was something far more important in Yeovil than mere outward appearance of the houses.  The great problem which confronted the local authorities today was to build a house, the rent of which the ordinary wage-earner could afford to pay.

In those terms, their estimated rents – at 5s (25p) a week plus rates and reckoned to be well within the reach of the average working man – were a critical advantage.

SN West Camel

Howell Hill, West Camel

The same point was argued strongly by the chairman of Yeovil Rural District Council, JG Vaux, and, given the low wages of the rural working class, was judged even more important. (Yeovil Town Council was an urban district council; the surrounding countryside was administered by its rural counterpart):

Whatever their appearance, they were better than some of the brick hovels existing today.  If they could put up 200 of these houses they would be able to demolish some of the hovels in their district. He believed that with regard to the dome-shaped roofs they had been just a little prejudiced against them and that if a number were erected away from the brick houses that people would soon get used to them.

The semi-detached Goldcroft houses were non-parlour homes with a living room, bedroom, scullery, bathroom, larder and coal store on the ground floor and two bedrooms and two box-rooms on the upper floor. Despite this rather unconventional layout, they were judged (by one observer at least) as ‘cosy and comfortable’:

The rooms are wide and airy, being well lit and properly ventilated. It would seem to the layman that the new roof far from restricting inside space, has allowed of more room.

Later, the tenants themselves were said to be ‘very satisfied with the accommodation provided’. (6)

SN Barwick Higher Bullen

Higher Bullen, Barwick

This then was an optimistic period for the promoters of Nissen-Petren housing in a context where they appeared to offer a genuine solution to a very real need.  Yeovil Rural District Council followed up its initial interest with a decision in April to invite tenders for six Nissen-Petren parlour houses in Barwick, four (two parlour and two non-parlour) in South Petherton and six non-parlour in West Camel. But only after a ‘heated discussion’.  One member had declared himself personally ‘very much against these things’ (‘I call them “things”’) and there were allegations of water leakage in some of the houses built to date. (7)

SN Fairhouse Road, Barwick

Fairhouse Road, Barwick

A compromise ensued in the next meeting in which the Council agreed to proceed only where desired by the local parish councils.  Some remained enthusiastic. Barwick ‘urged the erection of houses in that district with the utmost speed’, knowing that ‘it was impossible for an agricultural labourer to pay a rent of 8s or 9s a week’ that traditional homes cost. West Camel now asked for eight Nissen-Petren homes and South Petherton said it could take more. But Montacute refused them and, one month later, Ash requested brick or stone houses in preference to Nissen-Petren. (8)

SN Ryme Intrinseca 2

Ryme Intrinseca

A pair of Nissen-Petren houses was also built in the beautifully named north Dorset village of Ryme Intrinseca –  it features in a John Betjeman poem – by (I assume) Sherborne Rural District Council but clearly taking its inspiration from Yeovil six miles to the north.  In their idyllic setting, Lilac Cottage and the Lilacs look quite bucolic and the facing of the concrete cavity walls has a patina of age not dissimilar to that of adjacent cottages in local stone.

Bamtpn Streetview

Frog Lane, Bampton (Google Streetview)

Interest in the new homes had spread further, however.  Petter and Warren’s design had been worked up in conjunction with DJ Dean, the Surveyor for Bampton Urban District Council in Devon and that council built a block of three semi-detached Nissen-Petren houses in Frog Street. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in which the Palace of Engineering (overseen by Sir Ernest Petter) featured seven prototype new homes including a model of the Nissen-Petren houses, was still running and the locals apparently nicknamed them Wembley Terrace, a name which has stuck unofficially. (Or perhaps, more likely, it was a reference to the twin domes of the then new Wembley Stadium.)

A subcommittee of the adjacent Tiverton Rural District Council visited Yeovil and returned ‘favourably impressed’ though Mr New, the chair of the Council, felt it incumbent to ask ‘the members to set aside prejudice’ – ‘the houses were not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to occupy them and pay an economic rent’.  That might sound a little like damning with faint praise but a tender for 16 Nissen-Petren houses in Uffculme was accepted for a contract price of £5000 in December 1925.

At £312 each, that was low but problems of water percolation were reported in the new homes in the course of erection in 1927. (9)  The local contractors erecting them stated that had followed the specifications set by the Nissen-Petren Company (to whom they paid royalties) and the Company claimed this was the first time they had had a complaint (though, as we’ve seen, water seepage was reported in the Yeovil Rural District). Presumably, a damp course inserted took care of the immediate problems but the houses themselves have, to the best of my knowledge, subsequently been demolished.

