On 19th March, I am hosting an event at Goldsmiths on the community-led self build schemes supported in the 1970s and 1980s by Lewisham Council. These were self built for social housing by future residents using the Segal method of construction. The event coincides with the 30th Anniversary of Segal’s death, and while it commemorates his legacy it also intervenes in the discussion about future housing in Lewisham. In particular, it focusses on the council’s historically progressive approach to housing, an approach well-captured by Walter Segal in his discussion of Segal Close reproduced below:
Friends of mine thought it would be possible to encourage people on their local housing list to try and build such houses within a council scheme. The scheme of 14 houses … was based on the fact that the local authority was going to provide land. The government was going to provide the money for acquiring the building materials and the self builders would be providing the labour … the 14 families were selected by a ballot. It was stipulated from the beginning that you could enter the scheme without having any capital or any other resources. That you were not in any way prevented by age or occupation, you were to build in your own time, at your own speed. That women were expected to work with their husbands; in other words this was a scheme produced by families and not a team product, that older children were encouraged to assist as well. And that families were giving each other mutually that kind of help that was required. By not having anything regimented, the amount of mutual help was astonishing. But so was also the ability and the comprehension power of these ordinary people that never in their lives would have thought that they could be building houses. It meant from their part a considerable amount of courage, a sense of enterprise, and then as I found later the pure enjoyment of doing something with their own hands and seeing results. When you can reduce buildings to that kind of level, you will be finding that you will doing very much more for people than simply to just stick them into dwellings you provide.
(Walter Segal (1983) Learning from the Selfbuilders*)
Since the start of this research project on self building, I have been referred to the work of Segal over and over again. When I moved to Goldsmiths in 2013, I found myself in the ideal location to look into Segal’s legacy in Lewisham further. I have since spoken to several people originally involved in these schemes who have in a professional capacity gone on to work on similar projects, including Jon Broome and Geoff Stowe. In my discussions with them they have made clear that these schemes became a possibility because of the progressive approach of the council to social housing, and in particular their desire to produce something different than the high rise blocks going up across London at the time. But it was also made possible by the coming together of Brian Richardson – then assistant borough architect for Lewisham – and Walter Segal. This is an early example of how self build schemes have come to fruition as a result of local championing within the council. As an aside, some of the most lauded contemporary council-led custom build schemes, often those in the Government’s right to build vanguard (e.g. Cherwell and Teignbridge), are headed up by longstanding local champions of self build.
It is particularly the social dimensions of Lewisham and Segal’s progressive approach to self building that I find particularly inspiring, and from which I believe we should learn going forwards. Not only were these schemes directed towards people who were in housing need – a dimension which would be welcomed in any contemporary scheme of this kind – but they were also fundamentally underpinned by a democratic approach. The selfbuilding was led and undertaken by local people, the future residents of the properties; the method of construction was such that they could have a significant say in the final layout of their homes; it provided opportunities for them to skill up; and their involvement within the process was considered as empowering.
This whole experience has taught me personally an awful lot about human beings and has taught me an awful lot about the ability which, provided the methods of construction are not overbearing can be brought to the fore, and where people can discover in themselves all kinds of talents which in their former lives had absolutely no opportunity to use. That in itself is very gratifying because in each form of housing there is a social factor, which is in this case by those that are building for themselves, those that are living there … I would certainly think that this is one form, provided greater support was enlisted, housing could be provided in a way in which up to now it has not been possible. But self building must be understood as building with your own hands and using methods for which you will have to acquire only very limited skills …
(Walter Segal (1983) Learning from the self builders)
Throughout the project, I have been keen to find examples of self build in Britain that demonstrate its diversity. These rare group or community-led projects are an important part of this picture. Perhaps more than other forms of self build, these need to be part of the conversation about the future of self building in Britain. More than anything else, they help to demonstrate the contribution that self build could make to diversifying the housing offer in Britain.
The recent Government and industry push towards the formation of a custom build sector takes forward some of the benefits from these historic schemes, namely the cost savings and some degree of control over the overall outcome. By introducing facilitating or enabling developers into the marketplace, they aim to offer affordable customised housing to ordinary households. However, while new homes will be delivered on scale through the vanguard right to build schemes and by these new intermediaries, the social dimensions that were central to earlier schemes and so clearly addressed by Segal is lacking.
Within the context of the wider housing crisis, both in terms of supply and access, it is more timely than ever that we examine the legacy of progressive schemes such as the Lewisham self build schemes. If carefully considered in relation to current housing need and markets and with the right support, they could be an important part of the solution to increasing housing supply. Perhaps unsurprisingly, following in footsteps of their predecessors, Lewisham council is now supporting a new community-led self-build venture and part of the wider conversation about how to diversify the housing supply in London.
* to access the original recording visit pigeon digital
Useful web resources about Segal and his houses