Dave Dayes was a market trader when he and his wife, Barbara, started building their home in Honor Oak in the 1980s on the site of what would become Walters Way. Now a yoga teacher, Dave is one of the residents of the original self-build project and still lives in the house he built.
“I was involved from the word go to create my environment and I think most people would like to have a say in how they create their environment and their communities…Give people the opportunity and they will grab hold of it.”
Dave was living in a flat in Deptford with his wife and two children. Their neighbour, who was making a video about self-build projects, asked if they would be interested in a new scheme that was being proposed. At the time Council tenants and people on the waiting list for a Council house in Lewisham were offered an opportunity to build their own homes. Dave and Barbara decided to put their names on the waiting list. Over 100 people put their names down for a plot on the site, and after three years they were offered the last plot in a total of 13, “We were lucky”, he says, “It’s like we won the lottery.”
The land, which belonged to Lewisham Council, was chosen for the self-build because the design meant that houses could be constructed on the slope where the site was situated. To build conventional brick houses on the Honor Oak site would not have been financially viable.
At first, Dave and Barbara didn’t know the other self-builders, but prior to starting work on the site, they had meetings together in the pub, and began “talking about how we’re gonna get this thing going”.
The houses would be built using the timber construction method designed by the architect, Walter Segal, who the development was also named after. Each household was allocated £30,000 and if they went over budget, then any extra spending was the responsibility of the individual builder. “Basically the Council says look, here’s the land, here’s the architect and here’s the money. Go build your house!”
The self-builders were introduced to Walter Segal and invited to his home in Highgate. Here he showed them a house that he had built at the back of his garden using his method of construction.
Dave says that initially the group had no real building skills, but were encouraged by Segal’s approach. “We spent about four hours talking about self-build and he said, ‘There’s a folder, but just take a page at a time. Just look at one little corner; do that corner…As long as you can cut a straight line and drill a straight hole, you can build your own house.’”
Once they started building, they were a long way from feeling like they’d won the lottery. Dave says, “It felt like we’d put our neck in the noose.” When they eventually got on site, he remembers that they were handed machetes to clear the land. While the task ahead seemed daunting he says, “You got this sense that yeah, I’m going to do this; this is my project.”
During the course of the project, Walter Segal and assistant architect, Jon Broome came along to “check that our measurements were right and that we had the foundation points in the right place.” When deliveries of the building materials arrived, they were delivered not for one, but for all 13 houses. It was the responsibility of each household to put their allocated pieces together, using the instructions from their folder. After making the four timber frames for each house, everybody came together to help raise each of the frames. Dave says, “you’d need maybe 10 people to raise one frame.” After the frames had been raised, seeing the skeleton of the building coming together was “a high”.
Work was undertaken in all weathers, during the evenings and at weekends with no holidays and little time out. At times, they would retreat to their caravan at the top of the road to keep warm. Dave says, “Friends would call you up and say let’s go to a party. ‘No, you come and bring the party here and bring a hammer as well and come and help!’”
Eventually they reaped the rewards of their commitment and hard work when “two and a half years later, having lived, breathed, slept, ate selfbuild non-stop, we ended up with a three-bedroomed house.”
Thirty years later, Dave is still making the most of his house, enjoying the home and its environment. He says “I’ve got to do the garden…put some vegetables down in those beds. I’ve got a plum tree there, I’ve got an apple trees, pear tree, birdsong down here. I’m in a place where you could be anywhere in the world…You come down the street, you can feel the vibe.”
“It’s a group effort to get it up, but it’s also a singular effort, a personal effort…and that’s what self-build is….you’ve got to share that labour and that’s what we did on the site.”
Self-build seems to run in the family and Dave’s son, Kareem was one of the people who set up Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS). RUSS is a community land trust that signed a development agreement with Lewisham Council in 2016 for a ‘community-led, affordable, self-build housing development’ of 33 homes in a derelict former school and industrial site in Ladywell. They have also initiated a new project to build a training facility for workshops with community self-builders.