by Mike Daligan of the Walter Segal Self-Build Trust

Once human beings moved out of caves (and even these were home improvement jobs), the first response to the need for shelter was for people to build their own. Given recent cuts in the social housing budget, the reduction in MIRAS and the impositions on local authority spending in this country it does seem that the wheel is coming full circle.

It is worth noting that building their own home is still the only realistic option for a large proportion of the world's population today. It has been estimated that between a third and a half of the world's people currently build their own homes and not just in the so called developing countries. Self help is in fact the major form of housing provision in nearly all the developed countries of Western Europe, the USA and Australia. It should thus not be seen as peripheral or merely as an option for those in developing countries. Quite the contrary.

A recent report shows that between 1980 and 1989, self help (which includes self build as well as renovation and rehabilitation of existing buildings) accounted for nearly 60% of housing provision in Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Italy and France with levels of 40% for Norway, Finland and Ireland. The U.K is bottom of the list. The report is entitled "Self Help, the First World's hidden housing arm".

Also of note is the fact that, in England the first Building Societies were set up as mutual self help societies in the 18th Century to provide finance for self builders. Once homes were completed the societies were closed down and were, therefore, known as "terminating building societies". While a Scottish co-operative self build scheme, the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company, was set up in the 1860's. This company existed until 1945 when it became a commercial building contractor.

Further afield, in Stockholm in the late 1920's, the City Council set up an organisation to help people to build their own homes. This organsiation, which is self financing, has been instrumental in helping people to provide 12,000 homes in the first 50 years of existence. Completions are currently running at between 200 and 250 homes per year. Interestingly enough, once people started on site, less than 1 in 100 were more than two months late in completing; a better record than the building industry in this country can boast. So it can be well demonstrated that, in terms of both history and geography self build is nothing new or unusual.

In the UK last year, 16,000 people either built or managed the building of their own homes. This may sound like a lot but in fact it accounted for less than 10% of the total house provision in the Country and, although this represents more than that built by any single house building contractor, it is still less than the self build provision in almost any other Western European Country.

When it does take place in the UK, the major proportion of this form of house provision is undertaken by those either with the resources to do so or with access to those resources. On average, they build at least four bedroom homes with a double garage. These are mainly people on middle incomes who already have a home of their own or could afford to raise a mortgage to buy one. They often use self build to obtain a much better and larger house than the one they already own at less cost than would be possible through the normal market.

A browse through the magazine racks at W.H.Smiths will introduce you to this world. Those involved either build their own homes, manage the building of them using subcontract labour or opt for a combination of both. It is usually hard work but well worth it for those who partiicpate. These people either build individually or in groups. In addition to being able to gain access to land and finance, those who build as part of a group usually need to have a proportion of those with building skills within their group to undertake such jobs as bricklaying, plastering and other specialist trades.

The concept of people building their own homes is an art that has become lost to the majority of the people of these islands mainly, I suspect, because most people simply do not believe that it is possible for them to do so. This belief is reinforced by the male domination of the building industry, the demarcation of the various trades within it and the conservative nature of financial insstitutions. However, like all problems which beset this world, there are solutions; some of them so simple that once they are described, you wonder why nobody thought of them in the first place. In fact they often have. Central heating was used by the Romans and somehow we lost the secret for hundreds of years. Self build seems to have a similar history.

There is, however, another way of building. It is known as the Segal Method after the architect who devised it. It is based on traditional timber frame methods of building brought up to date to take advantage of modern materials. Unlike much of modern technology which we often seem to fiind uses for after it has been designed, often as a spin off from military requirements, this one has been designed to be really user friendly and enables anyone, even those with no previous building experience, to build. Examples of this form of construction survive today hundreds of years after they were originally built; indeed the oldest council house in the country (to the best of my knowledge) is of timber frame construction and it was built in 1120, presumably not as a Council house! While over 90% of pre Reformation buildings which survive today were built using timber frame construction.

Nearly 60 years ago Walter Segal designed a small ski lodge in Switzerland using his method. He came to England and, in the early 60's married for a second time, his first wife having died. In addition his son inherited another family. They decided to alter the house they were living in and needed temporary accomodation while the work was carried out. Walter used his experience to design a small four bedroom bungalow using the Segal Method. From small acorns mighty oak trees grow.

