Are self-builds the solution to London’s housing crisis?

Self-build schemes can be empowering in so many ways. We need to renew and expand on the self-build legacy.

Michaela Benson​
11 March 2015

Flickr/tamaki. Some rights reserved.

On 19th March on the 30th anniversary of architect Walter Segal’s death, I am hosting an event at Goldsmiths on the community-led self-build social housing schemes he pioneered in South East London, supported in the 1970s and 1980s by Lewisham Council.

Segal’s first scheme of 14 houses was based on the fact that the local authority provided land, and the government provided money for building materials. The self-builders provided the labour. 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 self building in Lewisham.

In a 1983 talk Segal explained: “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.”

Women were expected to work with their husbands, and older children were encouraged to assist. Here were ordinary families who probably never thought they could be building houses and that they would own a home of their own.

“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,” said Segal.

“When you can reduce buildings to that kind of level, you will be finding that you will be doing very much more for people than simply to just stick them into dwellings you provide.”

Since the start of my research on self-building, I have 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.

They 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 the social dimensions of Lewisham and Segal’s progressive approach to self building that I find particularly inspiring, and from which I believe we have a lot to learn. 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 self building 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.

Throughout my research, 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 right-to-build schemes and by these new intermediaries, the social dimensions that were central to earlier schemes and so clearly addressed by Segal are lacking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, following in the footsteps of their predecessors, Lewisham Council is now supporting a new community-led self-build venture

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.

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