In the Architect and Building News from July 1952 there’s an intriguing article for a partially-prefabricated ‘Commonwealth House’.
The house could be easily shipped and ‘erected by the average handyman’, aided by a standardised kit of parts would make manufacturing simple and predictable.
The house was designed by Charles A. V. Smith with John Pearce Mockridge, following a consultation with potential makers and inhabitants. The architects adjusted their designs to suit a consensus – resulting in a house very much designed by committee with a predictable, if utilitarian and efficient, floor plan.
The brief was to develop a house that would be suitable across the geographical and climatic zones of Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and East Africa. Over 20,000 units were expected to be built per year to meet the demand for emigrating workers and their families eager to escape war-torn Britain for opportunities elsewhere.
The house had an aluminium frame structure, and the cladding materials could vary depending on availability and final conditions. It was placed on concrete posts with an ant-trap to resist termite attack. The prototype erected on Great West Road in Hounslow was fitted out with furniture and a fireplace designed by American architect Carl Koch (1912-1998), who later pioneered several prefabricated house designs in the US.
The Commonwealth House design was very similar to houses we saw in the timber saw-mill town of Samreboi in Ghana – even down to the ant-trap detailing.
The African Timber and Plywood Company (AT&P), who owned the mill and were responsible for most of the housing, were also attempting to develop their own housing kits and to expand into new products and markets.
By 1954 AT&P had begun to discuss prefabrication techniques and processes at both Samreboi and their larger station at Sapele in Nigeria. The drive and urgency for this type of production was heightened by increased competition and political efforts to quickly improve housing standards in West Africa. The Dutch firm Schokbeton had been awarded a large order for prefabricated housing in Ghana, and contractors Taylor Woodrow were eager to expand their building products export wing.
Architect Edric Neel (1914-1952) developed a consortium of architectural consultants with Taylor Woodrow in 1944 to research new structures that could be quickly assembled and fabricated. The group was called Arcon and their first project was a temporary prefabricated house. The system developed into a set of lightweight tubular steel components that could be easily welded together. The façade, if required, could be made of local materials, metal sheets, or cement board cladding, as required. The system was intended for export and into ‘tropical conditions’ in particular. The units could be readily scaled and used to assemble large factories and sheds with large spans. Many of the factories and mills (including those at Samreboi) utilised this standardised and low-risk approach to construction.
Over the next 15 years AT&P began developing a series of prefabricated houses, but rather than developing a frame and cladding approach they created integrated wall panels (like flat-pack furniture) with modular dimensions so that windows and doors could be added where required. They called it the AT&P System Building, and priced a small house at £500 – compared to the £1200 Schokbeton model.
The system was adopted for military projects and housing, and continued to be deployed into the 1970s with AT&P developing many different variations and types.