Nowadays the world of self build is thriving, with homeowners keen to embark on their own projects to create their perfect home. This dream of a king building his own castle is not a new notion, and for those looking to get on the property ladder with the aid of support from the local community came the rise of the group self build (or cohousing) sector — an ideal which has been adopted the world over, with sites such as the Lilac scheme in Leeds, 1-6 Copper Lane in London, Almere in Holland, Baugruppe in Berlin, among others. Paving the way for this concept of people building together to create affordable homes, architect Walter Segal’s pioneering work – which saw some 200 self-built, low-cost, easy-to-construct homes built in London during the 1970s and ’80s – has made him the unsung hero self build, revolutionising the housing industry by making new homes accessible to all.
But just how did Walter Segal become the pioneer of self build? Incensed by high land prices, architects being pushy with their designs, and increasing regulations, Segal’s research on American timber frame homes led to him working up a simple, flexible house model based on standard 8ft x 4ft sheets of plywood and plasterboard (limiting the need for cutting and waste of materials, and without the need to employ wet trades such as plastering and bricklaying), which meant the homes were easy to adapt and extend in the future if the need arose.
Segal’s first community self build scheme in Lewisham saw 14 homes built between 1979 and 1981 using his low-cost timber frame method. The scheme proved so popular that a second phase of 13 homes followed on a steeply sloping former bombsite, built between 1985 and 1987. In keeping with his methods, the original 27 Lewisham homes were built with involvement from the residents, all timber frame and all detached with their own gardens. The success of both projects led to a further 50 homes constructed on sites across the south London borough. Unfortunately, Segal passed away before the second site’s completion and the local authority named the street Walters Way in his honour, with the first scheme becoming Segal Close. His legacy now lives on through those he worked with on the Lewisham projects, who have gone on to represent his vision through the creation of similar community self build projects across the country.
To this day, both Walters Way and Segal Close are still recognised by architects and architecture students alike as a place of interest, and residents of both sites hold popular annual Open House events as part of London’s Open-City organisation where residents open their homes to the public, allowing others to see how the structures are built and get an insight into what it is like to be living in the UK’s original community self build development.
“Walters Way is a very social community,” explains resident and journalist Alice Grahame. “We have summer and Christmas parties, the children all play together and there’s even a picnic table outside where residents can meet up over a glass of wine, and sometimes you’ll see them bring their dinner out to the table and eat out there. The area definitely attracts people who buy into Walter’s idea of living. It would be good if there were more communities like this.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of Segal’s death, Alice along with other residents of Walters Way decided to hold the exhibition Walter’s Way: the Self-build Revolution at the A.A. (Architectural Association, where Segal also lectured) in London’s Bedford Square to celebrate his work. The exhibition features a Segal-style structure which has been built inside the gallery using his methods and is almost a half house where you can see, smell and feel the exposed timber with plasterboard panels. “It’s also been built at a slight angle so visitors can go round the back of the house to see how it’s built. Inside here, there are drawings of Segal’s houses, retro-style monitors showing video footage, a portrait of Walter painted by his father, the Romanian painter Arthur Segal, and even a 1m2 model of a new Segal-inspired building for a private client, being built by Turner Prize-winning firm Assemble is on display,” says Alice.
What’s more, when the exhibition closes all of the timber used will be donated and made into a site office for RUSS (the Rural Urban Synthesis Society), a community land trust set up by Kareem Dayes who grew up in Walters Way in a house his parents built. RUSS has recently gained approval to develop mixed-tenure, eco-friendly, self-build homes on a vacant site in Lewisham. The scheme is currently open for applications from interested self-builders.
The exhibition, which opened on 16 January and runs until 24 March 2016 is free to enter. For those wishing to gain a further insight into the man behind community self-build, Walters Way are hosting their next open evening An Evening with… Walter Segal Self-build on 11 February 2016 at 7pm, with tickets priced at £35.50 including prosecco and nibbles, with a tour of two Segal houses. Tickets can be purchased at opencityshop.myshopify.com.