Walter Segal Self Build


Design process

Early Segal method

The founding of the Segal method came about in an almost accidental manner. When Segal decided to rebuild his family home, he built a simple timber framed, timber-clad and lined temporary home at the bottom of his garden, to house his family during the upheaval. It was built in two weeks, cost £800 and is still there today. News spread of the simplicity and exceptional value of the small project and Segal started to receive commissions for similar buildings. Seeing the potential of the construction method, Segal and his trusted carpenter Fred Wade, refined the design to ensure even less waste, greater flexibility and further participation from the client – it was from these small projects that the concept of the Segal method arose.

Navigating bureaucracy

Having developed the building method, Segal saw its potential as a viable housing option on a wider scale. The London Borough of Lewisham agreed to undertake Segal’s housing experiment, by one vote, largely due to their ownership of a small pocket of land too awkward, sloped, soft-soiled and small to be of commercial value for their building plans. However, even at this stage the project was strewn with bureaucratic obstacles and did not receive full approval to proceed until nearly 5 years later. Segal managed to persuade the local council to proceed by making three key arguments:

  1. The land would otherwise not be used
  2. The housing was cheap and most importantly came at a fixed price
  3. The council would have no maintenance responsibility.

Segal’s primary constraint was land. In 1971 Segal said 'It sounds absurd that one should try to search for methods of building cheaply when we have the impossible problem of accelerating land cost and do nothing about it' (McKean, 1989). By the 1960s land accounted for 40% of building costs, as opposed to 5% just 15 years earlier. Segal’s housing vision included a plan for appropriating local authority owned land. He saw that local authorities owned large quantities of underused land. He felt that this land should form a ‘national land bank’ with less power being held by local authorities over its use. Then the land could be leased to groups or individuals (like the self-build group) for a time-span relative to the expected life of the building. His plan would free-up huge quantities of disused land and labour (in the form of self-builders), offering a truly radical alternative for housing in the UK.

Participation pioneer

The participants of the Lewisham self-build schemes were selected by ballot from local authority housing waiting lists and offered the chance to build their own homes. Their selection was not affected by building skills, income or circumstances and resulted in a group of participants that included men and women, young and old, families and single parents. Segal provided basic training to the selected self-builders, workshops and seminars taught building processes and techniques. Trades people were hired to teach basic plumbing and electrics and visits were made to Segal’s previous timber-frame, fast-construction buildings. These processes not only served to practically prepare the self-builders, but it also cemented a sense of co-operation and shared vision within the group, vital for working together in the future.

In an era before the architectural profession had recognised the concept of ‘community architecture’, Segal was dedicated to the concept of user participation in building processes. With little support from the local authorities - one councillor going as far to say: 'the working classes can’t be trusted to undertake this sort of thing' - Segal demonstrated great faith in the inexperienced builders (Architectural Review, 1985).

The basic participatory principles that Segal practiced included:

  • Involvement of users in discussions from an early stage
  • Training and education to empower and build confidence
  • Flexibility in design to allow for individuality and interpretation
  • Designed in adaptability so homes can change to meet future circumstances.

Details of construction

The Segal method was fully implemented in three Lewisham sites in two key stages - the success of the first stage enabling local authority permission for the second. Segal’s method of construction was not only designed to reduced waste of material and labour, but also to allow homes to be built on small and awkward sites – most likely to be unused by local councils.

  • Pad foundations are dug at existing ground level. This means that the houses sit above ground level so they can be levelled easily, and so existing trees and shrubbery don’t interfere with foundations.
  • A series of timber frames are made on-site bearing the structural load but lightweight enough that they can be put up by hand.
  • The roof is put up at an early stage ensuring that the self-builders can continue the building program without being affected by bad weather.
  • A central core of services and circulation ensures the remaining grid structure can be adapted to suit different needs and preferences.
  • The use of timber sheet panels and standard lining in the wall means that heavy machinery doesn’t need to be used in the construction.
  • The use of dry methods of construction and un-cut, standard materials means that future alterations and extensions can be made easily.

Tenure Arrangements

The Segal homes were economical to build. The projects were financed through shared ownership, 50% owned by the council and 50% purchased by the self-builder at a price discounted by the value of their labour and purchased on a guaranteed council mortgage. Within a few years it was cheaper to own the whole equity and so most self-builders bought the freehold under leasehold reform legislation. A few self builders opted to sell equity back to the council so that they could claim maximum housing benefit. The tenure arrangement was highly flexible, facilitating residents with a broad range of financial circumstances and incomes.