Escaping Nazi persecution, Otto Koenigsberger moved to India, where he led the nation’s first attempt at prefabricated housing, before it all we
... It is not surprising that when Koenigsberger was invited to advise the government of India on the chronic housing shortage, he recommended prefabricated housing as a viable solution. From October 1948, as Director of Housing, he began setting up the Hindustan Housing Factory in Delhi, which was to serve the capital city, supplementing rather than replacing the traditional construction of houses and targeting refugee housing needs.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything, as it turned out.
To begin with, the delivery of prototypes of the houses, which were needed for testing in local conditions and finalising design details, was delayed. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health took over six months to establish the factory’s management and administration structure, define its constitution, select its committee and hire skilled staff, which postponed the commencement of actual building work.
Apart from that, a dock fire in Liverpool, the sinking of a ship loaded with vital supplies in the Red Sea, the overcrowding of Bombay’s harbour in the summer of 1949 and shortages of special wagons for the transport of heavy machinery from Bombay and Calcutta to Delhi, all hampered progress. It was not until the summer of 1950 that the factory started producing houses, after a backlash in the press and Parliament had already begun.
To make matters worse, a worrying number of the aerated-concrete panels started breaking during autoclaving, while others developed cracks after erection. The houses were falling apart. Unable to solve the problem, production stopped in December 1950. The scandal that ensued ended Koenigsberger’s career in India. Politicians who had been against the scheme launched an aggressive attack in Parliament, which was intensified in the media and supported by groups that had hoped the project would fail, including the PWD and elements of the construction industry.
Headlines such as “The Full Dope on GOI’s Pre-Fab Racket,” and “Prefab Housing Project A Criminal Waste” coursed through the press. Health Minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur dismissed Koenigsberger as manager of the housing factory in April 1951 and he subsequently retired from his government duties, returning to Europe bitterly disappointed.