So far, self-build council housing has failed to catch on with other London boroughs: disdained by both Right (too little profit) and Left (too much individualism) but Walter Segal’s last, posthumously completed housing scheme is quite at ease in Lewisham’s Nuclear-Free Zone
Former dockers in the prime of life, people in their 60s and a single mother (helped by her seven year old daughter) are among those who have used Walter Segal’s timber-frame methods to build their own homes in public sector self-build schemes in the south London borough of Lewisham. Anyone from the council’s waiting or transfer lists was eligible and selection of those interested was made by drawing names from a hat.
No previous building experience is needed by selfbuilders using Segal’s methods. At Lewisham, special preparatory evening classes were laid on locally, offering experience in the use of simple power tools, basic information about plumbing and the like. But the self-builders learned most during building works on site, under the supervision of Segal and the co-architect for the schemes, Jon Broome.
Segal’s method is not a system as such, but a kit of parts made up from standard-sized materials readily available on the market. The methods of assembly are described with admirable clarity in a fully illustrated article by Jon Broome published in The Architects’ Journal of 5 November 1986.
Self-build housing in the public sector using conventional building methods is usually organised much like an ordinary contract, the available labour working together on one house at a time (with penalties for non-attendance, wives and children banned from the site and much potential for ill-will as a result). In Segal’s schemes, each household was entirely responsible for building its own house. So families could proceed at their own speed and, on completion they are so thoroughly acquainted with every inch of the construction as to be able to remedy at once any defect that might occur. What is more, co-operation between households has proved to be very close indeed although (or, more likely, because) it is not the subject of any formal condition.
Extensive ground work and site levelling are avoided because the structural frames are extended below the ground floor as stilts cut to the necessary length to allow for uneven ground. Each stilt is supported on its own small concrete pad, cast in-situ into the ground. As the only other works below ground are trenches for services, existing mature trees can be retained surprisingly close to each building. And as the houses are independent of one another, the siting of each can be adjusted to make the most of available views.
To date, the council has allocated sites that could not have been developed economically by conventional means-due to poor ground conditions, steep slopes and so on. The first scheme, completed in 1980, consists of 14 houses of one and two storeys scattered over four small sites, while in the second scheme, 13 two-storey houses have been built on a single very steeply sloping site.
In both schemes, each household worked out the plan of their house with Segal, starting with models and drawings on squared paper. Once the discipline of the frame and tartan grid (based on a module corresponding to standard material sizes to avoid cutting and wastage) have been understood, adjustments can be introduced at any time-and not just minor ones. One of the self-builders on the first scheme set about extending his family dining area almost as soon as his house was finished. Others have followed suit, adding a new child’s bedroom here, a projecting window bay there, or swapping windows with external wall panels to improve views out.
Limitations are imposed by the construction technique, of course, and Segal would explain when changes could not be introduced because they would undermine the structure or fixings, which was accepted-even down to the bolts which hold together the outer skin, insulation layer and internal wall finish and are therefore visible inside the houses: ‘Whatever alternative we suggested, Walter said it wouldn’t be strong enough, structurally. I couldn’t believe I would ever get used to them, but now I’ve moved in, I don’t even notice them.’
‘“I couldn’t make head nor tail of Walter’s staircase drawing, I still reckon you’d need an “A” level in maths to understand it”’
On the other hand, Segal raised no objection to other changes based on personal preference, nor indeed to innovations in building techniques: ‘We all had different ideas about how to tackle the work and it’s amazing how everybody has improvised. We’re still changing it even now.’ Even so, it would be pointless to pretend the building work does not take a lot of courage and hard work-it does, particularly as most of the self-builders have full time jobs and could devote only their leisure time to what can only be described as a stiff learning process. As one of them has put it, ‘I couldn’t make head nor tail of Walter’s staircase drawing, I still reckon you’d need an “A” level in maths to understand it’. Yet Segal had an extraordinary knack of keeping up morale, of getting people to think ahead and thoroughly to understand each task before they embarked upon it, without seeming to lay down the law at all: ‘His concept is that if he makes you sit down and think about the drawings, you will understand what to do - I thought that was nonsense until I started to lay my joists and saw them line up.’
In their enthusiasm for introducing changes to their finished houses, the self-builders on the first scheme encountered problems with various of the authorities (rapidly ironed out by Segal). But as he had always intended the houses to be adjusted to suit changing family circumstances, he decided to increase the possibilities for trouble-free future change in the second scheme. To this end, he produced a basic 79 · 83 m2 two-storey house plan designed to accommodate optional variations encompassing up to 10 per cent increases in floor area (the maximum permitted by the planning authority without specific approval). To stimulate the self-builders to make full use of this potential from the outset, he and Jon Broome drew up 19 variants. To Segal’s delight, all the self-builders went on to invent more of their own. He was particularly pleased with the number of elevational permutations that resulted: ‘We have freed ourselves from the architect-designed facade, at last,’ he would say, giving a searching glance to see if the full implications of this breakthrough had sunk in.
‘The self-builders don’t waste much breath discussing the skilful proportioning of solids and voids but they are extremely proud of their houses’
Yet Segal’s satisfaction with the self-build schemes at Lewisham was by no means confined to achieving any abstract goal of his own. He found his work with the self-builders far more stimulating than any project built with contractors ( even good ones), not least because of the very real sense of cooperation and mutual purpose that existed between them. When one of them told him ‘Walter, you couldn’t do a thing without me – you may be able to draw things, but you need me to carry them out,’ he repeated the story with evident enjoyment, adding ‘It’s dead true, isn’t it?’ He was interested in every aspect of their lives, from their astonishing abilities to introduce ever more innovations to the building process to the very latest development in their family affairs.
As Segal himself remarked, the self-builders don’t waste much breath discussing the skilful proportioning of solids and voids. But they are extremely proud of their houses, and of their fellow self-builders’ houses: ‘Have you seen his house, up there – its beautiful, the way he’s done it’. Most seem to be running a private crusade to get others to use Segal’s methods to build their own homes too. And although the houses all bear a strong family resemblance one to another, the degree of individual variation and personal character of each becomes more marked the harder you look. But for all that, every one has a very characteristic, warm and intimate atmosphere of the kind familiar in Segal’s own house (and that was built of brick).
Since Segal’s death in 1985, the second scheme has continued under the supervision of Jon Broome, with the help of one of the self-builders from the first scheme. It is now virtually finished – if that is the right term for 13 houses burgeoning with possibilities for future change. The self-builders have decided to call it ‘Walter’s Way’. Nothing could be more apt.
This piece first featured in the AR in March 1987 – click here to purchase the most recent copy today