Architecture and Anarchy

The eight years or so I spent working at the Hardwood Centre involved some of the most technically interesting and challenging carpentry that I have ever done. And I was only there in the early years when we were mainly just doing beams, roof trusses and floorboards and the odd handmade door. I had left by the time the co-op was expanding into making bespoke bridges and garden buildings. However interesting the actual carpentry work was I started to become frustrated with the almost inevitable ‘William Morris’ conundrum. That the sort of people who could afford what we were making were not really the sort of people I wanted to work for. As an ex-squatter and housing activists it sort of stuck in my throat to be making hand crafted oak roof trusses for a swimming pool roof for a rich Manchester Bookmaker.

Ist Edition Out of the Woods

I think I had read in a magazine somewhere about the Lewisham Self-build schemes designed by the architect Walter Segal, but it was hard to work out any of the details about the actual building techniques used in the ‘Segal self-build method’ of timber framing. That was until Pat Borer and Cindy Harris from the Centre for Alternative Technolgy at Machynlleth wrote Out of the Woods in 1994.

In essence the Segal Method was a case of medieval carpentry meets modernism. Using a bolt together timber frame system it had been sort of invented out of necessity by Segal when he needed temporary accommodation for his family while he built a house for them in North London in the early 1960’s. The idea was that the temporary accommodation would be dismantled later and the materials sold . So it was designed to use readily available materials in their component sizes, reducing cutting where ever possible and using ‘dry’ building methods and fixing to allow easy dismantling later. The ‘temporary’ house in the garden would stand for decades

Original Segal Method ‘Little house in the garden’ Hampstead

The neat concept of a simple bolted together wooden frame, infilled with insulation and weatherproof shell that could be constructed with basic DIY skills would inspire both architects and self-builders. Segal designed a number of individual houses before being approached by Brian Richardson, assistant borough architect at Lewisham, in the late 1970’s resulting in the Walters Way & Segal Close Self-build schemes

By the time I came across the Segal method it was being promoted by a Trust set up after Walter had died in 1985. Mike Daligan was the enthusiastic face of the Walter Segal Self-Build Trust traveling round the country giving inspirational talks to anyone who wanted to know how to build their own homes. Mike gave a couple of talks in Burnley which inspired people (Including me.) But while the building process looked simple enough, the logistics of; finding land, getting a group of self-builder together, sorting out finance…. just seemed too daunting. Then in the way of these things a series of coincidences would start the Segal self-build ball rolling in East Lancashire.

I have a certificate to say I’m sane – do you?

Greenspace, a horticultural therapy project for recovering mental patients based in a walled garden at the back of a couple of social service houses on Ebor street in Burnley, were in need of some better accommodation. They were offered a £5000 grant to replace their shed. Head gardener there Liz Moore, who had lived for a while at in one of the Burnleywood Housing Co-op houses, contacted me and asked – How much of a Segal style ‘shed’ could I build for £5k? Answer – Quite a lot!

The Hardwood Centre was having one of it’s quiet periods and so I was able to arrange a bit of a short sabbatical to supervise the Greenspace volunteers to build their own grand Segal shed. That included a brew room, work area, small ‘office’ area and a compost loo. We pretty much followed Walter Segal’s original basic design concepts. Except we did a turf roof. Turned out Segal’s idea of basically having a pond on your roof was a radical idea too far.

It actually took less time to build the shed than it did to get the various permissions from; social services and the local council (Does a shed need planning or building control permission? – Still not sure of the definitive answer. But in this case: Planning- No. Building control – Yes.) The build was completed in about six weeks using the regular Greenspace volunteers – all recovering from some kind of mental illness. Which made things both interesting and challenging at times. Liz Moore was a great site forewoman and Alan Whitaker, a former mental patient himself and founder of Greenspace, was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project as well as a keen self-build volunteer. Over a tea-break conversation on site one day about the nature of madness he asked me if I could prove that I was sane? Because he had a certificate from the NHS saying that he was!

I don’t have any pictures of the Ebor street building. But it turned out to be the first of a number of similar ‘assisted’ self-build projects that I ended up running in East Lancs and later in South Lakes with Peter Wilshaw under the name of Greenbuilt. Including working with Greenspace again on the Offshoots project in Townley park.

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Notes:

List of Segal Buildings built with assistance from Greenbuilt :
Greenspace Horticultural Therapy project. Ebor st Burnley.
Whinbury Wood.Horticultural Therapy project. Rawtenstall
Lomeshaye Marsh Nature reserve. Nelson.
Beach house. Baycliff. Cumbria
Offshoots. Townley Park.Burnley
Eco houses. Penkhull
Hodge House Allotments. Nelson.
Penwortham nature reserve
Beach House Silecroft. Cumbria

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