If you have ever explored the Honor Oak area you may have seen the unusual box-like half-timbered houses that make up the Segal self-build estates. They are the result of an innovative housing experiment in the late 1970s and early '80s that was supported by Lewisham Council and led by pioneering, German-born architect Walter Segal. The scheme gave ordinary people from the council’s waiting list the chance to build their own homes using a technique designed by Segal.
The self-builders spent around 18 months building, mostly working evenings and weekends. Instead of bricks and mortar the houses were made from timber, panels and bolts — materials that were easy for novices to work with. The resulting homes were light and airy, and raised above the ground on stilts. The two most famous streets were named after their architect: Walters Way and Segal Close.
As a Segal resident myself, I was fascinated by the stories behind the houses. I did not build my own house; rather, I bought it from the original builder, who provided intriguing tales about the circumstances that made the scheme possible and about the experiences of the builders.
I set out to find out more and this resulted in a book: Walters Way and Segal Close, The Architect Walter Segal and London's Self-Build Communities, produced with Segal Close resident and photographer Taran Wilkhu. For the book we spoke to people who remembered working with Segal on the self-build projects. We included current residents, who explained what the houses were like to live in and about the strong community spirit. The book is now available in bookshops and online.
We hope that this book will generate interest in Segal and encourage people to consider self-build as a housing option. Self-build is sometimes pitched as a possible solution to London’s housing shortage. While the government has committed to enabling more self-build homes, it continues to make up a far smaller proportion of the housing stock than in other European countries.
One of the direct legacies of Walters Way is the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS), a new community self-build project set up by Kareem Dayes, who is the son of one of the families who built a house on Walters Way. RUSS has been working with Lewisham Council to create 33 homes on a vacant site in Ladywell, and they are currently crowdfunding to build a community space in the Segal self-build style. RUSS is a membership organisation and is keen for more people to get involved.
Walter Segal never saw the Walters Way scheme finished, as he died in 1985, two years before it was completed in 1987. This year we are celebrating 30 years since Walters Way was finished. We are having a special London Open House event on Sunday, 17th September. Both Walters Way and Segal Close will be open to the public, who will have the chance to see inside some of these unusual buildings. There will also be representatives of RUSS on hand to discuss their new self-build project and future plans for community self-build.
As part of London Open House on Sunday 17 September, Segal Close is open in the morning and Walters Way is open in the afternoon.
“Walters Way and Segal Close: The Architect Walter Segal and London's Self-Build Communities”, published by Park Books
Ladywell Self-Build Community Space Crowdfunder — www.spacehive.com/ladywellselfbuild
Rural Urban Synthesis Society — www.theruss.org
Photo: Taran Wilkhu