“The light came from a bulb in the center, with its white lampshade, hanging form some muddy cables”. Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, El Jarama, Ed. Destino, p. 162, 1955
The approach to the everyday is an exercise of great interest for the social science researcher, as it acts as laboratory evidence to which more generalist studies cannot reach. In our case, when we studied the characteristics of the electrical installations in the dwellings built by RENFE between 1939 and 1975, we were able to observe, on the one hand, the progressive improvement of these installations, and on the other hand, the abysmal difference between then and nowadays, brought about by a normative regulation that has introduced minimum comfort in dwellings, the first steps of which were taken around the middle of the 20th century.
Knowledge on the regulatory regime is a valid clue to study the process with a certain degree of order, which allows us to see how these regulations, with greater or lesser rigour, have been reflected in the construction projects, which in turn have evolved and, under the influence of new demands derived from an evident economic development, have increased the efficiency and quality of the installations, which had to be prepared for the entry of new household appliances and other additional installations in dwellings. In this sense, during the period under study, three standards were in force that regulated the electrical installations in the dwellings to be built: the 1933 Regulations on Electrical Reception Installations (RIER), the 1955 Low Voltage Electrotechnical Regulations (REBT) and the new 1973 electrotechnical regulations (REBT), which represented a qualitative leap in the characteristics (capacity, quality, safety, etc.) of the electrical installations in newly constructed buildings. As can be seen, each standard was in force for about twenty years, which shows an accelerated modernisation of these installations.
Firstly, as has been pointed out, the dwellings that were built under the 1939 law on subsidised housing had their electrical installations regulated by the 1933 RIER. Here the requirements were still quite lax and only indicated that inside the dwellings the use of conductors was permitted, which could be made of copper or other metals, bare on insulators and that, to pass through partitions, walls, or slabs. The conductors had to be protected by tubes with sufficient mechanical resistance. The cross-section of the conductor cables should be 1 mm2 in small lighting installations with a power not exceeding 100 W, which we have found to be the case in all the projects analysed. This gave a maximum intensity of 6 A in the installation.
The use of electricity meters on wooden boards separated from the wall was also mentioned succinctly, without mentioning a specific location. In the case of the railway social housing projects of this first phase, all of them were in the hallways under the staircase. Regarding the lamps, incandescent lamps were considered appropriate and arc lamps, which had clearly fallen into disuse, were not desirable.
The construction projects of the time took up these standards, although the project graphics were quite brief and the plans were in fact small sketches without great precision in the information, although there was a growing standardisation in the conventional signs of the plans for greater unification and understanding of the information provided.
The second stage came with the 1955 REBT, which continued many of the previous regulations, but had to adapt to the new construction dynamics of this period, which was also regulated by a new housing law, the 1954 law on low-income housing. Clearer concepts were now established, such as the general service connection (the space between the general network and the building’s protection box), for which the builder was responsible. This gave rise to a terminology specific to these installations, characterised by greater standardisation: service connection, general protection box, distribution line, centralised meters, individual branches, power control switch (ICP), distribution boards, interior installation, and general services, among the most relevant.
About electricity meters, their installation inside the dwelling was already permitted, but in railway dwellings we have not found any case from this period in which this location was given, so they continued to be located preferably in the communal entrance hall. Regarding the protection of the installation, such as earthing and similar, the 1955 regulations only advised, so there were no major changes in this sense.
The big change came with the series of standards relating to electrical installations in 1973-1974, with a more demanding vocation: the new Low Voltage Electrotechnical Regulations, the Complementary Technical Instructions, the MI BT and the NTE-IEB/1974 Standard “Electrical installations: low voltage”. Here, electrical installations had contents relating to design, calculation, control, assessment, and maintenance, which were drafted in collaboration with specialists and institutions such as the Eduardo Torroja Institute or the National Institute for Quality in Building. This regulatory change had also followed a change in the legal protection of built housing, from the legislative compilation of 1968 that brought into use the new category of subsidised housing (VPO).
In view of the information recorded, regarding electrical installations in railway housing, this was a transitional period, which explains many of the shortcomings observed. Furthermore, we understand that Franco’s rigidity did not encourage innovation and the architect became a mere technician who limited himself to complying with the minimum regulations. For instance, in the case of RENFE developments, the projects responded to serial patterns and there were hardly any innovations in this respect. Despite this, in general, the change and progressive improvement of the facilities is evident. A clear example of this can be seen in the evolution of these costs in the material execution budgets (PEM) of the electrical installations, which in the projects carried out between 1949 and 1954 in our case study of railway social housing did not exceed 3% of the total PEM. However, from this date onwards, this percentage would rise to around 8 and 15 %, which was due to the extension of the installations, the minimal improvement of safety measures and the use of higher quality materials (Cuéllar and Martínez-Corral 2019).
CUÉLLAR, D. y MARTÍNEZ-CORRAL, A., 2019. Las instalaciones eléctricas en las viviendas de nueva construcción durante el franquismo (1939-1975): el caso de las promociones ferroviarias. Quinto Simpósio de Historia da Electrificação. Évora: Universidade de Évora.