Queenborough

Edward Road, Queenborough (Google Streetview)

Meanwhile, councils beyond the West Country were expressing an interest in the potential of the new homes. Ipswich appears not to have taken this further but a delegation of two councillors and the Borough Surveyor from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey (who had visited Yeovil in May 1925) were, having investigated a number of other options, keen to proceed.  It was agreed to build three semi-detached ‘specimen houses’ on Edward Road, numbers 6-8 and 10-12 as parlour houses, and 2-4 as non-parlour. On this occasion the external walls were constructed of roughcast brickwork. (10)

The final authority to investigate the Nissen-Petren houses was Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex where an initial tender was accepted for homes on the Sidley estate and a further tender for 36 homes in the new Buxton Drive housing scheme in July 1927.  A final tender from Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – but not the lowest – was received in September 1928.

By this time, things were going downhill for the enterprise.   The final bill for the Goldcroft houses in Yeovil was received in September 1925 and came to the grand total of £1028 – over £513 per house and more expensive than conventionally built homes of the time.  The architects waived their fees and the builder accepted a £100 loss but – despite reassurances that costs would be lower in larger future schemes with consequent economies of scale – that was essentially the end of the experiment.  The Council congratulated itself on its initiative but licked its wounds. (11)

Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd was wound up in September 1928 and a bankruptcy notice issued in 1930. (12)  I’m not clear that any of the Bexhill houses were built – I can find no further record of them. Does anyone know?

That is almost the end of the story so far as Nissen housing in Yeovil is concerned but for two quirky codas.  In 1946, in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage, a wave of squatting spread like wildfire across the country. By October an estimated 1038 military camps had been commandeered as emergency homes by almost 40,000 activists.  Two of these unlikely radicals were – as named by contemporary press reports – Mrs Frank Ward (her husband was a dustman for Yeovil Town Council) and Mrs Kenneth Bowley (whose husband was serving with the RAF in Egypt); each had a three-year old child. They jointly occupied ‘the better of two Nissen huts off Eliott’s Drive’, a local site for barrage balloons, cleaned them out, hung curtains and got the stove going. (13)

SN Goldcroft Yeovil 2

Goldcroft, Yeovil

Finally, to return to the Nissen-Petren houses proper, many are now listed, beginning with 172 and 174 Goldcroft in Yeovil in October 1983 despite their being described at the time by local councillors fighting their preservation as ‘eyesores, abysmal and shocking’. (14) Those in Barwick, Ryme Intrinseca and Bampton are also listed; those in South Petherton had been previously demolished.  The pair in Queenborough survive without protection for the time being.  (15)

Of around 4.5m new homes built in Britain between the wars, it’s estimated that not more than 250,000 were of non-traditional construction.  Most of these, despite their unconventional construction, mimicked a more or less traditional form.  The Nissen-Petren houses, of which there were around 24 in the Yeovil district and not more than 50 nationally, stand out.  Their distinctive appearance wasn’t always well liked but many survive to provide an eccentric addition to some of our towns and villages and an arresting footnote to our wider housing history.

Sources

My thanks to all those people who responded to an earlier Twitter exchange on Nissen-Petren homes.  The ‘Nissen-Petren Houses’ are also discussed by Bob Osborne in his A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History and Yeovil in Fifty Buildings.

(1) ‘FWJ McCosh, Nissen, Peter Norman (1871–1930)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (September 2004) [Subscription needed]

(2) ‘Steel Houses’, The Times, 18 June, 1925

(3) Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves and Alan Stevens, Non-Traditional Houses. Identifying Non-Traditional Houses in the UK 1918-1975

(4) Nissen-Petren Advert, The Times, 7 April 1925 and ‘Steel Houses at Yeovil’, The Times, 11 March 1925

(5) ‘The Nissen-Petren House’, Western Chronicle, 13 March 1925. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(6) ‘Nissen Houses’, The Times, 29 May, 1925

(7) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses. Heated Discussion by RDC’, Western Chronicle, 24 April 1925

(8) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses’, Western Chronicle, 22 May 1925 and ‘Yeovil Rural District Council’, Western Chronicle, 17 July 1925

(9) ‘Housing in Tiverton Area’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1 May 1925, ‘Tiverton Rural District Council’, Western Times, 11 December 1925 and ‘Complaint Concerning New Buildings Being Erected’, Western Times, 4 February 1927

(10) Susie Barson, Jonathan Clarke, Geraint Franklin and Joanna Smith, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, Kent Historic Area Appraisal (Research Department Report Series no 39/2006, English Heritage)

(11) ‘The Nissen-Petren Houses Houses’, Western Chronicle, 25 September 1925

(12)  The Times, 17 August 1928 and The Times, 11 September 1930

(13) ‘Families in Army Huts. Squatters in the West Country’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 17 August 1946

(14) ‘Nissen Huts Not Needed’, Building Design, no 677, 17 February 1984

(15) You can read the Historic England listing details for these buildings on their website.

The Edward Woods Estate, Hammersmith, II: ‘High Rise Hope’?

