As we've salvaged & re-built 12 nissen huts we like to think we know a little about their uses & how to build them.
It is not surprising that during World War I a design for a prefabricated, portable multi-purpose hut was developed. In April 1916, a Major Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers began to experiment with hut designs. Nissen, a middle-aged mining engineer and inventor, constructed three prototype semi-circular huts. The semi-circular shape was derived from the drill-shed roof at Queen's University, Kingston Ontario. Nissen’s design was subject to intensive design review by his fellow officers, Lt Col’s Shelly, Sewell and McDonald and General Liddell, which helped Nissen develop the design. After the third prototype was completed the design was formalized and the Nissen Hut was put into production in August 1916. At least 100,000 were produced in World War I.
Nissen patented his invention in the UK in 1916 and later patents were taken out in the USA, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Nissen received royalties from the British government, not for huts made during the war but for their sale after the conflict. Nissen got some £13,000 and the DSO.
Two factors influenced the design of the hut. First, the building had to be economic in its use of materials, especially considering war-time shortages of building material. Second, the building had to be portable. This was particularly important in view of the war-time shortages of shipping space. This led to a simple form that was prefabricated for ease of erection and removal. The Nissen hut could be packed in a standard Army truck and erected by six men in four hours. The world record for construction was 1 hour 27min.
Nissen huts come in three internal spans, 16 ft (4.88 m), 24 ft (7.32 m) or 30 ft (9.15 m). The longitudinal bays come in multiples of 6 ft (1.83 m). The corrugated steel half-circles used to build Nissen huts can be stored efficiently, because the curved sheets can be cupped one inside anotheThe Nissen hut is able to withstand high winds & earthquakes, because it has no weak right-angle bends between its walls, roof or foundation and because of its circular shape. Though they do whistle during a storm.
Production of the Nissen waned between the wars but was revived in 1939. Nissen Buildings Ltd waived their patent rights for war-time production. Similar shaped huts were developed as well, notably the Romney Hut in the UK and the Quonset Huts in the USA. The Nissen Hut was used for a wide range of functions, apart from accommodation they were used as churches and bomb stores, etc.
Accounts of life in the hut generally were not positive. Huts in the United Kingdom were frequently seen as cold and drafty while those in the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific were seen as stuffy and humid.
Although the prefabricated hut was conceived to meet war-time demand for accommodation, similar situations such as construction camps, are places where prefabricated buildings are useful. The Nissen hut was adapted into a prefabricated two story house and marketed by Nissen-Petren Ltd. The standard Nissen Hut was often recycled into housing. A similar approach was taken with the US Quonset Hut at the end of WWII.
However the adaptation of the semi-circular hut to non-institutional uses was not popular. Neither the Nissen nor the Quonset developed into popular housing despite their low cost. One reason was the association with huts: a hut was not a house, with all the status a house implies. The second point was that rectangular furniture does not fit into a curved walled house very well, and thus the actual usable space in a hut might be much less than expected.