Unashamedly drawing on industrial design practice, the post-war Australian standardised steel house has international kinship with developments in Europe, the US and Britain.
The ambitious prefabricated steel house known as the Beaufort House was designed and developed by the Beaufort Division of the Commonwealth Depart-ment of Aircraft Production (DAP) at Fishermen’s Bend and Essendon Airport, both in Melbourne.
The highly efficient Beaufort Division manufactured twin-engine Beaufort Bombers under licence during World War II. The Beaufort House was designed by chief architect Arthur Baldwinson and the staff of the Beaufort Division.
As World War II progressed and an allied victory was assured, Australian defence industries began to wind down. The Beaufort Division began to look for new products and markets for their post-war manufacturing potential.
With a forecast of housing shortages from the Commonwealth Department of Post-War Re-construction the mass production of housing and/or housing materials seemed a logical path to follow.
Production of the Beaufort prefabricated house was encouraged and supported by Labor’s commonwealth government and the Victorian Housing Commission.
But despite persistent post-1945 housing shortages, the Beaufort House project was abandoned when post-war elections brought a new conservative party, later known as the Liberal Party, to power.
The new Liberal government warned that the centralised factory production of housing could encourage the growth of communism.
While Baldwinson’s gable-fronted Beaufort House did not follow the form of the popular modernist pro-gramme of flat roofs and open-plan interiors, it provided the substance of modernism: a carefully designed ‘scientific’ kitchen with precisely calculated counter heights and traffic patterns, labour-saving built-in appliances and electric hot water, low or minimum maintenance, in-built heating and cooling integrated within the structure, and mass-produced modular construction that allowed infinite expansion of the basic unit.
The leader of the Beaufort House team, Arthur Baldwinson, had trained in architecture at the Gordon Institute in Geelong, Victoria. In the 1930s, he went to London seeking further experience and training.
While in London, he worked with the short-lived partnership of Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry. Gropius, the famous teacher and Bauhaus leader, had designed a copper-clad prefabricated house for German manufacturers in 1931.
By the mid-1940s, the concept of an all-metal house in aluminium or steel was a familiar concept. Copper, of course, was no longer economically viable.
The Beaufort House was designed with standard units, simply bolted together; the 914mm wall panels (three-foot grid) were interchangeable with window and door panels. Sheet steel was sheared and formed (pressed) for strength and spot-welded into components.
“The wall panel steel sheeting is designed as a stressed skin giving tremendous bracing strength to the struc-ture,” Baldwinson wrote in 1945. “Insulation against heat and cold is provided with two-inch thickness of rockwool packed into walls and ceiling, giving an insulation value far greater than orthodox brick con-struction.
"The living room has a special wood fuel fireplace constructed as an air-conditioning unit with ducts conveying warmed air to the dinette and bedroom. An electric hot water installation is connected to a stainless steel kitchen sink and to all fittings in the bathroom and laundry.”
Eight models of the steel house were designed but only one prototype had been fabricated by the first exhibition date in 1946. While it is not clear if all models proceeded to prototype, two types were built (Type 2 and Type 8) and supplied as public projects in Melbourne and Canberra.
The Beaufort’s first public appearance was in 1946 in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens and its second debut was in 1947 in the Canberra suburb of Ainslie. Several surviving Beaufort Houses in Melbourne’s suburbs are listed in Philip Goad’s Guide to Melbourne Architecture.
The philosophical concepts behind the Beaufort House and the other wartime prefabricated houses (notably in England and the US) rest on the elemental methods of mechanised manufacturing: production-line as-sembly of a prescribed set of standardised units that may be personalised through furnishings or landscap-ing.
Standardisation, of course, is a long-standing practice in the housing industry (window and door units, compressed masonry blocks, internal and external cladding, standardised timber sizes), but it is the intent, rather than the method, that makes the wartime prefabricated house unique.
In Australia, the Beaufort House was conceived, designed and developed as an efficient, low-priced, factory-produced housing unit for a permanent family home. In Britain where prefabricated housing was developed to cope with housing losses from wartime bombing raids, the housing was seen as temporary or somehow ersatz.
In Australia, the display and marketing of the Beaufort House stressed permanence, durability, ease of assembly and contemporary living values. Transported by lorry, the Beaufort could be erected quickly and efficiently by a team of builders using conventional hand tools.
What were the problems associated with living in a steel machine-made house? According to the director of the Housing Division of ACT Works and Services, who wrote to the head of the Beaufort Division in 1947, the Canberra house did have defects.
These included the rusting of the load-bearing steel channels forming the wall plates supporting the wall joists (probably from moisture accumulating from condensation on inner walls), and condensation on the underside of the roof, causing staining on the fibrous plaster ceiling tiles.
The first resident of the Canberra Beaufort House said that during the frosty season the ceiling was almost permanently wet.
While the heat-transfer qualities of sheet steel clearly produced the condensation problems associated with the house, no intrinsic defects were found in the Beaufort House.
With condensation issues resolved, no further complaints were received and the house was rated by its earliest Canberra occupants as ‘comfortable’.
As an anonymous reviewer wrote in the Australasian Handyman in 1946, “A home must provide the answer to the customer who asks, ‘How can I obtain a com-fortable home, modern conveniences and minimum of upkeep at a price which I can afford?’”.
The re-viewer concluded that the Beaufort House served its purpose: “There is no possible doubt that the Beaufort Home must play a very important part in the housing scheme in Australia. Its ease of construction, and also the possibility of simple additions, makes it more desirable for those investing in a small home, which gives the opportunity of being added to as families increase.”