22 MAY 1964, Page 17

A Flow of Houses


Ford's genius lay in his recognition of the indivisibility of production and market. Although building houses and flats is not the same as making cars, awareness in Britain of the need to build 400,000 houses a year is forcing the Government to start a comparable revolution in building. The first ,steps are therefore being taken to set up house factories and to reorganise the market. Every other night a train carrying ninety large concrete slabs, complete with doors, windows . and conduits for electric wiring, is hauled 120 miles from Lenwade in Norfolk to Woolwich. Within two days of their arrival in 'London these slabs are in place, much as cards in a card house, as the walls and floors of two flats in a new LCC neighbourhood at Morris Walk, Using this method 562 flats of various sizes, mostly in three-storey blocks, will be built in just over two years. Other fiats made of similar panels will be erected elsewhere, making a total of 1,000. At Liverpool work on 2,500 factory-made flats of a different design is going on..Factories are also being set up in the North- East and Yorkshire.

The reorganisation of the market that is com- plementary to this revolution in production is being engineered by the semi-independent National Building Agency .announced by the Government last December. It owes its existence to two facts: that local authorities account for about half of all building construction in England and Wales, and that only 254 of 1,450 councils build more than 100 houses a year. The Agency's aim is to encourage small auth- orities to give up their small shopkeeper status and become the equivalent of chain stores, so that collectively they can order houses by the thousand. Only if they do this will construction companies risk the heavy capital necessary for industrialised building. Taylor Woodrow- Anglian, for instance, have spent a quarter of a million at Lenwade to set up the workshops for making the LCC's Morris Walk flats. This is about three times the capital needed for con- ventional building.

In the Soviet Union, where the difficulty of building in winter makes fast building in the summer essential, even more capital has been poured into industrialised housing. The result is fully automated factories which are said to achieve a 75 per cent reduction in labour. The vistas of appalling, barrack-like, five-floor blocks of flats encircling Moscow and Leningrad show the savage productivity of these factories. Such neighbourhoods have their exact equivalent in our own rows of red-brick cottage dwellings from Wigan to Whitechapel, and in twenty-five years or so, when the standard of living in Russia has trebled or quadrupled, their replace- ment will present the same awful problem.

In Britain, the fact that we are rebuilding old cities rather than raising up new suburbs, while creating great administrative difficulties, is some safeguard against large-scale monotony. In the hands of architects as capable as those at the LCC, the clever use of a sloping site, of high and low buildings and of landscaping promises a neighbourhood of factory-made homes at Morris Walk that has the positive virtues of variety and humaneness. Furthermore, the planning of the flats in pairs gives hope that they can in future be thrown together to provide the larger spaces that families will undoubtedly be demanding in the future.

The repetitive nature of industrial building, in fact, throws up exactly the same visual prob- lems that faced town planners in eighteenth- century England. To the planners of Bloomsbury, the street, the square and the crescent formed the large-scale framework within which endless rows of sash windows and fanlighted doors were deployed. Occasionally it was possible to build a church to stop a vista and give variety of height. Technology has subsequently replaced the Small-pane sash window by the large-pane pivoted one and has made it possible to live high up. The car has made it necessary to re- assess the relationship of street to house, but the essential problem of manipulating repetitive elements remains.

These problems, however, will only present themselves on a small scale in the next few years because, as the recent NEDC report on the construction industry lugubriously points out: Industrialisation can make a considerable contribution to the output of the industry, but it should not be overestimated. The major con- tribution to productivity in the next few years must come from improvements in traditional methods of construction.

Despite the doubt this opinion throws on the likelihood of 400,000 houses being built annu- ally, and the depressing implications this has for homeless or overcrowded families, it does promise a breathing-space before our towns and cities are overwhelmed by industrialised building. The Ministry of Housing report for 1963 acknowledges the existence of 260 building systems. If all these go into production, which is most improbable since many- are technical non-starters, it would be like having on the market 260 makes of car,. all needing different spare parts. This nightmare situation can be combated either by making all systems conform to certain standard measurements or by design- ing what are called 'open systems.' The first course is now being promoted by the Ministry of Public Building and Works which has published a bulletin on dimensional co-ordination. The second has a more distant objective, but its effect would be to ensure that a component from one system could be plugged into one from an- other, much as one can always be confident that an electric. light bulb from one maker will fit sockets made by innumerable others. All this is a far cry from the building in-

dustry of today. Two immediate necessities are to cut costs and end the nomadic life of the building worker. Larsen and Nielsen, the Danish firm whose system Taylor Woodrow are producing at Lenwade, believe that both are possible. They say that building costs have dropped by 5 per cent in Denmark as a result of competition between industrial and con- ventional building. They have also shown, by shipping large "concrete panels from Copen- hagen to Berlin, that handling costs—not dis- tance costs—are critical in industrialised build- ing. These are changes in outlook that members of the Bauhaus were saying were just around the corner in the 1920s. They have been a long time coming, but they are none the less welcome.