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Thursday 24 April 2014

Nissen Hut: “one of the great design classics of the twentieth century”

Two Nissen Huts at RNAD Trecwn, Pembrokeshire, NPRN 96059

One of the world’s most recognisable military structures is the humble half-cylindrical Nissen Hut. The simple design was developed by Canadian-American Captain Peter Norman Nissen, of 29th Company, Royal Engineers in 1916.

First used later that year at Hesdin, France, the light, economic and reusable huts were manufactured in three widths – 16ft; 24ft; and 30ft, the internal bays were set at 6ft, so any length of hut could be used, as necessary. The whole standard unit could be carried by a single 3-tonne army lorry. The load comprised the corrugated-iron outer skin; wooden inner linings; the semi-circular metal frames; a wooden door; and oiled cloth windows. A well-rehearsed team of six men could assemble a hut on a prepared concrete base in four hours. One hut was completed in a record time of 1 hour 27 minutes. It is estimated that over 100,000 units were produced during WWI.

The Nissen Huts fulfilled the requirement for temporary structures to accommodate the large numbers of newly conscripted troops for the army. The versatile design meant functions could also include kitchens, mess rooms, stores, dressing stations, churches etc.

Drawing: From Medwyn Parry Collection.

Nissen had filed the patent for his design in the UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the US. But he declined any royalties for the duration of WWI, and the manufacturing company did the same again during WWII.

Captain Nissen was not the only one to be developing temporary hutting during the First World War. Other solutions included Armstrong Huts, Aylwin Huts, Forest Huts, Tarrant's Portable Huts, and Weblee Huts, each named after officers in the Royal Engineers. During the Second World War there were similar designs such as Abbey Huts, Iris Huts, Romney Huts, and Tufton Huts. However, none of these was as ubiquitous as one of the great design classics of the twentieth century, the eponymous Nissen Hut. The simple concept has continued to be used for almost a century without alteration to its basic shape.

By Medwyn Parry.

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