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Self-build homes nurture a community at Segal-inspired Ladywell scheme

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Chris Foges

RUSS takes cues from Walter Segal’s radical self-build housing in a south London apartment block by Architype and Shepheard Epstein Hunter

Travelling by train through the London Borough of Lewisham gives a snapshot of recent housing development. Dozens of new buildings flash by, mostly beige brick slabs with grids of punched windows. Their similarity reflects the generic product on offer. But at Ladywell something unexpected appears. A pair of conjoined four-storey blocks with crinkly tin facades and splashes of colour around the windows, nestled among trees, is more Amsterdam or Berlin than New London Vernacular. The difference is not just skin-deep. As a community-led housing development incorporating elements of co-design and self-build, Church Grove is a rather utopian project realised through the creativity and dedication of architects, residents and activists. 

Its story begins 15 years ago, with resident Kareem Dayes. The young musician was struggling to afford a home, but family history suggested an answer. He had grown up nearby at Walters Way, where his parents were part of a small community that came together to build their own houses on council-owned land in the 1980s, using the simple method devised by architect Walter Segal.

Dayes conceived the idea of sustainable settlements featuring self-building, food growing and other communal activities, and founded the Rural Urban Synthesis Society – RUSS. Early on, he enrolled architect Jon Broome, a colleague of Segal’s who had supervised the amateur builders at Walters Way. A handful of volunteers began working towards a pilot project, tapping into regeneration funds and getting familiar with Byzantine housing procurement. ‘My job was to turn the idea into something you could get financed and built,’ says Broome, ‘which was a longer journey than we could have imagined.’

Broome knew of a council-owned backland plot on a dead-end street of Victorian cottages. Shaped like a bow-tie, it is bounded on its long northern edge by the River Ravensbourne. Decades ago it accommodated a school, but various proposals made since had been thwarted by neighbours’ objections.

The local authority took some persuading that it should become a successor to Walters Way. ‘We were shocked to find no institutional memory whatsoever of Lewisham community self-build’, says Broome. Nevertheless, with some coaching it discovered new pride in that radical heritage. Feasibility studies followed, and eventually a competitive bid for the site. RUSS won a 250-year lease on a peppercorn rent. 

Green roofs and all-electric services  aid the sustainability of the scheme.
Green roofs and all-electric services aid the sustainability of the scheme. Credit: Richard Chivers

Meanwhile, the group was established as a Community Land Trust and appointed Architype, which Broome had co-founded, to design the building. It involved the wider public in shaping both organisation and project; eventually 1100 people became members. ‘This is about building community,’ says trustee Joel Simpson. ‘Everyone who comes to our events wants to be involved in some way.’ Public meetings produced 10 guiding principles, ranging from social and environmental sustainability to providing benefits for neighbours. 

The scheme which won consent in 2018 grew out of that brief and consultation with future residents. Two blocks would be linked by bridges at the site entrance and wrapped in deep, veiled walkways perforated by lightwells, intended to foster interaction. Timber construction and a fabric-first approach to energy conservation addressed sustainability. Under a mature tree by the river, a play area would be open to all. 

When tenders came in, however, they were way over budget. At the suggestion of contractor Rooff, Shepheard Epstein Hunter revised the design and went on to deliver a building comprising a mix of tenures: shared ownership, social rent, flats for sharers, and homes for sale at the cost of production. 

While some significant alterations were made, the completed scheme retains much of the original character. That was important both to preserve its ethos and to save time and money. ‘Changes had to be permissible as Minor Amendments,’ says SEH director Tzeh Bin Cheong.

Different tenures are pepper-potted throughout the buildings. Credit: Richard Chivers
Two-storey maisonettes in the east block. Credit: Richard Chivers

First off, the plan was rationalised so that flats and maisonettes stack more efficiently, with fewer overhangs. Nevertheless, the irregular footprint and meandering decks maintain an impression of relaxed informality. ‘It’s not your standard London building,’ says Cheong. ‘There are a lot of corners.’ To maintain the site’s floodwater-carrying capacity it sits above ground on concrete piles, and ramps snaking up to raised decks further amplify an agreeably ramshackle composition. 

