Grand Designs it isn’t, but the singular vision of architect Walter Segal lives on in Lewisham – and the families who built their own homes are inspiring a future generation in search of affordable housing in Britain
Unconventional,” was the only word the estate agent could think of to describe it, when Alice Grahame and her husband Paul came to look around a house in Walters Way in the leafy south London suburb of Honor Oak. “And a bit weird.”
A decade later, Grahame has become so fascinated by the weirdness of her street she has curated an exhibition about its origins at the Architectural Association. The show tells the heroic tale of a time in the 1980s when the London borough of Lewisham took the bold step of letting residents take the future of their homes into their own hands, with the UK’s first self-built council housing project. In an unlikely twist, it also reveals how the project’s pioneering principles, largely since forgotten, are enjoying a revival in the very same borough – with a new self-build project that could provide a revolutionary template for community-led affordable housing.
Walking down the sloping street of Walters Way today, it is easy to sympathise with the baffled estate agent. The cluster of boxy wooden cabins on stilts, clinging to the hillside as they step down the winding road in a motley jumble, looks like an alternative eco resort, or a colony of Japanese tea-houses, appropriated and adapted by DIY enthusiasts. The exposed half-timbered frames are variously infilled in shades of beige, terracotta and mossy green, and ringed with stepped verandahs, porches and ad hoc extensions. An angular treehouse folds around a gnarled old trunk, while a wall of recycled stained-glass windows winds its mad way around a neighbour’s garden. […]