The History of Non Traditional Building

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Non-traditional building defined

This refers to construction which has a manufacturer process basis, by this we mean that the majority of the construction is carried out within a factory environment meaning there is a control on quality of the product and also it is unaffected by the weather conditions. Over the years non-traditional housing has taken the form of:

Metal frames

Concrete frames

Timber frames

Concrete panel construction

Sips Structural Insulation Panels

The last one is probably contentious as it is a new construction that is being promoted heavily and the term non-traditional tends not to be good for marketing! Ironically traditional construction, which was once solid brick walls or stone walls or timber framing that you associate with Tudor construction has changed considerably over the years. Taking a brick constructed property as an example, where once it was a solid brick wall it is now a cavity wall meaning there is an inner and outer wall which has changed over the years as the outer wall is now brickwork and the inner wall being blockwork which has changed from a clinker block using waste materials to modern thermal block.

Even the ties that hold the two walls together have changed over the years. So it is ironic that traditional construction is not particularly traditional.

Non-traditional construction history and background

As with many things when supply and demand needs are out of balance we are forced to look at the problem in a different way. This occurred with the shortage of good housing after the First World War and also after the Second World War. The solution of moving towards a manufactured or factory based building was ingenious as it also in lots of cases used the factories that were involved in producing things for the various war efforts.

First World War

After the First World War there was a need for more housing however the majority of properties were still built in the traditional way. It is said that approximately 4.5 million houses were built during the period 1919 to 1939 of which 250,000 of these were non traditional however it was the start of thinking about building from factories. The vast majority of these non-traditional houses were built by the Local Authorities. Scotland has a predominance of non-traditional houses. The early non-traditional houses took the form of:

In situ concrete

Timber framed

Steel framed

Cast iron frames

An example of a non-traditional house from this period would be the Telford steel framed house which was steel clad and built in the 1920's.

Second World War

Non-traditional housing really came to the forefront after the Second World War as there was a need for housing, the lack of skilled labour and the factories that had been set up for the War effort needed a new use and purpose and building houses was an ideal answer. The non-traditional buildings took the form of:

Steel and aluminium framed system (surplus materials from the war years)

Pre-cast and in situ concrete

Timber frame.

Typical houses were the BISF House which stands for British Iron and Steel Federation house which of course used steel frame and steel cladding.

BISF property with metal profile sheet roof and metal profile sheet at first floor level and render at ground floor level and older style double glazed windows.

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BISF house with asbestos roof, profile metal cladding at first floor, render at ground floor level and older style

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BISF house with a profile metal roof, plastic cladding at first floor level and pebbledash render at ground floor level and modern double glazed windows

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Another popular type was the Cornish house or unit which was a pre-cast reinforced concrete house with asbestos.

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Swedish timber house was a pre-fabricated timber property, the timber could be very much seen externally.

In all cases these houses didn't look like traditional houses and this may have been their downfall. Interestingly if you look at the BISF non-traditional house over the years people have tried to make it look like a more traditional house. The BURT Committee were an influencer in this age looking for efficiency, economy and speed of construction in building.

1940's, 1950's and 1960's Non-Traditional Buildings

As well as the war damage from bombing, when the economy got going there was also slum clearance and redevelopment of town centres. The arguments for non-traditional industrialised housing was that the factory controlled conditions could give a better product under the dry conditions not affected by the weather and with the use of the labour force they became very skilled in putting together the non-traditional house building systems. There was a development in concrete technology which led to a large panel system building known as LPS which was concrete units that were stacked together and which in turn led to high rise construction. It has to be said that the public were never that keen on concrete panel constructions, ultimately the Ronan Point collapse led to a reduction in this type of construction. Interestingly there was a great draw for the general person to have a house that looks like a traditional house.

Non-traditional housing types

non traditionalGenerally the non-traditional industrial building methods can be classified into two areas:

Closed systems which were produced and manufactured to very rigid standards

Open systems which allowed for some degree of amendment and design flair.

As with most industries the non-traditional housing industry didn't stand still and from the 1960's onwards developed the cross wall construction buildings that are not known that commonly as RAT-Trads, it is more common to hear the term Cross Wall construction, RAT-Trads is short for Rationalised Traditional Construction. This is exactly what they are. Rather than using four outer walls and inner walls to support the structure they use cross wall construction which is normally the side walls with the front and rear walls being infill panels. This type of housing was very common in the 1970's and is normally associated with this era.

