Piecing together pre-fabs: reconstructing the Kibblesworth Airey Houses at Beamish

In the summer of 2012, Beamish collected a block of four Airey Houses (no. 38-41) from Coltspool, Kibblesworth (Gateshead). Airey Houses were a type of permanent pre-fabricated house, which were developed to help solve the housing crisis that followed the Second World War due to bombing, baby booms and the continued clearing of inner city slums.

The Airey Houses in Kibblesworth before Beamish dismantled them

The Airey Houses in Kibblesworth before Beamish dismantled them.

The first prefabs were never intended to be permanent homes, but to relieve the immediate housing shortages, and as such they only had a planned life of approximately 10 years. Crucial to the design of the prefabs prototypes were that they could be constructed by unskilled labourers using non-traditional building materials. Immediately following the War, there were brick and timber shortages as suppliers, yards and factories had been requisitioned during the conflict to help with the war effort. Equally, the heavy losses, injuries and dispersion inflicted on the male population (who had prior to the war almost exclusively dominated the construction industry) meant that there was a lack of skilled craftsmen to build housing.

While temporary pre-fabs went someway to relieving the demand on new homes, only 156,000 were ever actually built under the Temporary Housing Programme during the 1940s and 50s, and the government was still required provide quick long-term solutions. As the economy began to recover in the late 1940s, the temporary houses actually ended up costing more than traditional builds. However, pre-fabrication was seen as the only way to deliver the number of new houses needed quickly. Architects, engineers and planners were therefore tasked with coming up with system builds that could be permanent homes.System builds differed from the earlier pre-fabs in that the pre-fabricated panels that made up their walls were attached to a frame rather than being self-supporting, making them more structurally durable. Additionally, they included more traditional construction features such as brick-built chimneys and pitch roofs with timber trusses. However, like the temporary pre-fabs, these houses were intended to be easily assembled using a relatively unskilled labour force. As they were long-term family homes they were generally designed to have two storeys with the basic inclusion of kitchen, living room, hall, bathroom and at least two bedrooms. This meant that for many moving into the prefabs, they had far more space and amenities than ever before!

An early Airey, built in 1947.

An early Airey House, built in 1947.

Although they shared similar specifications, as stipulated by the government, each type of temporary pre-fab or permanent system builds differed depending on which individual or company designed and manufactured them. Government contracts to supply system builds were a lifeline in the struggling post-war economy. Often existing companies that had supplied wartime products adapted means of manufacturing in order to produce the new homes. This was not entirely the case with Airey Houses. Although designed by Leeds industrialist Sir Edward Airey (1878-1955) in 1947, the technology itself (the ‘Airey Duo slab’), of using concrete frames, clad with pre-cast concrete slabs had actually been developed by the firm in early the 1920s. During the War, it had been used to build temporary barracks for American soldier who were posted at British bases.

Normally built as semis, the basic structure of the post-war Aireys consisted of walls made of pre-cast reinforced concrete upright posts, clad with pre-cast concrete slabs. The weather-boarding effect of the slabs, along with the houses’ conventional pitched roof was intended to make the pre-fabs look like traditional homes. Convincing people of this seems to have concerned the government, as a propaganda film entitled Country Homes was released in 1947. As well as footage of how the system builds were constructed, this film included scenes of a happy family enjoying a traditional rural life in their Airey, as emphasised by lines such as ‘a home a man can be proud of’.

The houses in Kibblesworth were carefully dismantled by the Museum and are now in storage. They will be rebuilt as part of the planned 1950s Town, in order to tell of the story of post-war austerity and the subsequent changes to social housing.

No. 37- 40 Coltspool are unusual in that they are a block of four with an alley between the two central houses, instead of the more common semi-detached Aireys. Built in 1951, they also included modern luxuries such as a back boiler and downstairs toilet, which the earlier Aireys did not have. In addition to this, these Aireys had a different floor plan to the one suggested by Airey factory plans.

Norma Bolton moved in no. 39 with her parents in 1951 (the rest of the street was still being built!). She has been helping us piece together what her home looked like. Previously, Norma and her family were squeezed into an upstairs flat in Gateshead. Their only source of water was one outdoor tap – which they had to share with their neighbours! She remembers moving into a brand new Airey as an enormous and very exciting change. We are planning to speak to many more members of the Kibblesworth community who lived in or remember the Aireys.

Clara talking to Norma Bolton about her memories of the Airey House that she lived in as a child.

Clara talking to Norma Bolton about her memories of the Airey House that she lived in as a child.

Please do get in touch with us if you have any memories of these or other pre-fabs in the area.

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