BUILDING MATERIALS AND BUILDING POLICY

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  • BUILDING MATERIALS AND BUILDING POLICYThe debates in Parliament on May 4th on housing brought no change

    in the Government' s attitude to the building of private houses duringthe war. The plans in hand for 3,000 cottages in the country and forsome houses in Scotland seem modest, if measured by the increasingshortage of houses, which has caused wisespread rent-racketeering andblack market transactions. In view of a possible prolongation of thewar present plans may prove the more insufficient as a considerable timelag between plan and execution has to be taken into account.

    The only statistics available indicating building activity for civilianpurposes are given by loans granted to local authorities. The fall inloans for housing was quicker and more intense than for any other purpose(except swimming pools). A quarterly average of 92,000 for the firstthree quarters of 1942 compares with 6,954,000 for the same period in1939. The bulk of building operations for A.R.P. seems to have beencompleted by spring 1942 and labour and material was then availablefor other purposes.

    The extent of the housing shortage, affecting the health and efficiencyof the working population, may be gauged from the statement of theMinister of Health that 2,500,000 families are living a spartan existencein damaged houses which have received only first-aid repairs. TheMinister stated that over 2,750,000 houses in England and Wales wereaffected by bomb explosions. Houses suffering only damage to win-dows, and shops and business premises are not included in this figre.200,000 families are living in houses which were condemned as slumsbefore the outbreak of war. Large numbers of other houses have sodeteriorated that on normal standards they would also be classed as slums.

    This widespread housing decay makes the overcrowding in war-important districts the more dangerous. It is worst in villages, and intowns where existing industrial establishments have been converted towar-time purposes. Factory plants have been enlarged, the shiftsdoubled, and the inflow of workers largely increased without a corres-ponding expansion in the number of living quarters. Billets in existinghouses solve only part of 'the problem, since they are often wanting inquantity or quality. The inadequate control of conditions in billetingquarters and of those billeted with regard to vermin, infectious diseasesand nervous disorders is adverse to the best use of billeting facilities.An improvement and extension of billeting arrangements might offersome relief, but might not be sufficient in the most affected areas.

    The position has now been eased by the Board of Trade raising thelimit for repairs or alterations from 100 to 200. Surveys carried outin Manchester, for instance, have shown that a thousand houses stand

    112

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  • empty which could be repaired at reasonable cost; 7,000 habitablehouses stood empty in May 1942. While z,7oo of them have mean-while been re-occupied, part of the rest have got beyond repair, althoughthe average costs of repair were estimated to be in the neighbourhood ofxoo. Large flats and houses which stand empty could be convertedinto smaller units. Where the owners are not willing or able to makethe alteration, the Government could by voluntary agreement or, ifnecessary, by use of its powers of requisitioning, lease the house for theduration, carry out the necessary changes and let the newly createdflats to war workers. The recently developed scheme for the pooling ofthe resources of some 2,000 small sized building firms might be adjustedto this purpose. The scheme provides that building firms employingup to 25 operatives should form themselves, voluntarily, into groups eachembracing about io firms. Only local labour over 51 years of age notrequired on urgent priority work is to be used, and immobile labour tobe pooled.' The scheme is intended to accelerate repair work on some40,000 bomb damaged houses, and may be consijered an important steptowards the full use of idle resources essential for an emergency housebuilding programme.

    Often repair or conversion of old houses may be almost as expensivein man-hours and/or in materials as the building of new houses, and it isthe alleged shortage of manpower and raw materials which have led tothe severe restrictions in housebuilding. But the availability of man-power and material is rather a question of Government policy and priori-ties and we shall have to weigh the 'loss' of men and material in house-building activity against the increase in absenteeism and the loss inefficiency of war workers which is partly caused by bad housing condi-tions (including great distances between house and factory). Housesbeing basically consumption goods, the purpose of their production in awar economy would correspond to that of other essential consumptiongoods: the maintenance of the health and working capacity of thepopulation, if necessary, accompanied by a system of rationing andpriorities.2 As long as manpower, material and shipping space are stillused for semi-luxuries, housebuilding may claim preferential treatment.THE ORGANISATION OF WAR TIME BUILDING.

    Housebuilding may have to be discontinued after all reserves of re-maining building capacity (inclusive of manpower) have been fullymobilised for more essential purposes. For ascertaining needs andavailable supplies of material and manpower, some central organisationshould possess all the relevant facts and adequate executive powers. Atpresent, no war-time building programme organised on a national scaleseems to exist. Not more than zo% of the building programme isunder the authority of the Ministry of Works. Created in the secondyear of war (October 1940) it was to be responsible for the erection of allnew civil works and building required by any other Government Depart-ment but not for the Servic Departments 'carrying out highly specialised

    firm of standing' will be group leader giving direction and instructions, butthe heads of the co-operating firms are expected to work in a managerial or super-visory capacity. On this assumption, overheads and profits are shared among thefirms participating in a group according to the hours worked by their operatives.

    'These exist in practice, but so far only in favour of the armed forces and ofworkers in ordnance factories.

    "4

  • work.' Thus the Services build on their own, in close co-operation withlarge contractors.

    The Housing programmes of the Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Air-craft Production and the Admiralty are controlled by a Housing WarRequirements Committee' where the Ministry of Health and the Treas-ury are also represented. Their Housing programme is then carried outby the Ministry of Works through contracts to private contractors.The erection of shops, post-offices, schools and other amenities con-nected with new settlements is in the hands of the Ministry of LabourWelfare Department. The M.o.W., faced with decisions taken by others,cannot plan ahead, the less so as apart from the Service Departmentssome six to nine other Ministries and authorities are involved.

