Prefab Fallout

The rise and fall of the Woolaway.

At the end of the second World War, Britain was facing an acute housing shortage;  almost half a million homes were either destroyed or rendered uninhabitable through enemy action, and slums were a problem in many large towns and cities. It was clear that new homes were desperately needed, and fast. Non-traditional methods of construction became much more common, such as pre-cast  concrete (prefab), which made house building quicker and easier than the usual method of bricks and mortar.   click on pictures to view large ….

Here in North Devon innovative building firm Woolaway and Sons were at the forefront of modern building practice and won the contract from the District Council to build brand new social housing at a large site  in Barnstaple and one in Braunton, plus other smaller projects in the vicinity. So the “Woolaway” was born, a house constructed from pre-cast concrete columns filled in with pre-cast reinforced concrete panels and block work gables. The houses and bungalows were constructed quickly and easily with a minimal labourforce, then let to tenants under North Devon District Council’s Housing Scheme. Unlike some prefabs which were intended to last for 20 -30 years, Woolaway homes were designed for a life of at least 60 years. A spurious claim as it turns out.

Getting on for sixty years after their construction, the Woolaway homes in my village are now being demolished. Why? They were always notorious for being damp and difficult to keep warm, there being no cavity wall for insulation, but during the seventies and eighties other problems of a devastating nature started to come to light. Cracks were appearing in walls and the houses were found to have concrete degradation, commonly known as Concrete Cancer.  This comes about when chemical reactions in the prefab panels cause the steel reinforcements to corrode and rust which in turn brings about stress to the concrete, more cracks and water penetration. The houses were found to be unstable and The Housing Defects Act of 1984 stated that the Woolaway System (amongst others) was defective and unsatisfactory, and that unacceptable deterioration of homes had occurred. This was 28 years ago!

Now, the majority of Woolaway Homes were built for councils and let to rent-paying tenants. The problem was that during the reign of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government in the 1980s council tenants with long-standing tenancies (about ten years) were given the right to buy their homes at greatly reduced prices, providing revenue for the government and leading Britons from all walks of life to believe that they too could be “landed” like the gentry; property ownership was presented as the thing to which we should all aspire and the public was drawn in to the conspiracy. As interest rates soared, thousands were left unable to make their mortgage repayments and lost their homes. Since the government had failed to reinvest the right-to-buy revenue in new social housing a crisis of mammoth proportions ensued. But I digress. Let’s get back to the prefabs…

The Housing Defects Act 1984 forced the councils to undertake repairs on their housing stock that was affected by concrete cancer, but some houses had already been sold to tenants who now found themselves the proud owners of defective housing which they could not sell on unless extensive and costly repairs were undertaken. Lenders were no longer giving mortgages on Woolaway Homes and even insurance policies were difficult to find. In short no-one would touch a prefab with a barge pole.

The repairs generally involve building an entire new skin of blocks or bricks on the exterior of the property and removing the defective concrete. The estimated cost of this work is up to £60,000. Many councils around the country have been undertaking these repairs over the last decade or so at huge expense and with massive inconvenience for the tenants.  The Woolaway homes here in Braunton (Pill Gardens) are mainly semi-detached (duplex) and it’s immediately obvious which are privately owned and which are still part of the council housing stock. Sold-off houses have been repaired and clad in red brick, while their council-owned neighbouring houses are still rendered concrete (in some cases two halves of the same building). Now, about ten years after the demolition and reconstruction was first announced, (this was seen as a better option than repair) work has finally started on Pill Gardens. 32 pre-cast reinforced concrete houses are to be pulled down, and 59 brand new dwellings built. The homes will obviously be more compact and with much smaller gardens to accommodate the huge increase in numbers.

Amongst the piles of rubble one building still stands; it comprises four flats, two on the ground floor and two on the first floor. Three flats house council tenants; one of the ground floor flats is privately owned and its occupier has invested much time and money adapting it to his particular needs. He doesn’t want to move; he is refusing to sell to the council; three other tenants in the building are being forced to stay in their damp, cold and defective homes until such times as this stalemate is resolved.

Question:- Was the council aware of the problems Woolaway homes had with concrete cancer before the right to buy scheme?

click on pictures to view large ….

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About Bridget

observing; sometimes quietly View all posts by Bridget

2 responses to “Prefab Fallout

  • Ivor Ward

    I own a Woolaways bungalow. It is 47 years old and in perfect condition. The roof is solid and weatherproof, the walls have been regularly painted with Weathershield and the external woodwork with Dulux paint. It is no good to anyone dissing the building system which is perfectly good when most of the council problems were caused by lack of maintenance. I have internally insulated with 42mm gyproc foam backed plasterboard, glued and screwed on external walls which only causes a loss of a two inch (50mm) strip of room around the externals. Completely un-noticable in practice. I intend to use the Wetherby external insulating system this year to bring it above up to date insulation standards.

    • Bridget

      Good for you, Ivor. I’m so pleased you are happy with your home and that you have the money and time to ensure it keeps you warm and dry. If you read the Housing Defects Act, 1948 (cited in my article) you will see that it is not me “dissing” the Woolaway, but the writers of this report which was published by the government. The prefab idea is a wonderful one, which could help overcome the accute housing shortage we are currently facing. Unfortunately, Tom Woolaway (whose son happens to be one of my best friends) didn’t get it quite right in the 1950s when the Pill Gardens estate was built.

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