Another change was structural, with steel and concrete replacing the timber frame, in part due to local concerns about fire. Timber cladding gave way to fibre-cement panels. At a glance you don’t notice a difference. Residents chose the chalky pastel shades that pick out individual homes. A shared laundry and guest room were preserved, but a planned communal room was dropped, which helped raise the number of flats from 33 to 36. RUSS made up for it with a separate community building, using windows salvaged from a West End skip and flooring from an exhibition on Segal. The cosy cabin is available for residents’ use and public events. 

Residents have also been busy with landscaping. One led the construction of a timber bike shelter, and gardens are emerging around the blocks. Plant pots have colonised the wide decks, watered from galvanized butts fed by downpipes. 

  • Access decks  incorporate ‘patio’  spaces, each shared by two homes.
    Access decks incorporate ‘patio’ spaces, each shared by two homes. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • Bridges incorporate places to stop for a chat.
    Bridges incorporate places to stop for a chat. Credit: Richard Chivers

Planters that hang from balustrades are sized to hold tomato grow-bags. Climbers will grow over metal trellises that shade the loggias. All will help to soften a palette that is unavoidably austere, with asphalt walkways and rough concrete soffits threaded with ductwork.

Most of residents’ energies, though, have been expended inside their homes, which are dual-aspect with big windows onto the generous, shaded decks on the south side, and river views to the north. Five flats have been fully ‘self-built’, with residents installing stud walls and staircases, routing services and determining layouts. ‘Our plans have to comply with space standards for individual rooms,’ notes Cheong. ‘They had full freedom, and used it’. 

Remaining flats were ‘self-finished’. At handover they had bare plaster walls and screed floors. Some self-finishers took up tools and others hired tradesmen, but all those I spoke to appreciated the chance to shape their homes. 

For the architects and RUSS leaders, this is just one of the benefits of even limited self-build. Jon Broome talks of empowerment. ‘It engenders a sense of confidence in ordinary people that they can achieve things’, he says. ‘That’s worth a tremendous amount to society’. Eleanor Margolies, a resident and project board member, points out that self-build did not, in the end, save money, but has helped to foster a collective spirit and reduce the waste that occurs when buyers replace standard fit-outs.

A metal-clad facade faces the river and rail tracks.
A metal-clad facade faces the river and rail tracks. Credit: Richard Chivers

While everybody involved remains enthusiastic about the idea, they are frank about the difficulties. Integrating self-build with erection of the superstructure was frustrating as future residents only had access during site hours. ‘There’s been a different atmosphere since the site was handed over,’ says Margolies. ‘People just wander over asking to borrow tools’. Even then, some challenges remained. It took months to persuade insurers that an apartment building with screed floors was complete.

Complications arising from the project’s unusual objectives compounded those that now face all developers: risk aversion, soaraway costs, mushrooming regulation. Flood studies had to be redone twice as rules changed. ‘Every hiccup extended the timescale, and progress halted more than once for lack of money,’ says Broome. Initial intentions that Church Grove would be self-financing proved impossible to meet.

Even so, there is a palpable difference between what has been achieved here and most affordable housing in London. Finishing touches are still being made, but the place already has a distinct personality and atmosphere, like one that has grown organically over time. Residents’ enjoyment and the easygoing interactions of a real community are plain to see. RUSS hopes to apply its hard-won knowledge in larger developments, and is spreading the word through its School of Community-led Housing, which holds classes on site. Every borough in the city should book a slot.

  • A communal laundry looks onto the raised deck.
    A communal laundry looks onto the raised deck. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • Self-finishers installed their own flooring and kitchens.
    Self-finishers installed their own flooring and kitchens. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • RUSS is now seeking designers for a public play area under a mature tree, and a riverside walkway.
    RUSS is now seeking designers for a public play area under a mature tree, and a riverside walkway. Credit: Richard Chivers


GIFA 2,696m²
kWh/yr predicted on-site renewable energy generation 13,800
Predicted potable water use per person per day 121 litres
Form of contract JCT Design & Build 2016


Client RUSS
Architects Shepheard Epstein Hunter, Architype
Design advisor Jon Broome
Environmental engineer Ritchie & Daffin
Structural engineer Rodriguez Associates
Landscape architect ME Landscape
Contractor Rooff



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