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Last week’s post left the Edward Woods Estate, just a decade into its existence, in a parlous state – criticised by the Borough which built it, unloved apparently by its residents, and with the range of problems coming to seem typical of such high-rise modernist schemes.  Hammersmith and Fulham’s Director of Housing, Tony Babbage, had concluded that tenants had ‘started to reject the estate as a good place to live’. (1)

021-may-19711 K and C

An undated photograph taken by Bernard Selwyn © Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives

All pretty damning on the face of it but a reading of a tenants’ survey undertaken by the Council at this time allows more nuanced judgment. In practical terms, it shows some 66 pensioner households and around 50 with children living, contrary to declared policy, above the tenth floor in the three tower blocks. Surprisingly, however, ‘elderly people were the most satisfied with living on the estate’. They were also ‘the most likely to be happy living off the ground’ which people with families disliked because ‘they felt it was dangerous for the children’. (2)

Beyond that, ‘the main dislikes of the estate were the unreliable lifts, dirtiness, refuse chutes and the vandalism’.  But, contrary to what you may have been led to believe, people liked ‘the homes themselves, the general location and the neighbours’.

SN Poynter House 1981

Poynter House, 1981 © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

What they wanted was simple. A quarter wanted improved security patrols (in other words they wanted to be and to feel safe), 14 percent wanted better cleaning, and 12 percent wanted an improved repairs service.  The latter might seem a surprisingly low figure given that 40 percent of households had repairs outstanding and some 46 households had been waiting over six months for repair work to be carried out. You can draw your own conclusions but two things seem clear to me.

One, as we’ve seen in a diverse range of estates across the country, this was a period – for reasons I’ve never seen convincingly explained – when antisocial behaviour spiked. (Football hooliganism was another manifestation of the same malaise.)  In housing terms, the obvious target of blame to many seemed to be the design of the new multi-storey, modernist estates – their lack of ‘defensible space’ and ‘natural surveillance’ in the jargon of the time and the design features – decks and stairways – held to facilitate crime.  The simple fact that similar problems existed across a variety range of estates should lead us to question this widely-accepted conventional wisdom.

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Stebbing House and play area in foreground, 2017

Two, residents were not in fact railing against the design of their homes but, for the most part, against poor maintenance and upkeep. Perhaps a 1979 Daily Telegraph report exaggerated but it concluded ‘that no stair cleaning had been done for weeks’ and on the lower floors, residents were ‘forced to negotiate rubble, broken glass and kitchen rubbish’. (3)

A further look of the Director of Housing’s report allows a different reading of the Estate’s problems, rooted far less in the systemic failure of an entire model of housing provision and far more in contemporary, specific and remediable deficiencies:

The tenants at large view with dismay what has happened to the estate. They feel very strongly about the estate itself. They take the view that the estate has been allowed to deteriorate rapidly.

Public housing budgets are always constrained and were to become catastrophically so in the 1980s but it’s also clear in this earlier period that some councils were failing to invest in basic upkeep and services.

If it took a crisis for that to become obvious, it’s only fair to report that at this point the Council began to act quite radically and systematically to put things right. By the end of the year, a local management team had been set up and £350,000 committed to replacing failing rubbish chutes, upgrading lifts and a range of other remedial work.

Two years later, the Estate was included in a new central government initiative, the Priority Estates Project, intended to promote local management and tenant participation in some of the most troubled estates across the country.  In Edward Woods, this led to 528 flats being equipped with an entryphone system.  A purpose-built Neighbourhood Office was opened in Boxmoor House five years later. (4)

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Boxmoor House, 2017

The tide was turning.  Elsewhere, there was already talk of the demolition of ‘failing’ tower blocks, particularly those with structural defects.  But that for Peter Fox, Director of Housing, was a ‘sort of defeatism [he] could never contemplate’.  Ideally, he would have liked ‘to do as they do in private blocks and install concierges, carpets and potted palms’ but he had, he said, to be realistic. (5)

That was a realism perhaps imposed by class attitudes as much as those financial pressures touched on but, in fact, a concierge scheme was introduced in Stebbing House in 1989 and they’ve since become common in social housing schemes. (6)

Such innovations were largely funded by the variety of area-based initiatives promoted by central government in the era.  Finance – both Conservative governments to 1997 and the New Labour administrations subsequently cut local authority housing budgets – continued to limit what could be done and to dictate the form that regeneration took.

By 1998, it was estimated that the Estate required about ‘£7m worth of essential repairs and improvements’. Under the new financial regime and given what Stephen Burke, Hammersmith and Fulham’s deputy chair of Housing, described as ‘the prohibitively high costs of renovating Saunders House’, these could only be paid for by working with housing associations (whose funding was being boosted) and in partnership with private developers (7)

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The current estate signs shows new layout and park

By 2003, the 58 homes of Saunders House and two garage podiums were demolished in order to allow the Notting Hill Housing Trust and Copthorn Homes (a subsidiary of Countryside Properties) to build 122 new homes for rent and sale. A new public park, Norland North, financed by Section 106 money (financial support for community infrastructure paid by developers as part of the planning permission process), was opened in 2009.

