History of house building in Britain

When men and women first emerged from caves and tried to build a home, early attempts were little more than crude screens of branches and twigs that gradually became walls of turf or stone.

The biggest change to these early methods came with the Roman invasion in 43AD. The Romans brought concrete construction to Britain and jointing mortar that was so strong that walls became an almost monolithic mass.

A step back ensued after this great leap forward as the Romans quit Britain in 430AD. Indeed, modern cement was not invented until the 19th century and home construction regressed.

Iron Age settlements featured houses of up to 10.5-m in diameter built using posts driven into the earth and the gaps filled by wattle daubed with clay. Only where timber was in greater supply were split tree trunks or planks used.

Many early medieval cities, certainly London, utilised ragstone from quarries in Kent or Surrey. Chalk and flint, often produced by digging out old Roman foundations, also provided popular building products.

Building regulations were introduced from around 1200. Early rules included stone party walls of at least three feet, but this was often flouted, leading to a collapse and a stream of accidents. As a result, stone became less commonly used for walls and by the fourteenth century was mostly used for cesspits.

The Romans had introduced tiles and the Ordnance of 1212 produced a revival. The Ordnance barred thatch – the main domestic roofing form for centuries – from new homes in London due to the risk of fire. As a result, clay tile-making became common across swathes of eastern and southern England by the thirteenth century, when plastering also came into general use.

Timber frame for housing was pioneered by the Elizabethans, who used large sections of load-bearing timber frames that were in-filled with wattle and daub, and this idea was widely used by the Tudors.

Buildings were still being built entirely from timber in the late sixteenth century with brick predominantly used for chimneys and hearths. As the farmers that had acted as part-time home builders were replaced by brick-makers and the master builder, the brick became more common.

The brick-making season typically ran into October with bricks often produced on site. At Russell Square in London, the central garden is a hollow because brick-earth was dug out there and the brick-pit never properly reinstated.

Materials were typically sourced locally, although some lime was being transported significant distances by the late 1500s, which also brought the advent of windows.

The Baroque Age saw an increase in the use of windows and between 1670 and 1700, key features of the glass-making industry, including the coal-fired reverberatory furnace and the cone-shaped glass house, were established.

The development of the sash window in the late seventeenth century fuelled this trend. Windows became even more wide-spread after improvements in the production of sheet glass in the early 1830s and metal slowly began to replace wood in the construction of window frames.

The first terraced housing had been introduced in the late seventeenth century and the first apartments – known then as garden flats – emerged in the 1860s, just before house building entered a boom period. Between 1870 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914, nearly five million homes were built in the UK with standards raised as building techniques improved.

The end of both of the twentieth century’s two World Wars would bring changes in house building methods. After WWI, there was even a brief revival in the rammed earth technique that utilised earth, chalk, lime and gravel for walls due to a shortage of materials.

In the 1930s, house building flourished and in 1936 the National House-Builders Registration Council was formed, offering insurance against potential defects in new homes, responding to fears dating back nearly a century.

In the decade after World War Two, swathes of new homes were needed across bomb-torn Britain and the pre-fab was born. Around 70,000 bungalows were built under the Temporary Housing Programme over the ensuing decade using aluminium alloys.

Another new material also appeared in the post-WW2 years as Bakelite was superseded in domestic kitchens by laminates, such as the increasingly ubiquitous Formica.

The 1950s brought a surge in the building of the modern style of blocks of flats, which began in 1951 with the construction of The Lawn in Harlow, Essex, now a Grade II listed building.

Building regulations were relaxed in 1954, fuelling the rise in home building. Between 300,000 and 400,000 homes were built every year during this decade, mostly featuring new amenities, such as fixed baths, running water and lifts in apartment blocks.

This house building boom lasted until the 1970s, when the new towns of Basildon, Harlow, Milton Keynes and Peterborough sprang up – many featuring houses built using timber frames.

At the start of this boom, the Central Housing Advisory Committee (CHAC) had produced a report in 1961 called Homes for Today & Tomorrow that recommended a minimum space standard for new homes. Named after CHAC chairman Parker Morris, the guidelines were adopted and used until being scrapped by a new Conservative government in 1980.

By this time, the recession had caused a dramatic slump in new homes. The NHBC was asked to inspect 130,000 homes in 1980 but just 97,000 the next year.

As the house building industry recovered, national companies building homes across the UK began to emerge, setting a pattern that survived the 1990s recession and still remains but building techniques have developed at a rapid rate, responding to the need to curb carbon emissions.

Today, many of the new homes at the cutting edge of house building feature a range of environmentally friendly features as the industry pushes towards the zero carbon home.

From natural ventilation to passive solar gain, water harvesting to mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, cellular clay blocks and ground source heat pumps, the modern new house bears little relation to its forebears other than the most important of all: providing a home.

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