Walter Segal's South London Legacy

Walter Segal's South London Legacy

“In his life, as well as his work, he tried to pare away the superfluous and concentrate on the important”. Colin Ward

Walter Segal (1907-1985) was born in Switzerland and moved to London in 1936, after training as an architect in Berlin. He was a modernist who maintained an ongoing interest in traditional building techniques, in particular those of traditional Japanese architecture.

He gained recognition and respect for the development of the ‘Segal Method’, which was designed to enable people to build their own homes without the need to learn so called wet trades such as bricklaying, plastering and cement pouring which Segal considered superfluous to house building.  We are lucky enough to have some fantastic examples of the Segal Method in South East London, in the form of the Segal Close and Walters Way homes - they felt like a great fit for the High Rise issue, even though they don't tower above the surrounding buildings; in fact their stature is rather modest but because they all rest on stilts raised above ground level, nestled on hillsides amongst the trees they resemble a cluster of tree houses and benefit from beautiful views.

The Segal projects were born out of collaboration with Segal and Lewisham Council. Colin Ward of the Lewisham Council's Architectural Department had read and studied Segal's ideas for the timber framed house and devised a plan to offer those on the Councils waiting list for accommodation a chance to build their own house. The first project - known as Phase One, started in 1979 and due to the success of this Phase Two commenced in 1984. In total twenty-seven houses were completed in the two Lewisham self-build schemes, providing quality detached houses with gardens for local people.

The Segal method is in essence a bolt-together form of timber frame construction, which relies on using all the materials in their standard off-the-peg sizes, both user friendly and reduces the amount of cutting and waste. Segal famously said you just need to be able to saw a straight line and drill a straight hole. 

This type of timber frame construction also lends its self to awkward sloping, soft-soiled plots of land with lots of trees (the timber houses can be in close proximity), like the Walters Way site, which had been vetoed by the council for building housing on, Segal thought this sight was perfect for the project. Segal carefully arranged the houses in a constellation, which made the most of the beautiful mature trees and meant none on the site would have to be felled. This preservation of the environment aspect along with the building materials used result in the houses having high eco-friendly credentials.

Having visited Walter’s Way on London Open House weekends, I always found such a wonderful quality of light in the homes and a sense of being close to nature. I also enjoy the way the houses are tied together in external design but completely different internally, each being modified to the occupants needs and personal preference – it’s hard to think of any other form of social housing being so self-empowering and responsive to the needs of its dweller’s; the Segal homes make houses of standard brick construction seem ridged and stifling in comparison. 

Now, more than ever, this kind of method feels like a relevant and very important reference point in finding another option in the face of a housing crisis which shows no signs of relenting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in need of housing could be assisted to respond to that need in a self-empowered way - just like the Segal self-builders - to create not only a eco-friendly home but a nurturing community and a legacy of wonderful houses in South East London that respond to each occupant’s requirements.