    No central co-operation between the Government and the BuildingIndustry has yet been established. As far as this contact exists, oneof the essential branches of the industry, the building material manu-facturers, were originally excluded. The Ministry of Works has takensteps to improve the position. A National Brick Advisory Counciland a National Council of Building Material Producers were createdlast autumn. Earlier, a Central Council for Works and Building hadbeen established to serve as a link between Industry and Government.In addition, some 50 committees and sub-committees have been ap-pointed in course of time. But the lack of co-ordination of the variousbuilding programmes has not been correspondingly eliminated, leavingpart of the building capacity unused.

    Skilled labour is said to be not fully employed or employed onunskilled work.1 As the building programmes for the Ministry ofSupply and for A.R.P. have been largely completed, resources arebeing or will shortly be freed which can be usefully employed,provided the closing down of housebuilding activity is not a prioriconsidered good war economics. The cessation of housebuilding doesnot necessarily represent a net saving of resources. The Select Com-mittee on National Expenditure has pointed out, for instance, that atevery aerodrome site large amounts of money were being spent in thetransport of men to work. At four stations this amounted to 975 perweek for 34 buses, that is 51,000 per year and 2oo,000 in four waryears. Measured by expenditure, i.e. by yearly depreciation of houses,a considerable number of people could be accommodated for this sum.In real terms, the lack of houses represents a burden on war economy inso far as transport to war factories involves consumption of rubber,fuel etc., employment of drivers, conductors an repair staff and, some-times, the construction of new buses. Even where hostels are providedmany workers prefer distant billets to close-by hostels. An extendedhousing programme providing for a combination of hostels and privatehouses may save time and energy of workers and bring about economiesin transport.NEW BUILDING MATERIALS AND METHODS.

    The shortage of traditional building materials such as timber andsteel represents on of the main obstacles to greater housebuilding

    1Delegates to a conference of Master builders reported that skilled men were diggingtrenches, and bricklayers and carpenters were used as labourers at the sametimeaslabourers were unemployed.

    C"5

  • activity. However, research into new building materials and newbuilding methods has made such progress that an emergency buildingprogramme could be carried out with a minimum of skilled labour andof scarce materials. The Ministry of Works has done pioneer work inthe field of new building materials and simplified building methods.It has created a special research department for the development of pre-cast building, has organised exhibitions of pre-fabricated huts and hasformed a Plastics Committee. The Directorate of Standardisation aimsat obtaining a complete set of standard sizes for all building materials.

    Of the many pre-fabrication methods the Tarran system is especiallycommended by Government departments. These cottages can be builtwithin some eight hours by only a few men. The building materialused is lignocrete, a light-weight concrete consisting of mineralised sawdust, sand and cement. In Coventry some i,000 houses were built ofpre-cast concrete units of standard size. A roof made of cement as-bestos sheetings can be constructed within a day instead of the weekneeded for the usual timber-tile roof. Scottish pre-cast houses havebeen erected with walls, floors, roofs, beams and stairs of pre-castcellular concrete. Timber was used for door-frames and similar pur-poses only. The building materials displayed in the M.o.W. exhibitionwere concrete, reinforced concrete and breeze, asbestos cement, plywoodand wood wool, plywood and plaster board, so that only a minimum oftimber, steel and skilled labour is necessary. Wallboard claims toabsorb sound and to improve warmth and dryness of rooms.' In U.S.A.the Tennessee Valley Authority has erected cottages where each pre-fabricated section contains all parts of the building in its final stage.Electrical installations, plumbing, light bulbs, kitchen and bathroomfixtures, fireplaces, etc. are in their proper place so that the housebuild-ing consists in fitting together the sections by bolts.

    The best combination under present conditions may be that the frameshould consist of bricks, while other parts of the house such as roof,floors, walls, beams, stairs, windows, doors and cupboards are pre-fabricated. In this way use can be made of the existing capacity of thebrick industry which is still half that of pre-war.2 The developmentwould be favoured by the high degree of standardisation reached in thecourse of the war : the sizes of bricks have been reduced from 17 to 2,those of metal windows from 300 to 33, aid those of casement doorsfrom 32 to 2.

    The fact that much investment and skill is bound up with the oldbuilding methods should not prevent necessary emergency measures,the more so as these pre-fabricated cottages, in the present stage ofdevelopment, have a lifetime of not more than 15-20 years and do notrepresent permanent dwellings. They are, however, a stop-gap to fillpresent housing needs until sufficient new building labour has beentrained and a proper post-war building programme has been executed,that is for at period of a least io years.3

    11t can be manufacthred from ground wood, gypsum or chemically reprocessedold newspapers.

    5The carcass of a house represents about one third, fitments and apparatus two-thirds of total expenditure.

    3Prefabricated houses are also a potential export article of considerable magni-tude; in U.S.A. two large companies have taken up their production.

    I i

  • FINANCIAL ASPECTS.Since the housing Ehortage cannot be relieved on a national scale,

    priorities would have to be created for towns where war workers haveincresed most in relation to pre-war population.

    In case the building programme is entrusted to local authorities, asystem 'of priorities would be helpful and loans could be granted ona differential basis, according to needs, costs and income levels in theareas concerned.' A clause inserted in 1924 in the Housing Act author-ises the Ministry of Health to make the acceptance of new duly approvedbuilding methods by the Local Authority a condition for the granting ofloans. By the use of this clause Local Authorities may be induced toturn to unusual building methods.

    The pre-war average time lag of twelve months between the authori-sation of the loan and the beginning of actual construction will, throughwar-time complications most probably increase. Loans granted nowwould lead to an improvement in industrial overcrowding not beforeautumn 194...

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