Walter Segal (1907-85) was an architect who developed a system of self-build housing that was revolutionary in allowing users to participate fully in the construction process. Having moved from Berlin to London in 1936, Segal taught at the Architectural Association and began his architectural practice. In 1963, Segal and his wife Moran Scott decided to demolish and rebuild their own home in Highgate, creating a temporary structure – the ‘Little House in the Garden’ – to accommodate them during the rebuilding process. Taking only two weeks to build and costing £800, the house comprised a simple post-and-beam timber frame infilled with plasterboard with no ‘wet’ processes involved – the timber and cladding secured with bolts and screws alone – and with no foundations save paving slabs. Segal compared this method of assembly directly to Meccano, the model construction system created in 1898 by Frank Hornby. Thought of in this way, Segal’s method subverted the tendency of ready-made mass-produced materials to create ‘standardised’ architectural forms. Instead, just like Meccano, Segal’s approach allowed users themselves to directly mediate the transition from design to use, placing in their hands a much greater range of possible design options for their homes. In a different vein, anarchist theorist Colin Ward compared Segal’s approach to that of vernacular traditions in architecture, whether medieval English houses, American timber-frame buildings or Japanese houses, emphasising the fact that all of these building methods were rooted in self-building.
After building the Little House, Segal mainly worked on small-scale commissions that derived from his self-built project, until he found an unlikely ally in the London Borough of Lewisham, who in the mid-1970s, decided to fund an experimental self-build housing scheme based on his principles, which would make use of pockets of land deemed too awkward for conventional redevelopment. Although this project was beset with problems – mostly delays caused by the inflexible ways of funding and controlling buildings in the UK – the first phase – seven properties on what is now Segal Close – was completed in 1982. A further 13 houses were finished in 1987, after Segal’s death, and named Walters Way in his memory. Financed entirely by public funds – in the same way as conventional council housing – each plot was allocated to their respective builders by means of a ballot. Nearly 200 people applied for the original scheme of only seven houses, but no-one was excluded on the basis of their income, gender, age, or ethnicity.
The original residents – only four of whom still live on the two cul-de-sacs today – described the building process as simultaneously empowering and alarming, both communal and solitary. Up to 30 people were needed to lift the wooden frames of each house – the first element to be built; but many of the jobs thereafter could be completed single-handed; each house-builder constructed at their own rate, with most of the houses taking years to complete. Throughout the building process and beyond, the community cohered organically, a process that was cemented by continuing responsibility for the private roads, a communal outdoor space and regular social gatherings, such as an annual street party. The houses too have evolved: extensions have been added, internal walls moved around; one resident even rebuilt his house entirely in order for it to become more energy efficient. What the community cannot do, however, is keep their homes affordable: most were bought by their original residents and then sold on at a profit – a three-bedroom house in Walters Way recently went on the market for £810,000, a price which, although in keeping with London’s grossly overinflated housing market, hardly counts as affordable. And expensive housing inevitably means a loss of social diversity, directly threatening the egalitarian basis of the original project.
The architect Jon Broome supervised most of work on Walters Way, taking over from Segal after his death in 1985. Broome still lives in the house he built on Walters Way and welcomes hundreds of visitors each year during London’s Open House event in mid-September. Broome, with his architectural practices Architype and Jon Broome Associates, has become a leading proponent of self-build housing, updating Segal’s method to encompass issues of affordability and sustainability. Two projects in Brighton – SeeSaw Close and the Hedgehog Coop – were both initiated by Architype and Broome is currently involved in the Rural Urban Synthesis Project (RUSS), a community land trust in Ladywell, another district in Lewisham, set up in 2009 by Kareem Dayes, the son of Dave Dayes and Barbara Hicks, who built their house in Walters Way in the 1980s. With a much more ambitious and holistic vision than Segal – encompassing affordability, sustainability, self-governance and community engagement – RUSS is developing a scheme of 33 homes to be built on Church Grove in Ladywell. The scheme was granted planning permission in 2018, and will include a crowd-funded Community Hub that will be built according to Segal’s methods but with sustainable building materials, such as straw bale and rammed earth walls. In addition, the affordability of the homes will be protected by preventing them being sold onto the open market in the future, as well as rentals based on income rather than market rates. However, the trade off is that only 20% of the project will be self-built, in order to reduce construction costs, and the actual percentage will vary from person to person, depending on how much ‘sweat equity’ they want to earn. It’s not known how much this will compromise the realisation of individual and communal empowerment that was so central to Segal’s argument for self-building; what is does show is how difficult it remains, in tightly-controlled cities like London, to wrench back control of the building process into the hands of those who will live in those buildings. This might be blamed on intransigent planning regulations; but it also stems from the understandable desire of people who build their own houses to also have some sense of ownership over them. In the end, changing the entrenched idea of housing as an individual asset might prove more difficult than facilitating dweller control.