In the meantime, Labour’s Decent Homes Programme had been launched in 2000 – an initiative to improve estates and catch up with an estimated £19 billion backlog of needed repairs and refurbishments nationwide.  It did not, however, provide the necessary funding to councils as such.  Hammersmith and Fulham was forced – as were many similarly placed authorities – to establish an ALMO (an arms-length management organisation) which was permitted access to necessary funds.

SN Poynter House with Boxmoor House foreground

Stebbing House with Boxmoor House in foreground, 2017

New kitchens and bathrooms in the tower blocks, extensive landscaping, redecoration, renewals and repairs across the Estate followed.  The ALMO was wound up in 2010, having served its purpose, and management brought back in-house.  New central heating systems were installed in tower block studio flats in 2011. The detail might seem trivial in itself (unless you were a beneficiary, of course) but it reminds us that continued investment maintains and fulfils the promise of decent and affordable housing which has lain at the heart of council housing since its inception.

So we’ve travelled some distance – from the promise of modernity to its dysfunctional fulfilment or, if you wish to employ some of the more colourful narrative language of the time, from dream to nightmare, utopia to dystopia.  And we’ve come through that to something far better. Perhaps the conclusions we draw on the modernist council estates of the 1960s depend more at which stop we get off (to stretch the metaphor) and whether we are prepared to continue our journey forward.

Estate-Revit-Model 2015

A 3D Revit model of the estate © Terrain Surveys

The Edward Woods Estate continued that journey. The installation of new central heating in 2011 was part of a larger £16.13m low carbon refurbishment of the Estate headed by the Hammersmith and Fulham working with ECD Architects, the Breyer Group and insulation specialists Rockwool.  The scheme was closely monitored and allows us to draw much broader conclusions about the Estate in the present.

It falls within the 12 per cent of most deprived areas in the country; the proportion of people on benefits is double the national average.  It is home, disproportionately, to people from minority communities, almost one third are Black or Black British.  Some 83 percent of homes are still council rented. When asked about the Estate, almost all residents felt safe in their homes and in the area; two thirds knew and got on with their neighbours. (8) With the refurbishment complete, the proportion of residents saying their quality of life was ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ rose from 68 percent in 2011 to 78 percent in 2015. (9)

Fire damage December 2006 (c) Nico Hogg

The image of damage to Poynter House, prior to the installation of cladding, in December 2006 suggests how fire should be contained in high-rise blocks when systems are working effectively  © Nico Hogg

The refurb included the addition of thermal cladding to the tower block exteriors.  The tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which lies barely half a mile to the north, has cast a terrible shadow over such ‘improvement’ and caused Edward Woods residents severe alarm.  Fortunately, in this case, the Council could report that the cladding used – fire-resilient stone wool insulation rather than the flammable panels used at Grenfell – passed all subsequent safety tests. (10)

I think this allows us to leave the final word with the redoubtable Anne Power: (11)

Established council estates can offer decent conditions, satisfied tenants, community stability, well-maintained buildings, high density, additional infill buildings and community facilities. Edward Woods estate in Hammersmith and Fulham meets all these conditions, while housing nearly 2000 almost entirely low-income council tenants.

The refurbishment, she concluded, had provided ‘High-Rise Hope!’  Perhaps that’s a story we can tell about the longer history of the Edward Woods Estate.

Sources

My thanks to the Archives and Local Studies service of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for many of the sources used to inform this post and for permission to use the images credited. They can be contacted at archives@lbhf.gov.uk.

My thanks also to Dave Walker at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies and Archives  for permission to use images in their holdings

(1) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)

(2) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Edward Woods Estate Residents Survey (1979) [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(3) ‘Lift breakdown turn flat blocks into prisons’, Daily Telegraph, 31 August 1979

(4) The Centre – Oct ‘85’ [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(5) John Young, ‘Locking the Tower Block Door’, The Times, 30 April 1981

(6) Governing London, August 10 1989 [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(7) Michael Gerrard, ‘Bulldozers to demolish blocks for £7m facelift’, The Gazette, 31 July 1998

(8) Anne Power, ‘High Rise Hope’, LSE Housing and Communities, 19 October 2012

(9) Sustainable Homes, ‘Research on impact of large estate renewal in London revealed’, Blog, 28 July, 2015

(10) The H&F response to the Grenfell Tower fire, 20 July 2017

(11) Anne Power, ‘Council estates: why demolition is anything but the solution’, LSE British Politics and Policy, 4 March 2016