Four Steel Walls:  

 

British Iron and Steel Federation (BISF)

Houses:

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The British Iron and Steel Federation, an association of steel

producers, was formed in 1934 in order to provide central

planning for the industry. It was prominent in coordinating output

through the War, and sponsored a solution for permanent steel

framed housing to a design by architect Sir Frederick Gibberd.

Gibberd's office also designed the steel framed Howard House,

privately promoted by John Howard & Company. Both designs

were assessed and approved for development by the Burt

Committee (1944), and subsequently 36,000 BISF houses and

1,500 Howard Houses were built.

The comparison these two house types is of interest because,

though the designs are from the same stable, they demonstrate

different approaches to innovation and the expression of new

methods. The BISF is the more conventional of the two,

technically and aesthetically. The simple architectural devices of

projecting window surrounds and differing cladding to the upper

and lower stories deal with the junction between components in an

understated fashion. Traditional materials could be incorporated

or simulated, for example a brick cladding to the lower storey, or

steel sheet profiled to match timber weatherboarding to the upper.

The BISF house also uses tried and tested methods, with a simple

over-site slab ground floor and render on metal lath cladding.

By comparison, the Howard House has a more industrial aesthetic

and was more adventurous in its use of innovative technologies.

Asbestos cement cladding panels are clearly expressed with metal

flashings over a base course of foamed slag concrete panels, with

windows and doors fitting within the module set up by the

cladding. Unlike the BISF this house proudly displays its

lightweight prefab nature, but there are also technical advances

that set the Howard House apart, for example the pre-cast

concrete perimeter plinth that supports a suspended steel ground

floor.

It seems likely that the BISF house, with its more conventional

proportions and solid appearance, would have appealed more

directly to popular taste than the Howard, but this is not the main

reason for its comparative success. The British Steel Homes

company, producers of the BISF house, also benefited from the

support of the British Iron and Steel Federation, which could

ensure a supply of the material at a time when conventional

methods were returning to profitability and steel was in demand

again due to cold-war rearmament. The BISF also benefited from

a guaranteed order of 30,000 given by the Government in 1941 .

Neither house, however, could endure beyond the combined

effect of the reorganisation of the steel industry (including a short-

lived nationalisation in 1951), and a Conservative party election

pledge to build 300,000 houses, which could only be met by

lowering standards and cutting costs in public housing.