Walter Segal Self Build



Capacity for user interpretation

By reducing the fixed elements to a circulation and services core, and arranging the building on a standardised grid, the remaining space could be arranged, configured and orientated to suit individual needs and tastes. The use of whole, un-cut panels also meant that dismantling and reuse of materials was simplified for extension and alterations work. Indeed one family extended their home a few years in over one weekend, at the cost of only £1500.

This capacity for user interpretation is a major incentive to use the self-build method. Perhaps few families would be interested in the work and disruption of building their own family home if the finished result did not reflect their individuality. Over the three sites in Lewisham, while there is a unity of aesthetic with timber panelling and generous window proportions, each home reflects the character and circumstances of its inhabitants – a far cry from the uniform design used in mainstream social housing in the 1970s.

Building community

The simplicity and light-weight nature of the Segal method of construction enabled entire families to build their homes together. Men and women, young and old, from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances made up the pioneering self-build teams. Children and the elderly were actively welcomed on site. Segal was highly aware that the process of self-building played a crucial role in creating a sense of community. On the most part, the self-builders worked in groups, co-operating and helping with each others homes. The Segal method became less about individually building a family home and more about collectively building a community.

The training, education and experience of the project gave users a sense of confidence and empowerment. Segal had a nurturing approach and was keen to bring out the best in the users. One self-builder described his approach as - “His concept is that if he makes you sit down and think… you will understand what to do.” Some self-builders even carried on to work in construction as a result of their experience.

Segal’s influence

The Segal method of construction has been influential far beyond the developments in Lewisham. The Segal method has come to represent a whole set of buildings that are self-built, timber-framed and light-weight in nature. Key examples of contemporary architects and individuals that have been influenced by Segal include:

  • Architype and the South London Family Housing Association. who created Hedgehog Housing in Brighton, a co-operative of 10 self-built homes. Using Segal methods like standard dimensions and on-site construction, ecologically sound homes were created on a steep and awkward site. The scheme was collaboratively designed with the self-builders. It was the winner of the DOE/RIBA/NHBC Housing Design Award.
  • The Community Self Build Agency, which promotes self-build housing initiatives for those in need of housing, in particular the unemployed, those low incomes or the young. They lobby local authorities and housing associations to include self-building provision within their housing strategies; secure funding for self build projects from housing corporations; liaise with training organisations to include options for gaining National Vocational Qualifications; and work with architects to design housing using appropriate construction techniques. Projects have included 10 new dwellings in Lewisham, 10 houses in Brixton and 10 houses in Hornsey.

Housing constraints

Although the Segal method has been applied in many instances beyond the initial projects in Lewisham, the concept of short-leased land teamed with self-built housing has never been truly cultivated into a viable mainstream housing solution. Despite offering obvious value-for-money in terms of both building and land costs, the bureaucratic path has never been significantly simplified to allow the Segal method to flourish. In order for individuals, co-operatives, housing associations or local authorities to proceed with the method, there are a vast number of hoops to jump through, including:

  • Access to land - the market value for land has largely been controlled by the local authorities and developers rather than individuals.
  • Non-experts - policy does not support or facilitate non-expert agency within the built environment, “authorities grossly underestimate ordinary people’s abilities, energy and trustworthiness” Jon Broome, architect and self-builder.
  • Public awareness - self-build housing has failed to develop strong public exposure and its benefits are not fully promoted.