I’m much more interested in building systems than in individual buildings. In part because a building system provides a kind of architectural source code. This coded understanding of how a building is constructed serves as a road map for the future, and since all buildings change, knowing how they are put together goes a long way in keeping buildings relevant over time. Building systems are also fascinating to me for their potential to include individuals, the users of buildings, into the building project equation. And in no other circumstance does the occupant have more direct agency than in a self-build scenario.
I don’t believe self-builds are fully capable of addressing major housing shortages: the scale and variety of needs are too great, and the necessarily low-rise projects probably aren’t dense enough. Also, it really isn’t for everyone. As a tradition however self-built housing produces a well-known freeing effect, one that Stewart Brand talks about in his BBC-produced How Buildings Learn (1997), a series with music done by Brian Eno, that is also deeply good. Rewatching the series, an adaptation of the eponymous book, has led me to investigate a reference Brand makes to Walter Segal, a self-build proponent in the UK within Part 3 of the series “Built for Change”. Starting in the early 1980s, Segal’s building method of bolt-together frame and panel constructions, inspired by timber-frame houses, was adopted by housing councils around London when permitting self-build developments. The Segal self-build legacy in the UK is one of empowerment for individual builders, creating whole communities of quality buildings that have been loved by their builder-occupants and are now passing into market rate housing. These “low-road” buildings have ironically become fashionable, and expensive over time. They have aged well because they were built within a system that accounted for the individual’s direct participation and for change over time. As a result of the strength and simplicity of their designs, they have shown exceptional resiliency.
One notable feature is that Segal’s buildings, as exemplified in the community of houses now know as Walters Way is that they do not have basements. Similar to many timber-frame barns, these structures are post and pier based, sited on hill-sides and uneven ground. This foundation arrangement provides a low-impact and low-carbon way of construction. A list of the system attributes I find most notable, and appropriate for long-term relevance are as follows:
- Post and pier foundation, requiring only hand digging in most cases.
- Bolt-together timber frame structure requiring little specialized knowledge or equipment.
- No load bearing internal or external walls, allowing the walls to be unbolted and reconfigured over time.
- Grid based, all dimensions accommodate “off the shelf” materials. No cutting of panels. No specialized or special order materials required.
- Panel infill construction eliminates the need for “wet trades” such as bricklaying, concrete work, plastering etc.
- Low slope roof, often covered in sod / living roof.
Traditional timber-frame structures that use heavy timbers connected with mortise and tenon joints are known to last hundreds of years. Segal’s light frame system has been around only for about 40 years. In the contest of ideas manifested in twentieth-century building systems, that is a long time, and long enough for me to want to review and study this system or method, as Segal preferred to call it. I’ve collected a few resources below and I’m waiting for a reply from the Walter Segal Self Build Trust for more resources, plans, and images to share here. Surprisingly for the level of community that exists around the Segal method houses in the UK, there are few detailed resources and documents available on the web. This may be a result of the way the method was taught–in workshops and since Segal did not want to patent or monetize his system. It is for this reason that he preferred to call it a method or approach, rather than a system. Below are the references that I have collected so far. I will post more links as I come by them.
Walter Segal Self Build Trust, the foundation set up to promote his work, contains a history of Segal and his contributions. The book, Out of the Woods, is out of print, but apparently the most comprehensive guide available. For an overview of the method and some drawings refer to Architects’s Journal: Segal Self-Build feature issue (PDF download). A single sheet overview of the method can be downloaded here. Dan Hill’s photography shows how the Walters Way in Lewinshire has been adapted over time.