The history of
House building

From cavemen to skyscrapers see how houses have developed over the ages.

Loading 0%
When men and women first emerged from caves and tried to build a home, early attempts were little more than crude screens of branches and twigs that gradually became walls of turf or stone.
The biggest change to these early methods came with the Roman invasion in 43AD. The Romans brought concrete construction to Britain and jointing mortar that was so strong that walls became an almost monolithic mass.
When the Romans quit Britain in 430AD, home building techniques regressed significantly. As a result, during the Iron Age houses were only up to 10.5m in diameter, and were built using posts driven into the earth and the gaps filled by wattle daubed with clay. Only where timber was in greater supply were split tree trunks or planks used.
Many early medieval cities, certainly London, utilised ragstone from quarries in Kent or Surrey. Chalk and flint, often produced by digging out old Roman foundations, also provided popular building products.
Building regulations were introduced from around 1200. Early rules included stone party walls of at least three feet, but this was often flouted, leading to many accidents. As a result, stone became less commonly used for walls.
In 1135 there was a great fire in London. To stop this happening again, the Ordnance of 1212 barred thatched roofs being used on new homes in London. As a result, clay tile-making became common across eastern and southern England by the thirteenth century. At the same time plastering also came into general use.
Timber frame for housing was pioneered by the Elizabethans, who used large sections of load-bearing timber frames that were in-filled with wattle and daub, and this idea was widely used by the Tudors.
Buildings were still being built entirely from timber in the late sixteenth century with brick only really used for chimneys and hearths. But as the farmers that had previously acted as part-time home builders were replaced by brick-makers and master builders, using bricks to build homes became more common.
By the late 1500s, windows also started to be used. But it wasn't until the Baroque Age that we saw a significant increase in the use of them. This was thanks to key technological advances in the glass-making industry being introduced at the time.
The first terraced housing had been introduced in the late seventeenth century and the first apartments - known then as garden flats - emerged in the 1860s, just before house building entered a boom period. Between 1870 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914, nearly five million homes were built in the UK.
The development of the sash window in the late seventeenth century further fuelled this trend. Windows became even more wide-spread after improvements in the production of sheet glass in the early 1830s and metal slowly began to replace wood in the construction of window frames.
In the 1930s, house building flourished and in 1936 the National House-Builders Registration Council was formed, offering insurance against potential defects in new homes, responding to fears dating back nearly a century.
In the decade after World War Two, swathes of new homes were needed across bomb-torn Britain and the pre-fab was born. Around 70,000 bungalows were built under the Temporary Housing Programme over the ensuing decade using aluminium alloys.
The 1950s brought a surge in the building of the modern style of blocks of flats, which began in 1951 with the construction of The Lawn in Harlow, Essex, now a Grade II listed building.
Building regulations were relaxed in 1954, fuelling the rise in home building. Between 300,000 and 400,000 homes were built every year during this decade, mostly featuring new amenities, such as fixed baths, running water and lifts in apartment blocks.
This house building boom lasted until the 1970s, when the new towns of Basildon, Harlow, Milton Keynes and Peterborough sprang up - many featuring houses built using timber frames.
As the house building industry recovered from the recession in the 1970s, national companies building homes across the UK began to emerge, setting a pattern that survived the 1990s recession and still remains today.
Today, many of the new homes at the cutting edge of house building feature a range of environmentally friendly features as the industry pushes towards the zero carbon home.
From natural ventilation to passive solar gain, water harvesting to mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, cellular clay blocks and ground source heat pumps, the modern new house bears little relation to its forebears other than the most important of all: providing a home.
next: Explore a modern building site