The Walter Segal Self-Build method…

Another area that I am researching at the minute is the Walter Segal self build method. Walter Segal (1907 – 1985) was a well know architect who developed a minimal method of building that later became a self build solution.

He made his design methods and process very simple using timber as his primary material. With his designs he used a modular, rectangle style as these geometric shapes enabled the designs to be simple. He also designed the buildings around the chosen materials standard sizes as this avoided waste and removed the need to alter or cut down the material effectively reducing cost. He also 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 which again in turn helped to reduce costs.

His method was simple, using pad stones sitting above the ground level to create foundations and then a simple timber grid frame to create the base for the house. This was then elevated from the floor to obviate the need of levelling sites and destroying exiting trees and shrubs. Therefore this building method makes building on steeply sloping and poor quality sites alot easier and less expensive than the normal building method. It also allows the building to be built around the existing landscape rather than being imposed on it such that they blend with the environment. The dry method of construction means the building can easily be adapted and extended to meet the changing circumstances of the occupier. In one case a couple extended their home in an Easter weekend with minimum obstruction and costs.

Unlike the usual method of prefabrication and modular housing with the structures and components being constructed off site in a factory method, the Segal method is all constructed on site with simple methods. Once all the frames have been constructed and then erected the roof can be put on, the floors put into place, the services installed and the walls made up and placed into position. This method allows the roof to be placed in position at a very early stage of the build, which provides shelter from the weather for the people completing the build and means they are less likely to lose working time due to bad weather.

As the system was very simple and the materials are all quite lightweight the process could be completed by either men or woman, skilled or unskilled. This meant alot more people who wanted to build their own homes could fulfil this without enduring the costs of employing skilled tradesmen.

Walter Segal hadn’t designed this method for the construction industry, but for his own personal use. He had already built a small ski lodge in Switzerland using his building method but in the early 60’s Walter moved back to the UK. His first wife had died and after his move to the UK he remarried and inherited another family. Their current house was therefore too small so Walter decided to demolish and re-build his current house but instead of becoming homeless he decided to build a temporary 4 bedroom, bungalow structure at the bottom of the garden where he and his family could stay, whilst the building work was being carried out. This was a simple post and beam structure with a basic timber frame, flat roof and pad stone foundations. Walter completed the bungalow in 2 weeks and it cost just £850. When completing the bungalow Walter made sure he calculated the modular dimensions to the standard size of materials, his initial ideas behind this where to reduce time, costs but to also resell the materials after he had completed rebuilding his home.  Even with the quick build time and low cost construction, this timber ‘temporary’ structure is structure is still standing today, even though Walter had planned to removed the structure after completion of his home. The results of his method were impressive and before long Walter were receiving private commissions from clients wanting similar homes to his bungalow. In 1971 the self build possibilities emerged when a teacher dismissed their builder and used Walters self build methods to build their own home without any professional help. Then in 1977 Lewisham Council wanted to experiment with alternative forms of housing. Colin Ward from the Architectural Department at the council knew of the self build methods Walter used and believed this method would be perfect for a number of steep, soft soiled council plots unsuited to conventional building styles. After much debating the plots where then offered to people on the council’s waiting list and they set about building their own homes using the method (1977-1981). But the council, happy with the result decided they should complete a second phase (1985-1987) and suddenly architects, planners and housing associations and not to mention self build enthusiasts where queuing up to assess the results and learn the Segal self build method.

Sadly Walter died in 1985, aged 78 just before the second phase was due to start. After his death the Walter Segal Self Built Trust was set up. The trust currently runs courses and support to those who want to use the Walter Segal self build method to build their own home. Walter is the only modern architect to also have two have two roads named after him; Segal Close and Walter’s Way, which where tokens of the affection he inspired among self builders.

I really admire how he set about helping others to achieve the satisfaction of building their own home and how he developed this process to be adaptable and affordable. I think his grid, modular method is simple and that’s why it became so effective and popular. I do understand this method has been adapted and changed over the years to meet the current standards set by building regulations and to meet eco-efficiency targets. I am hoping I am able to take some of the theories and methods designed and created by Walter and apply them to my own work within the design field.

To visit the Walter Segal Self Build Trust home page, please click here.


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