What follows isn’t meant as opinion, but an attempt to research the extent to which self-build and Community Land Trusts have a role in helping solve the housing crisis. Writing it, I find I want to research more, and ask questions of various contacts who know more about aspects of the subject than me. So, I am publishing it here, and seeking their comments before any attempt to develop an argument.
It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of self-building solving the housing crisis, especially if those ideas come from watching projects on Grand Designs going way over budget and beyond planned timescales. Just looking at how many new homes are needed, in places such as London where so many people want to live, and comparing this with the current scale of self-building, it is tempting to dismiss the idea as a well-meaning, utopian diversion from the serious business of ‘building more bloody houses.’
However, the need to build more homes still leaves open the matter of how they are to be built, and become places where more people can lead flourishing lives. On this, the experience of the Walter Segal system of self-building is instructive, as pioneered from 1979 in the London Borough of Lewisham, and now being reimagined there.
The Segal Method
The Segal method is a tool kit for self-builders to construct detached timber frame homes, including on small, difficult sites which would not interest volume developers. It used piles rather than traditional foundations, which gives it the flexibility to build round existing mature trees, retaining something of the character of a site. It also uses “modular dimensions to avoid waste and to facilitate alterations and enlargement”, and “sought to eliminate or reduce the ‘wet trades’ of concreting, bricklaying and plastering, by reducing the sheer weight of the building and by using cladding, insulating and lining materials in their standard sizes.”. The modularity also allows self-builders to choose the interior layouts they wanted, in one case in Walter’s Way, enlarging the house by as much as 50%.
From a town planning point of view, the method worked by being used for the development of an entire street – the two cases being named, appropriately, Walters Way and Segal Close. Whatever their variations, these existing Segal buildings work together as groups, and still foster a sense of community identity. At the outset, this would have been all the stronger, since the self-builders were volunteers from Lewisham’s housing waiting list, and naturally sharing some of the work, as they got on with building their new homes.
It’s not clear how the financing of the project was originally conceived. According to current Walter’s Way resident, Alice Grahame, “At the end of the project, the builders had the chance to buy their homes and all eventually took up the offer. What was social housing is now privately owned”, but this may have happened because of Right to Buy. However, according to the Colin Ward, another architect involved with the project:
The heartbreaks and delays that self builders experience are not to do with the process of building itself, but, as Walter Segal used to observe, are the result of the inflated price of land, the rigidities of planning and building controls, and the difficulty of getting mortgage loans for anything out of the ordinary. They are all made worse by the assumption of both regulatory authorities and providers of finance, that a house should be a full-finished product right from the start, rather than a simple basic structure that grows over time as needs grow and as labour and income can be spared.
where the mention of getting mortgages suggests that from the outset, private ownership was envisaged. From a current check on Zoopla for recent transactions in Walter’s Way, it seems that mortgage providers have now got over any earlier difficulties, but also that anyone on today’s housing list will be entirely priced out. Nonetheless the community spirit lives on, thanks to the architecture and planning, and despite the economics.
Rural Urban Synthesis Society
The Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) is a Community Land Trust, founded in 2009 to create a sustainable neighbourhood with genuinely affordable homes. Their reimagined version of the Segal method, proposed for Church Grove, also in Lewisham, has a rather different aesthetic, being rather more like traditional London terrace housing
which will presumably give a much higher density from the outset. On this, it would be interesting to have numbers, for habitable rooms per hectare, for this and the earlier Segal developments, originally, and after subsequent extensions. The original self-build concept is retained, although reduced, amounting to only 20% of the work, but this is perhaps inevitable with taller, higher density, terrace housing. Nothing is said in the documentation I have found about retaining the modularity, which would facilitate tradesmen as much as self-builders / occupiers to reconfigure or extend their homes, but I cannot see why it wouldn’t be, and it would be in the interest of some local tradesmen to specialise in subsequent work on this development. The numbers and sizes of the homes are all specified, which suggests less flexibility, but there is some in the internal layout at this stage.
The financing is also spelled out in some detail, including a relationship with a building society set up for future residents investing their own money. However RUSS will retain a stake of at least 20% in all the properties according to Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian. The houses will “remain affordable in perpetuity, with rents linked to local incomes”, although I can see no details of how the sale price of equity stakes might be capped, which remaining affordable would seem to require. The plan includes having five properties for social rent, which RUSS will work with the Council to allocate. Overall, it is rather more complex than the financing of the earlier Segal developments, probably reflecting general changes in housing over the intervening period, and the increasing scale of London’s housing crisis.