An integrated self-build timber housing project in the UK

Access to decent housing

Pascale Thys, 2009

The Community Selfbuild Agency

In the morning, we met John Gillespie, one of the Agency’s officials, and Fabian Wuyts, one of the workers who is setting up a project in Kent with political refugees.

What follows is not an exhaustive account, but relates some of the topics discussed.

Origin of the Walter Segal System : In 1961 this architect, who was to renovate his house in Highgate, built himself a small wooden house with four bedrooms in his garden to accommodate his family while the work was being done. It took a 15th of days to build it and cost him £850. Then the system was developed in the 70’s by him and especially by another architect Jon Broome (the latter notably added the ecological vision).

The first experience of self-build with a group started in Lewisham in the 70’s on a site later renamed Segal Close. The agency was created in the late 1980s following a self-building project with unemployed young people from immigrant backgrounds (the Zenzele project).

As far as the leasing aspects are concerned, there are 3 options :

  • a) either to be a tenant of the housing association which is responsible for the project ;

  • b) or be a 50% tenant and 50% owner.

  • c) own

Some elements of cost reduction :

  • voluntary work on site (reduction of 15 to 20%). This reduces the amount of the loan, for example in option b) to have 50% of the value of the property ;

  • to work a maximum of hours ;

  • to have access to cheap land (in London this has become almost impossible). Sometimes farmers offer an unused plot of land (British legislation, in some cases, allows building in agricultural areas). In the big cities there is mostly public land where there are dilapidated houses. Sometimes it is land owned by the Church or by philanthropic organisations.

In option c) it is the group of self-constructors that takes care of everything (purchases, organisation of subcontracting if necessary, …).

A contractual clause obliges, in the case of the resale of self-constructed properties after a few years by their self-constructing owner, to sell the property for less than the market price in order to respect the social philosophy of this type of project and to allow others to also have access to social housing.

Recruitment is done through youth organizations, clubs, social workers. For option b) notices are published in the local press, posters are put up.

In the case of option c) the future owners take care of the recruitment.

We also send out notices to people on the waiting lists for social housing, offering them the opportunity to build their own home, which reduces the waiting time (often by a few years).

In option a) these are mainly young adults, the approach is called top down. In the case of options 2 and 3 these are slightly more mature people, the approach is more bottom up.

The groups are generally composed of 6 to 12 people. Less than 6 is not financially interesting and more than 12 makes it difficult to work in a group.

Often we start with more than 12 people (a 15th) because there are withdrawals.

These are building sites of about 12 dwellings.

Once the funds are found it takes about 2 years to arrive at the finished product. 6 months are devoted to recruitment. At the end of this period an event is organized, a weekend to unite the group.

A 6-week training course is followed before starting the work. This includes a training on safety, such as handling heavy objects for example, and a little experience, in school, in each area to see what is best for each participant. It also tests physical and mental abilities (but if there are problems in this area it does not necessarily lead to exclusion).

For young adults it also serves as a training (day school). Each of the participants develops particular skills which are used during the workcamp (for example, one of them will be in charge of electricity, the other will be in charge of the carpentry, …).

The slightly more mature people in option b) attend the training courses in the evenings and at weekends. It is important that the time between the end of the training and the beginning of the building site is as short as possible, otherwise there is a risk that some of them will give up. Construction takes one year.

In addition to the work on site, there are also relations with the other trades present (consultant, trainer, site manager…) in order to promote a better understanding of the different aspects of construction. For example with the architect to discuss the desired bathroom style.

In the case of option a) there is an SA who takes care of the social follow-up.

It is advisable to employ local workers rather than using large firms, as they have more of a «  social fibre .

The main structure is made in kit form, the rest is done by self-constructors. After the construction there is a 6 months follow-up to help «  transform the construction into a home ".

The person in charge advises the method communication, confidence, compromise. It is important that there are good relations between all the actors ; that things are simple (for example the building system) but not too simple and that you are ready to make compromises, especially on the part of the self-builders (it is not possible to do everything, to build a castle, …).

One of the advantages of self-construction by young adults is the fact that they stay longer (4 to 5 years) and pay their rent. In general, young people entering social housing only stay there for an average of 18 months (in the beginning everything is fine, but often it degenerates after a few months (social problems, …).

Visits to self-constructed housing units

In the afternoon we visited 6 self-built housing estates located in London.

En savoir plus

This project is supported by the Minister of Agriculture of the Government of the Walloon Region and the General Directorate for Natural Resources and the Environment of the Ministry of the Walloon Region.