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It’s time for another self-build revolution

Laura Mark takes a look at a new exhibition on the work of legendary self-build architect Walter Segal

The debate about housing has never been more important. With the Housing and Planning Bill currently going through the House of Commons and David Cameron announcing plans to demolish post-war estates while we still struggle to build the homes we need people are again looking to self-build for the answer. Set within this context it seems like the perfect time to revisit the work of the revolutionary self-build architect Walter Segal.

Coming shortly after the 30 year anniversary of his death last October, the exhibition at the Architectural Association – where Segal also taught - focuses on the two streets which were designed by and later named after Segal – Walters Way and Segal Close.

Curated by Alice Grahame – a resident of Walters Way – and entitled Walter’s Way: the self-build revolution, the exhibition is a display of two parts – the past and the future. It offers an insight into his method of building and the homes which he created but also adds to the current discussion by looking at his work’s relevance today through schemes by Assemble, Jon Broome Architects and Architype.

When entering the gallery, you walk into a section of a Segal-style home constructed using the pioneering building technique he developed in the seventies and eighties. Built by AA exhibitions project manager Lee Regan with guidance from architect Jon Broome, the display allows visitors to see the real detail of how one of the houses on Walters Way or Segal Close was constructed. These homes were built using a method of post-and-beam construction which Segal developed to allow anyone to build their own home with little to no previous building experience.

Given that he’d previously mainly worked on houses, offices and factory buildings for private clients, these timber homes represent a continuing development of Segal’s work. Segal, supported by Lewisham’s deputy borough architect Brian Richardson, was handed sites in the south London borough which the council felt were too difficult for it to develop. They were sloping, narrow and small. But for Segal they were perfect for the self-build experiments he wanted to carry out. The project was advertised in local papers and residents chosen by a ballot. They didn’t need to have any previous building experience – just a desire to learn and to build their own home. Segal believed that using his method anyone could do it. It was construction reduced to first principles.

In the exhibition we see the original drawings for these homes – supplied by Segal’s son John – alongside archive footage of the build process. They show the simplicity of the method and Segal’s skill at hand drawing in a way which was easily understandable.

Walter’s Way: the self-build revolution at the Architectural Association

Walter’s Way: the self-build revolution at the Architectural Association

A model showing Assemble’s reimagining of Segal’s construction method

Assemble are currently working on re-building one of Segal’s most well-known schemes – the timber-framed house in the bottom of a garden in Highgate. Known as the ‘Little House in the Garden’ and built for just £800, the structure was built as a home for Segal and his family while he worked on rebuilding the larger brick house. Now owned by Modern House founder Matt Gibberd, the timber building had fallen into disrepair and is being reimagined by the Turner Prize-winning collective with a structural model shown in the future section of the exhibition.

This model by Assemble, alongside information on Jon Broome Architects and Architype’s latest self-build scheme for the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) – a community land trust set up by members who had grown up in Segal-built homes, and photos of the Lewisham schemes now show the future of the building method. 

As the number of homes built by local authorities continues to dwindle we see similarities with the time when Segal developed his method for building and now. The government is pushing for more self-build and custom-build and this is not a bad thing. But the way it wants to do it is in favour of developers and big business rather than small community groups. These groups are what create communities. Those who have built together create supportive environments where you know your neighbours and where there really is a sense of community. This is what Segal managed to do so well.

Speaking in a talk at the exhibition last weekend, Broome who worked with Segal on the Lewisham schemes and later founded Architype, agreed: ‘Custom-build will offer more choice but in its current guise it won’t answer the question of what a sustainable neighbourhood looks like.’

This exhibition offers answers to what an alternative to the big housing developers could look like. It never became mainstream in Segal’s time – there are only around 200 Segal-style homes in the UK. But as Broome said in his talk: ‘Self-build is a necessary component of any sensible housing policy and without it the market will always be dysfunctional.’ We need a new self-build revolution.

Walter’s Way: the self-build revolution is on at the Architectural Association until 24 March

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