What makes the perfect self-build?

Words:
Charles Holland

Self-build generally looks pretty anarchic, but that needn’t be a bar to achieving a sort of Utopia

What would a self-built utopia look like? If most utopian plans seem like images of perfection handed down from above to grateful inhabitants, self-build suggests the opposite: an anarchic, anything-goes mess. Everybody doing their own thing could result in everybody being happy. Or nobody.

There are two standard criticisms of self-build housing. The first is that it is a niche market resulting in one-off experiments for the relatively well off. The other is that, far from offering an unfettered outburst of folk creativity, self-built housing is often just as conformist as standard developer fare.

There are though a number of significant historic examples that refute both these critiques and demonstrate a more ambitious potential for self-build housing. One such example is the Viennese ‘Wild Settlements’ of the early 20th century. The First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire resulted in large numbers of homeless people who the bankrupt government of the day couldn’t afford to re-house. Some of these people took matters into their own hands by squatting vacant land and building their own homes.  

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire some homeless people who the bankrupt government of the day couldn’t afford to re-house took matters into their own hands by squatting vacant land and building their own homes

In her book Red Vienna, Eva Blau has described these settlements in detail, describing how the communities organised themselves, grew their own food and shared resources, skills and labour. The socialist government of Vienna later adopted the principle of the wild settlements into its housing policy, developing strategic plans for new suburbs enabled by the state but built by the residents who paid for their houses through their labour. A number of new areas of the city were developed in this way and Adolf Loos, briefly chief architect of Vienna’s housing department, designed a house type predicated on simple construction methods that could be built by its future inhabitants. The settlements were intended to be self-sufficient too and Loos’ plans included large ‘cottage’ gardens sized to provide sufficient food for a single family.

A similar experiment in combining top-down planning with resident control was attempted in Peru in the late 1960s. Working with the United Nations Development Programme, the Peruvian government organised an international architecture competition for a 40ha area of Lima.  A number of high-profile architects including James Stirling, Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander were selected and the completed housing encouraged future expansion by the residents. The cleverest schemes – such as van Eyck’s – managed to allow extensive adaptation while also ensuring a degree of spatial openness.  Van Eyck’s drawings for the scheme are remarkable, concentrating as much on the ephemeral realities of housing – washing lines, kids playing, neighbours chatting – as on their formal architectural character.

The UK is notoriously averse to self-build but even here there have been sporadic examples worth studying. Some of the more interesting ones involve a system of timber-framed construction developed by the architect Walter Segal that allows relatively unskilled people to build their own homes.

The best known of these is Walters Way, a suburban close of detached houses built on a steep slope in Lewisham, south London. The expressed timber structure and boxy appearance of the houses gives them a curious quality, appearing both modern and traditional at the same time. Their spatial arrangement is interesting too with individual houses drifting casually down the slope in a way that eschews current obsessions with visual privacy and the rigid demarcation of private space.  

The state provides the infrastructure and planning framework along with some straightforward rules about site constraints after which residents are free to build more or less what they want

The most ambitious example of contemporary self-build though is the New Town of Almere in Holland. Almere has close to 200,000 residents and is a mix of top-down infrastructure planning and individual self-build freedom. The state provides the infrastructure and planning framework along with some straightforward rules about site constraints after which residents are free to build more or less what they want. Simplified building regulations and ‘off the peg’ designs make it relatively easy but also makes the result closer to custom than true self-build.  

The results are a mixed bag but the principle seems eminently sane, with the state taking on the heavy lifting and residents gaining a level of freedom and creative input into their environment. It’s possible to imagine something similar happening here, particularly where local authorities have land that they could allocate for that purpose. Or it would be if recent government legislation didn’t force them to sell land to the highest bidder, effectively pricing out innovative or community-minded forms of development.

Instead we have to look at the fringes to see what self-build could really produce in the right conditions here. Take a walk along the muddy river’s edge at Shoreham-On-Sea in Sussex for example, and you will come across a remarkable series of house-boats, each one an exercise in surreal bricolage and inventive DIY design. Buses, bathtubs, garden sheds, strange assemblages of fibre-glass, bent plywood and just about any conceivable material have been used to make an extraordinary domestic landscape. Marginal it might be, but it still demonstrates what a truly self-built utopia could look like.