A Prefabricated Home of Your Own

In the 1930s and 1940s the country suffered from a severe housing shortage, which resulted in large numbers of new houses being built. In the late 1940s one solution to the problem was to build prefabricated houses consisting of a kit of parts that were built in a factory, and taken to the building site for rapid erection. Darlaston’s largest engineering firm, Rubery Owen & Company Limited realised that a lucrative market existed for cheap factory-built houses, and so the company’s Structural Department began to produce good quality houses for sale to local authorities and building companies.


In the late 1920s and early 1930s large numbers of people still occupied old Victorian slums, which had few modern amenities. The 1930 Housing Act introduced a five year programme for the clearance of slums, with designated Improvement Areas. Local authorities were required to provide suitable housing for anyone whose home was demolished in the slum clearance. This led to the provision of council housing. As a result of the Act a total of 19,840 houses had been demolished by the summer of 1934.

Although many houses were built in the 1930s, the problem still remained, and was made worse by the increasing population. The building programme temporarily came to an end at the outbreak of the Second World War, and didn’t start again until the war ended in 1945. During the war thousands of houses were destroyed by enemy bombs, which made the problem even worse. In 1945 it was estimated that around 750,000 new houses were required.

The post-war Labour Government instigated a housing programme that relied on local authorities to provide the much-needed housing, and large building projects were soon underway. Part of the solution lay in the large-scale construction of ‘prefabs’, a scheme that was instigated by the government’s Temporary Prefabricated Housing Programme.

Most of the ‘prefabs’ were small factory-built, single storey temporary bungalows with a life expectancy of just 10 years. Although around 156,000 of them were built, there was still an acute housing shortage. Local authorities still had to provide a range of houses to cater for different sized families, and so the conventional ‘prefabs’ could only fill part of the housing gap.

The Rubery Owen houses, unlike the basic ‘prefabs’, had a very long life expectancy, and offered the inhabitants a more spacious, and comfortable lifestyle. They were also ideal for larger families.

Rubery Owen Houses

A Rubery Owen prefabricated house.

An advert from the mid 1960s.

Rubery Owen was in an almost unique position to produce factory-built houses. The company’s Structural Department had been responsible for a number of prestigious developments including the London Passenger Transport Offices in Westminster (the tallest building at the time in London); the Palace Court Hotel in Bournemouth; and numerous factory buildings.

The company also produced a considerable number of domestic items such as stainless steel and vitreous enamelled sinks, and cupboard units.

The company’s wealth of technical knowledge and practical experience came together to produce a good-sized building that struck a balance between the sound methods of traditional building, and the ease and speed of erecting factory produced units.

The architects were A. T. and Bertram Butler of Dudley and Wolverhampton who were responsible for many of the area’s landmark buildings including Dudley’s Technical College, Station Hotel, and the Guest Hospital.

The houses were built around a rust-proof light steel frame with stanchions, trusses, and beams of a substantially rectangular form.

To simplify and speed-up the building process, the design included simple forms of attachment for almost any suitable building material.

The individual members of the steel structure were produced by bending, pressing or rolling, and the individual components were welded together at the factory.

The light steel frame.

A partially-built house showing the steel frame beneath the external cladding.

On the building site the individual and lightweight sections of the steel frame could be simply bolted together, and the large floor, wall, ceiling, and roof panels quickly added, so that the building could be assembled in a very short time.

The total weight of the steel frame was 1¾ tons per house, and the maximum weight of each section was 80 lbs.

As a result there was no difficulty in transporting the various parts to the building site.

Several versions with minor differences were produced. The type 'B' and the type 'C' are shown below:
The type 'B' has a downstairs toilet and a fuel bunker on the side of the house.
The type 'C' has an upstairs toilet, a slightly shorter third bedroom, and a fuel bunker on the back of the house.
The type 'B' ground floor plan showing the open-plan living room and dining area, the kitchen with its built-in cupboards, the compact staircase, and outside toilet.
The type 'B' first floor plan showing the reasonably sized bedrooms and bathroom, with fitted cupboards, and the landing cupboard; presumably an airing cupboard.

Conventional concrete and brick foundations were used with pockets to receive the holding-down bolts for the steel stanchions. The bolts were positioned using a steel template that came with the kit of parts. The base of the steel frame was mounted on a slate damp-proof course, set in cement. The wooden sub-frames and steel casements for the windows were bolted to the stanchions, and an 11inch brick cavity wall was added to provide the necessary sound insulation.

The roof could be covered immediately after the frame was erected with coloured combined asbestos sheeting, and the pre-formed light-gauge steel staircase quickly added. The staircase was fitted with wooden treads and risers at the factory, and transported to the building site in three sections.

The plumbing and electric wiring were also pre-fabricated in the factory. Every room had at least one power point, and each house came complete with a wireless earth and aerial. The kitchen and main bedroom had points for extension loudspeakers, and fixed electric fires were fitted in the dining recess, bedroom number 2, and high-up in the bathroom.

The kitchen included the following fittings:

A slow combustion stove.
An electric cooker.
A refrigerator.
A wash boiler.
A sink and double drainer unit with cupboards below.
A larder.
A china and dry store.
A cupboard for a broom and cleaning materials.

The slow combustion stove provided hot water, and heated bedrooms 1 and 3 via hot air ducts.

It also heated the dining recess and living room via a coil that was fitted in the dining recess area.

A partially completed house showing the roof covering, with the garden gate and wall on the right.

 Wet construction processes were kept to a minimum to ensure that assembly could be undertaken in all weathers.

The end result was a comfortable, reasonably sized family home that was much faster to build, and far cheaper than a traditional house, and more spacious than a conventional ‘prefab’.

Return to the
previous page