Walter’s Way to solve the housing crisis

Felix Shaw


Last weekend saw the opening of a new exhibition by the Architectural Association to present the work of the architect Walter Segal.

Segal is little known outside of architectural circles but his ideas could prove to be incredibly useful in solving the UK’s chronic shortage of houses.

Berlin born Segal moved to London in the 1930s and throughout the 1960s developed a unique method for self-build homes that required no wet trades such as bricklaying or plastering and utilised only cheap and readily available materials. The idea being that anyone who could saw in a straight line could build their own home.

The idea was taken up in the 1970s by Lewisham Council, who chose four sites to put Segal’s ideas to the test. Today the homes are as popular as ever with their inhabitants – and the streets they created, Walter Way and Segal Close, are praised for their strong community spirit and unique feel, a remarkable contrast to the city that surrounds them (fun fact, Segal is the only architect to have had more than one British street named after him during his lifetime).

Whilst there are currently over 200 Segal Method homes in the UK, mainstream incorporation of his techniques has remained disappointingly low. However, in recent years the search for innovative ideas to solve the housing crisis has led to a revival of sorts.

Last year Lewisham Council appointed the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) as a development partner to bring forward a financially viable plan for new self-build homes based on principles of Segal’s experiments in the borough during the 1980s. A group of local self-builders is due to be established by RUSS in February this year. We will be watching the project closely to see if it can provide a framework for a modern interpretation of the Segal Method that can actually make an impact on London’s housing shortage.

There’s a lot to learn for mainstream housebuilders too. Segal houses are cost-effective and quick to build. Bringing people together to be actively involved during the design and construction of their new homes also creates stronger and more resilient communities once they’re built.

For that reason alone, it’s great to see the Architectural Association raising Segal’s profile through their new exhibition.

Hopefully one day Segal inspired homes will be more of a common sight. If someone could teach me how to saw in a straight line, I’d even have a go at building one myself.