All you need to know should you decide to invest in houses built after WWII
In a nutshell
In Britain today, there's something of a thought rooted into the national psyche that our 1950s and 1960s architecture is pretty non-imaginative. This seems strange given that artistically, musically and culturally, these were some of the most innovative and revolutionary times in modern history. Unfortunately the same can't be said of most of the buildings that were erected throughout the two decades following the end of WWII in 1945.
It's such a topic of bemusement, that from 2006, even the Carbuncle Cup started to be awarded annually to the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed every year. However, some people are of the opinion that these post-war homes are thought not only to be ugly, but also sub-standard.
With more and more investors sourcing properties and property development projects to invest in, are these mass-built residences really as bad as people make out? Alternatively, do they make for good investments?
What's the history behind these homes?
Despite what people tend to think, the 1950s and 1960s are exceptional in the history of British housing as for the first time, architects and builders experimented with new forms of design and construction. This had never really been done before and whereas housing had always been constructed entirely practically, row upon row of terraces to accommodate an ever-increasing population, the post-war era showed more innovation.
In the wake of wartime attrition and a desire for a bright new world, houses that showed daring layouts and light interiors were erected as modernism became the buzzword.
The Burt Committee, formed by Winston Churchill in 1942, proposed to address the need for an anticipated 200,000 shortfall in post-war housing stock by building 500,000 prefabricated houses, within five years of the end of WWII. The eventual bill, under the post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, agreed to deliver 300,000 units within 10 years, within a budget of £150m. From 1945 to 1951 when the programme officially ended, over 1.2 million new houses were built.
Although these post-war houses were criticised for being bland and like their Victorian and Edwardian counterparts, arranged in straight lines, the private stock was more innovative. Some were designed to look like large wigwams with vast, high-reaching triangular roofs and others thrived on symmetrical beauty as they resembled rows of coloured sails.
The bare exterior which many architects advocated was seen as too daring for the mass market, so houses were clad in more traditional hanging tiles and white weatherboarding to soften their impact.
Changing the traditional layout
Inside the residences, architects shook up the traditional formula regarding where rooms were located and experimented with different layouts. Family living areas were placed on upper floors and bedrooms or utility spaces were tucked into sloping roofs which gave every house a unique charm to it. Compared with the dark and dingy Victorian housing many were still living with, these new homes with wide windows filling an entire wall were bright, modern and inviting, with most having both front and back gardens and even a garage.
This strikingly modern appearance, however, was masking up the fact that Britain was still trying to deal with a housing crisis. Bombing during WWII and the continuing demolition of urban slums meant more houses than ever were needed in a very short time.
However, the war had left a shortage of skilled labour and suitable materials with which to build these new homes. What's more, the country was virtually bankrupt and there was pressure to build quickly and cheaply.
Investing in property built in the post-war era
The angular styles and grey concrete right angles of 1950s and 1960s architecture actually have an artistic name: neo-brutalism. Although it isn't the prettiest name to endow upon an architectural style, the simplicity and cleanliness of neo-brutalism architecture does make renovation or extension projects quite easy.
For example, a common undertaking with 1950s housing is to remove some interior walls, leaving a more modern open plan feel.
However, simple and economic methods of construction and cheaper imported materials were used to build these post-war homes and as a result, there are a number of common problems you should be aware of as a potential investor.
Potential problems with houses built with concrete
Houses built with concrete can be potentially problematic as the rapid construction made them vulnerable to spalling and cracking, thus resulting in the steel reinforced core to rust.
This created problems with condensation and damp penetration as well as poor insulation, and those which have not been demolished have usually been extensively modified to resolve these problems. Concrete was sometimes used in walls and then covered with a brick skin so the investor or proprietor may not be aware that this can still lead to issues with condensation and heat loss.
Potential problems with houses with two load bearing walls
Many post-war houses were constructed with two load bearing walls down either side with beams running across to support the upper floors. The front and back only needed to be thin stud walls covered in hanging tiles, timber boards or cement render. This cross-wall construction is generally sound, but the thin walls can leak where they meet the brick sides and may need resealing.
What's more, they were usually poorly insulated so it can encourage condensation and mould to appear inside. They may require external or internal insulation to be added if cavity wall insulation is not suitable.
Problems with houses built with concrete roof tiles
Most houses in the 1950s had concrete roof tiles, and now, in 2020, they may be reaching the end of their expected life. It's worth checking for any signs that they will need replacement. Flat or shallow-pitched roofs were also widely fitted and they also need regular inspections to ensure the covering is sound and water is not pooling on top. Some were arranged so they slope down to the neighbouring property's wall so it's important to ensure that the guttering is clear and water is draining off properly.
Problems with houses built with large front windows
The post-war craze for building houses with large open windowpanes flooded rooms with sunlight but caused a terrible loss of heat, and often had poor quality timber frames which easily rotted.
Renovators and investors should be aware that as these houses were often the first to have double glazing fitted, the replacements themselves might require updating. Lintels above the windows on many 1950s houses were a concrete beam which was exposed on the outside of the house. These can be prone to cracking or shifting which evidently needs attention.
So are 1950s houses a sound investment?
The properties that were constructed in the post-war period up until the mid-1960s are no longer deemed new, but they have still not reached an age whereby they are seen as rustic or dilapidated.
They also tend to have good sized front and rear gardens which means that extending the properties is usually perfectly feasible. Unlike many earlier properties built in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, they have an onsite garage, and the estates they were built on were often large communities with good local services like schools built close by, thus making them convenient for families.
These factors can help to make houses from the 1950s and 1960s good value even today, and great properties to consider either renovating or investing in.
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