The building was designed using a modular grid based on the standard sizes of materials as they were suppied by builders' merchants. It used a dry form of construction, eliminated what Walter called "tyranny of wet trades" and utilised a series of timber frames erected on simple founations. It took the builder two weeks to build to a cost of 835 pounds. The intention was to dismantle the building when it was no longer neede to sell the materials off in their original sizes. Over thirty five years later the house is still there.

Over the next few years a number of clients commisioned Walter to design similar houses for them and, in 1971, a teacher having his house built in this way decided that he did not need the builder and decided to build it himself. This he did. This was the first real demonstration that the Segal Method could enable people who had not previous building experience to build their own homes.

Following this, in the 1970's, Lewisham Council made available three small sites for people on the housing waiting list to build their own homes using this method. This had never been done before in this country and, as a result, it took five years of negotiation and discussion with the powers that be before the first group was allowed to start. No one was prevented from taking part because of their circumstances, lack of capital, income or building skills. Men and women, young and old, single parents and families built together and each house was individually designed to the self builder's needs. The first scheme exceeded expectations to such an extent that the council made a fourth site available.

During this last scheme Walter Segal died and, at his funeral, the decision was made to set up a Trust to ensure that his radical ideas did not die with him. The Trust was formally established as a registered charity in 1989 to help people, especially those in housing need and on low incomes, to build their own homes.

So what is the Segal Method? Well, it is a method of building arrived at after a rigorous simplification of the whole building process to arrive at a simple, practical method of construction. It utilises simple timber frames, based on traditional building methods used since medieval times updated to make use of the standard materials available from most builders' merchants today. It is a dry method of construction which eliminates the need for such wet trades as bricklaying and plastering. The result is a lightweight, adaptable, ecologically sound building individually designed to the requirements of the self builder within normal building and planning controls.

Each building is made up of a series of timber frames, made on site, which take the structural load. These sit on pad foundations dug at existing ground levels. The resultant buildings sit above the ground and this obviates the need to level sites and destroy existing trees and shrubs. The building method, thus, enables good use to be made of steeply sloping and poor quality sites which may be less expensive than those normally available for building. It also allows buildings to be built around the landscape rather than being imposed on it such that they blend with the environment. Furthermore, the dry method of construction means that the buildings can be easily adapted and extended to suit changing circumstances. Indeed one couple extended their house in an Easter weekend at a cost of 1500 pounds!

Once the frames are erected, the roof can be put on, the floors added, the services installed and the walls made up and placed in position. In contrast to more conventional methods of construction, this "traditional" method enables the roof to be put on at a very early stage of the building programme. This means that builders are sheltered from the very worst of the weather for most of the time they are building with the result that they are likely to lose less time due to bad weather.

This lightweight nature of the construction enables people of all ages and abilities, both men and women to build. They can choose to do this as a group or individually, co-operating as and when they need or wish to. Thus all the members of a group gets to know one another during both the pre site and the building stage, learning each others strengths and weaknesses. The group thus grows into a stable community with the resultant long term benefits. This also creates self confidence which should not be underestimated in the search for jobs. Some of our unemployed self builders are further enhancing their employment prospects by studying for qualifications while they build and a number of Walter's original self builders have actually pursued careers in Self Build Contract Management by supervising current schemes.

The Walter Segal Self Build Trust has created a locally based National Network which comprises landowners, financial institutions, architects, contract managers and self-builders. This is now installed on our database which also includes completed houses and schemes under construction, many of which are amenable to visitors. Including recently completed schemes, there is now approximately 10 million pounds worth of housing on site, and over a dozen community use buildings completed with many more planned. At least six of these buildings and schemes have won awards ranging from the prestigous Housing Project Design Award to Green Building of the Year.

Having established ourselves and demonstrated that our ideas weren't so daft after all, we are keen to develop this form of self build to its full potential and our plans for the year ahead are aimed at this goal. This will culminate in the construction of our own National Self Build Centre in a Segal Method building. This will provide a practical demonstration of our work of helping people to help themselves to provide homes (and other building types) and jobs within an ecologically sound framework. It is a view of the future that we feel offers real choices to people irrespective of age or ability and helps them to make a real contribution to a sustainable future.

Walter Segal Self-Build Trust - Unit 213, 16 Baldwins Gardens, London EC1N 7RJ.

Phone: (0171) 831 5696 Email:

Back to the contents page