Show explores iconic self-build project

Walters Way, Lewisham. Pic: Emma Pradella

Walters Way, Lewisham. Pic: Emma Pradella

The UK’s first self-built council housing project, in Lewisham, is explored in an on-going exhibition at the AA School of Architecture.

The exhibition, called Walter’s Way – The Self-Build Revolution, highlights and explains the innovative system of self-building housing of the 80s, a revolutionary method of building houses to face the housing crisis of the time, inspired by the German architect Walter Segal.

Segal, who died over 30 years ago, believed in sustainable, low-cost and quick building methods that did away with bricklaying and plastering. Instead, the self-build method uses standard sized materials that can be set up and put together without requiring specific building skills.

The exhibition, curated by an environment and sustainability freelance journalist, explores the late architect’s methods like no one has done before, focusing on self-builders in Lewisham 35 years ago.

Lewisham Council adopted the methods during the 1980s’ housing crisis when head of Architecture Department, Colin Ward agreed with Segal to launch a plan of self-building housing. This meant those on the council’s housing waiting list had the chance to build their own houses with no additional help.

The plan included two complexes of buildings, launched respectively in 1979 and 1984. The two schemes resulted in over 50 self-built houses in Lewisham, located in two streets named after the architect: Walters Way and Segal Close, both built under Segal’s guidance.

“There’s a lot left of Segal’s self-build method”, says the exhibition curator Alice Grahame, “there are several buildings in which people are still living, there are two complexes named after him and there are ongoing projects inspired by his theories, such as the WikiHouse, an open source and collaborative building system, or the RUSS project to build eco-friendly and self-build houses in a vacant site in Lewisham”.

Inside the exhibition, photographs, documents and the architect’s original drawings can be found, as a testimony of his theories. Moreover, in the exhibition space a Segal inspired walk-in structure has been built to allow visitors to understand the fundamental elements of his self-build method.

“I think what is fundamental is that it’s simple and quick, and inexpensive to put up”, continues Grahame, “so one of the fundamentals is that the houses are made with materials that are readily available, by choosing standard sized materials that need no bricklaying or plastering specialists.

“I think the exhibition is a good way to see how the houses are built because they put together a Segal’s house inside the exhibition, you can go around the back and you can actually see, feel and smell the timber, you can see the shape of the wood.”

Even today, 30 years after the self-build method helped the housing crisis and proved beneficial to low-cost home ownership, it inspires several projects, architects and designers.

“There is still a lot of interest in self-building”, confirms the curator of the exhibition, “especially with the housing crisis in London people would definitely like to build their own home at a lower cost, while outside of London is probably not such a problem”.

The exhibition is on until March 24 and is free to visit.

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