The History Of Non Traditional Housing In The UK


Non Traditional Housing In The UK: The way we, in the UK, have built our houses has changed over the decades. The preferred method of construction was a solid wall type up until the early 20th century when this was replaced by a cavity wall build which remains the traditional method of construction to this day. It has, of course, significantly developed and improved over the years.


There was however, a period between the 1950’s and the late 1970’s when various new ways of building were introduced. Over half a million homes were built using different methods of construction. We now know these as non traditional houses. High rise living also became popularised during this period. Again, these high rise blocks were constructed using non traditional ways of building.

1800 – 1920 Solid Wall Construction

Going back in time, before the first world war and through the Victorian era construction was largely of solid wall type. Typically, this was a minimum of a single brick thickness and Flemish bond with lime mortar. Timber sash windows and a slate tile traditional cut roof were also incorporated. No insulation was used in these properties. Whilst solid in construction, they were often therefore cold, damp and draughty.

During the 1800s the population was rising rapidly – growing from around 11 million to 32 million over the course of the century. This meant that housing was often cramped and overcrowded.

To see our work on Cavity Wall homes

1920 – Introducing The Cavity Wall

The cavity wall construction that we associate with today’s standard method of construction was first introduced into Europe back in the 1900s. It didn’t gain widespread popularity and use in the UK until after the first world war.

This coincided with a massive post war council house building program. Which resulted in accommodating 1 in 10 families throughout the UK by the beginning of the second world war.

The intensive build program and new methods of construction saw the standard way of building homes changing from solid wall to cavity wall. This meant two independent leaves of brickwork fastened together with wall ties. Windows were still timber framed but the roof, whilst still a traditional cut, incorporated clay tiles sometimes with lime mortar torching.

At this stage the cavities were pretty narrow and not insulated. The philosophy being that the cavity would reduce the passage of moisture through the building and hence, reduce damp and condensation.


1940’s And The Non Traditional Housing Era

After the second world war the building scene changed to support the post war recovery. Before the war started there was a housing shortage but, add to the fact that over half a million homes were destroyed or damaged beyond habitable boundaries, the housing shortage was extreme. That meant that building had to be fast and effective.

There were also a great many factories that had been established to support the war effort which were no longer required. A new purpose for these factories and workers needed to be found.


Put the two problems together and the result … prefabricated buildings and non-traditional housing methods of construction!

The traditional method of construction remained as a cavity wall build although block-work began to replace brickwork as the inner skin and galvanised metal window frames grew in popularity. Roofs too benefited from improved technology – TRADA trusses and concrete tiles incorporating felt.

Different Types Of Non Trad Houses

These new, non-trad methods of construction were incredibly varied though. Hundreds of different specific types of non-traditional houses took shape all over the UK. Each type different (to varying degrees) from the next. That said they all fell in to one of four main types: 

Timber Frame:
  • Typically, single storey timber frame panels, dry-lined internally with plasterboard nailed onto the frame or fibreboard fixed over timber boarding. These were then externally clad with brickwork, tile hanging or render.
Metal Frame:
  • A load bearing frame of metal columns, joists and roof trusses. Internal walls were timber framed and faced with plasterboard or hardboard. Externally they were clad with brickwork, imitation brick or render.
Instu Concrete:
  • Three basic elements – form-work, concrete and reinforcement. Steel reinforcements was added between the form-work before a liquid concrete (often dense, or a clinker no-fines type) was poured in to create the framework on site. Many were constructed as a single skin although some were constructed with a cavity by incorporating pre-cast concrete slabs externally. Internally they were usually wet plastered.
Pre-Cast Concrete (PRC):
  • These comprised of load bearing concrete columns and external concrete cladding infill panels, all of which were cast off site before being transported, lifted and fixed into place on site. Internally they were plastered or dry lined. Externally the concrete panels were often textured or incorporated an additional finish such as brick, tile, paint or some form of sheet material.

These new methods of construction made full use of the vacant factories and the available workforce. They also meant that building was what was needed at the time … very fast!

Non Traditional Housing – A Short Term Solution

Whilst speed of build was of the essence, on the downside these homes were only designed as a short-term solution. Many were only designed with a 20 year life span in mind. Little regard was made to insulation, damp or condensation either. So, they were often cold and damp but at least people had somewhere to live!

1960’s and 1970’s – The High Rise Living Boom

House building continued in earnest but the housing shortage was increasing as the population continued to boom. By the 1960’s there was also a growing need to rehouse those living in sub-standard homes.

In order to resolve this problem local authorities across the UK turned to the construction of residential tower blocks and high-rise housing. In many cases replacing horizontal slums with vertical ones but providing more space for increased housing.

By this stage the traditional housing construction was beginning to develop. It was still the same cavity build but inner block-work leaf and outer brickwork had become the norm. Windows tended to be timber casement or the new aluminium framed windows. Roofing had progressed to pre-fabricated trusses, concrete tiles and felt and insulation was starting to be used.

Construction of these new tower blocks however took a step back. Typically, they were cast insitu and incorporated a substandard no-fines concrete. This popular type of residential high-rise building continued up until the end of the 1970’s.

1980’s to Date – Normality Was Resumed

By the 1980’s the historical non-traditional ways of construction and the popularity of vertical living had come to an end. New technologies had been developed and incomes had improved. More importantly performance-based Building Regulations were published in 1985 and safety standards for homes dramatically improved.

Construction methods therefore developed further. All but gone were the fast, short term, non-traditional housing construction. Gone too were the fast build non-trad high rise blocks. Instead, there were minimum standards to build to.

From the 1980’s and up to the end of the century the traditional method of construction remained a cavity wall with aerated block-work inner skin and brickwork outer. The cavity however had increased in size to 50mm or 75 mm. This meant that insulation could be incorporated within the cavity during the build. Roofs improved too. They were ventilated and included 100 mm of insulation as a minimum and the standard of windows were UPVC double glazed units.

And so we progress to today. Further improvements in technology, regulations, standards and environmental incentives / targets mean that the standard of housing continues to improve.

However, one major problem remains, and that goes back to the post war construction of non-traditional homes – both low and high rise.

Non Traditional Housing Refurbishment

As we said, these properties were built quickly and cheaply with little regard to thermal performance or standard of living. They are cold, damp and expensive to heat. Visually they also look dated. Entire housing estates look drab and dreary which provides no incentive for tenants to take pride in their homes.

Another significant issue is the fact that they were only designed as a short term housing solution. As we mentioned earlier, many were built with just a 20 year life span. Yet, in spite of this people are still living in these properties today. Entire estates still exist which are in desperate need or improvement.

Airey Duo Slab After

And, that’s where Structherm come in. When it comes to the refurbishment of these non traditional properties, the unique structural external wall insulation system ticks all the boxes. Not only can it thermally upgrade the buildings to current standards it can also add to the structural integrity of these buildings. It can also dramatically improve the appearance of individual houses, tower blocks and entire communities.

Residents gain a sense of pride. Standards of living improve, Heating costs reduce substantially and communities are transformed. The system is effective even in the case of BRE “designated defective” property types when demolition may first seem the only option.

Structherm structural EWI will add an additional 30 years to the life of a building as a minimum. Also, as the refurbishment is external, there’s minimum disruption to residents and no need for rehousing during works.

Read more about the Structural EWI system or book your CPD today.

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