Site Unseen: Walter Segal self-build houses

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

When I was on The Knowledge the sight of this little cluster of black-and-white houses off Honor Oak Park arrested my attention, so different from the area chock-a-block with mid-Victoria terraces.

[L]ater a little research uncovered that these are rather exceptional examples of what today would be given an episode of Channel 4’s Grand Designs, in fact, Kevin McCloud whose presents the series has a self-build company – HAB that is partly Segal-inspired.

Designed by the little-known German architect Walter Segal who devised a way of simplifying the process of building so that it could be undertaken by anyone, cheaply and quickly.

His first ‘house’ was built at the bottom of his Highgate garden, using assembly principles practised by medieval builders.

By eliminating much of the ‘wet’ work employed by skilled craftsmen – plaster, mortar and foundations – the assembly of these pre-formed sections is relatively easy.

The problem was finding a local authority willing to embrace his methodology. Segal was not a conventional architect too much of a lone wolf ever to join any pack confessing that he could never submit to authority.

In the 1970s, much like today, London was experiencing a housing crisis. As this method of self-build promised to take people off the housing list it was a promising proposition.

So unique were his plans it would take Lewisham, the only authority willing to consider his methods two years before granting planning permission, and then by only one vote and on a plot of land too small and hilly for the council’s own building programme.

Segal would discuss with each self-builder what sort of home they would like, the minimal foundations lent itself to building on a confined, sloping site dotted with mature trees.

Now, most of the self-builders have gone, in their place is a community of 13 families on a private estate each having that rare ethic for Londoners of looking after one’s community. It is a lesson for many modern housing executives.

Walter Segal might not be on everyone’s lips, but he is the only architect with two roads to his name: Walters Way and Segal Close names chosen by the residents.

Featured image: Walter Segal houses in Sydenham, London by Lindy Zubairy (CC BY-ND 2.0) via

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