1970's and 1980's Non Traditional Buildings and the World in Action TV programme

During this period non-traditional construction took all forms:

Steel frame non-traditional construction

Timber frame non-traditional construction

Concrete frame non-traditional construction

Large Panel Systems (LPS) non-traditional construction

Volumetric boxes being built together


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But what those old enough can remember about non-traditional construction in this era was the airing of the World in Action TV programme in the early 1980's which highlighted lack of knowledge in the building industry as to how to build with non-traditional timber framed construction and also highlighted what seemed to be technical problems. This was aired at peak TV viewing time and resulted in non-traditional housing particularly timber framed almost stopping overnight. The BRE investigated the issues on the World in Action Programme and found no evidence of the decay that World In Action suggested was widespread. We have been on developments where the owners recount how the company went bankrupt following the World in Action programme as people simply did not want to buy this type of building

The Ronan Point collapse

Building commenced in 1966, completed 11th March 1968 and it collapsed on 16th May 1968. Flat 90 was a corner flat on the 18th floor of a twenty two storey large panel concrete construction. There was a gas explosion caused whilst Ivy Hodge was making a cup of tea. The power of the explosion lifted the floors and ceilings which were the only support to the walls as they weren't tied in (which was part of the design) not due to bad workmanship. The walls simply fell out causing a domino effect.

1960's and 1970's Volumetric Box Construction

We will never forget cycling through London one day near the Southbank Festival Hall to see a hotel being built where literally boxes in the forms of rooms were being lifted into place. It also could be argued that McDonalds and TGI Fridays use a Volumetric Box type construction as they literally lay the foundations and then lift boxes into place to build the building. There are some good McDonalds 24 hour building videos on YouTube.

Non Traditional Constructions Overview

There are considered to be around one million properties built from non-traditional construction. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) have over 500 systems listed between 1900 and 1976 excluding RAT Trad and post 1976 timber framed construction. The main forms of non-traditional construction are as follows:-


Approx Number Built

Length of time in production (years)

Wimpey No-fines



Easy Form



B1 Aluminium Bungalow


4 years



6 years

Cornish Units precast concrete type 1 and 2


20 years

Airey Precast concrete housing


20 years

Wates precast concrete


10 years

Trusteel framed houses Mark 2


20 years

Unity precast concrete types 1 and 2


10 years

Reema Hollow panel


20 years

Trusteel framed houses 3M


10 years

B2 Aluminium bungalows


4 years

Freeform timber frame


10 years

Quick build timber frame


10 years

Problems associated with types of non traditional buildings

Over the years we have surveyed many different types of non traditional constructions, some of these problems we have come across and some we have read about:

Large panel systems non-traditional construction lack of ties and design detailing faults and problems with the seals deteriorating and thermal efficiency

Concrete frame non-traditional construction carbonation of the concrete and condensation and thermal efficiency problems

Metal frame non-traditional construction corrosion of the metal frame particularly around the lower sections of the stanchions and the windows and doors and condensation and thermal efficiency problems


It is probably more true to say that they are difficult to mortgage. With the Right to Buy Scheme in 1979 five million council house tenants were given the right to buy their homes under the Conservative Government proposal. Those who had lived in their house for three years got a discount of 33% and then it increased in stages, people who had been tenants for 20 years got a 50% discount. Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment said that the Bill laid the foundations of social revolution allowing people to own their own homes. Roy Hattersley of the Labour Party fought it. Most importantly the Government said they would offer tenants 100% mortgage from the Local Authorities. It was considered a vote winner for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and 1983 and Labour dropped their official opposition to it in 1985 and by 2003 1.5 million council houses had been sold.

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The irony of non traditional and traditional construction

We have touched on this already but we do wish to comment further. Interestingly the construction often classified and termed as traditional construction has changed and altered considerably since the War Years when solid walls in brick or stone have now become cavity walls. The inner wall has become block which has changed in material and thickness many times as has the wall ties that hold the two walls together. Non traditional houses can suffer from a lack of understanding of the system and unfamiliarity particularly with surveyors who don't specialise in this area. There can also be problems with mortgage companies lending and holding market value.

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Flemish Bond Brickwork

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Cavity Brick Bond

All houses/properties are individual and so you do need to ensure that the property you are buying has been surveyed as over the years various alterations and what the owner's class as improvements have been carried out. Some of these well meaning alterations and improvements can have quite disastrous consequences.

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An example of a photo with red oval

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