The Nissen hut is a prefabricated steel structure made from a semi-circle of corrugated steel, a variant of which (the Quonset hut) was used extensively during the Second World War by the Commonwealth and U.S. military to build army camps and airbases.
The purlins were attached to eight T shaped ribs (1¾ inches x 1¾ inches x 0.2 inch) set at 6 foot 0.5 inch centers. Each rib consisted of three sections bolted together using splice plates and each end was bolted to the floor at the bearers. With each rib were two straining wires, one on each side and a straining ratchet (or in some cases a simple fencing wire strainer). The wires were strained during construction. The straining wires do not appear in the original Nissen patent.
The purlins were attached to the ribs using a “hook” bolt, which hooked through a pre-drilled hole in the rib and was secured into the purlin. The hook bolt was a unique feature of the Nissen design. Interior lining could be horizontal corrugated iron or material like Masonite attached to the ribs. The roof and lining form a circular space with a radius of 8 foot 0.5 inch, although because of the inward curve the floor was only 15 foot 10 inches. The space between the interior and exterior lining could be used for insulation and services if required.
The walls and floors rested on foundations consisting of 4 inch x 4 inch stumps with 15 x 9 inch sole plates. On these were 4 x 3 inch bearers and 4 x 2 inch joists at 2 foot 10 inch centers. The floor was made from tongue and groove floorboards. At East Hills and at Villawood the floor was concrete, the ribs in this case were simply attached to the concrete slab by a simple metal strap.
At either end the walls were made from a simple wooden frame with weatherboards nailed to the outside.
Windows and doors could be added to the sides by creating a simple dormer form through adding a simple frame to take the upper piece of corrugated iron and replacing the lower piece with a suitable frame for a door or window.
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 another.
It is not surprising that during the course of World War I a design for a prefabricated, portable multi-purpose hut was developed. Sometime between the 16th and 18 April 1916, the then Major Peter Norman 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 (see Figure One). At least 100,000 were produced in World War I (McCosh 1997:82-108).
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 wagon and erected by six men in four hours. The world record for erection was 1 hour 27min (McCosh 1997:108).
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 hut types were developed as well, notably the Romney Hut in the UK and the Quonset huts in the USA. All types were mass produced in the thousands. The Nissen Hut was used for a wide range of functions, apart from accommodation they were used as churches and bomb stores, etc. (see Francis 1996, Innes 1998, 2000, Pullar 1997).
During World War Two the Nissen hut was produced along with a similar type, the Romney Hut. In the USA the Quonset hut and its derivatives were developed; the initial version was almost a copy of Nissen's design.
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 (McCoash 1997:121-123). A similar approach was taken with the US Quonset Hut at the end of WWII with articles on how to adapt the buildings for domestic use appearing in Home Beautiful as well as Popular Mechanics.
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 wall house very well, and thus the actual usable space in a hut might be much less than supposed.