The Segal Method in Ireland - July 2020

Lomask House, Rossbrin, Schull, Co. Cork

1970 – 1971 

Walter Segal

Photographs – Sophie and friends, courtesy Dr Ute Büttner; La Casa Piccola (1932), Graubunden ski house (1957) and Donohue House (1968) copyright Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections; Lomask House (2017) courtesy Nicholas Cunningham
Walter Segal (1907–1985) is best known as the godfather of self-build housing, notably at Walter’s Way and Segal Close in Lewisham 40 years ago, which allowed 24 families from the local authority’s housing list to build their own homes quickly and cheaply, engendering a strong sense of community in the process. There are about 200 Segal houses in the UK but two of his earliest breakthroughs, largely unknown here, were (and thankfully still are) for holiday homes in Ireland. I am extremely grateful to Nicholas Cunningham for his kindness in providing me his detailed 2018 UCD M Arch dissertation, The Evolution of the Segal Method, from which much of what follows is drawn.

Walter Segal was a child of the avant-garde. Born in Berlin, he was brought up in an atmosphere of “moral insanity” at Monte Verità in Ascona, southern Switzerland, in what he described as a “community of artists, architects, life-reformers, thinkers, truth-seekers, idealogues, mystics, charlatans and other cranks.” His father, a painter, was a prominent member, along with Tristan Tzara, of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, the birthplace during World War I of the Dadaist movement. Hans Arp frequently stayed in his childhood home. Lenin was a brief visitor, as too, it seems, were Herman Hesse and James Joyce. Back in Berlin after the war, his father was on the committee of the November Group with Mies van der Rohe, Hugo Häring and Ludwig Hilberseimer, while those who regularly passed through the family home included Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who became his great friend and mentor.
Gropius encouraged Walter to join the new Bauhaus but he declined when, upon questioning, Gropius replied that they did not have a course on the theory of structures. He studied instead at Delft, Berlin (under Hans Poelzig) and Zürich. His first commission, La Casa Piccola, a tiny American balloon-framed chalet for an anarchist neighbour of his parents at Ascona, arrived a fortnight after he graduated in 1932. One of the first structures of its type in Europe, it was built in three weeks and was published by FRS Yorke in The Modern House (1934). He applied for a position in Le Corbusier’s atelier, but fled before being interviewed by the great man and wound up in London in the mid-1930s after a period working on archaeological research in Egypt. He insisted on doing his own structural calculations and taking his own quantities off his works, believing the architect should be responsible for all parts of a design. In 1963 he developed a design-and-self-build, modular, timber-frame system that came to be known as the Segal Method. 

Segal’s method eliminated the need for wet trades, such as bricklaying and plastering, and relied on mass-produced construction materials, usually assembled in their market sizes, so that the work could be completed by “a single person with only basic carpentry skills”. The documents for his houses were minimal; just a few dimensioned freehand drawings on A4 sheets and a handwritten list of materials, fully quantified, thus providing an accurate cost basis from the outset. The Segal method required that the details had to be rigorously applied, but the system was easy to understand and construct, and could be refined in detail and used with infinite flexibility within two storeys.
A practical eccentric, he was “a lone wolf”, according to his Berlin classmate, architectural historian Julius Posener, although Fred Wade, a carpenter, followed him from job to job in the late 1960s. Florian Beigel noted that, uniquely, the infill parts of a Segal structure are in no way fixed together, thus none of the basic wall and partition materials have been touched by either nail or screw; they are simply held in position by pressure and friction from the surface-mounted battens. “I cannot claim much for what I have been doing,” said Walter. “I slithered into the discovery, shamefully late, that a market of mass-produced materials does exist, that, by and large, there are many materials that are dimensionally coordinated which you only have to buy and assemble.”

His first Irish design, in 1949, was for a prototype aluminium-framed house that permitted panel assembly; possibly an industrial competition entry for prefabricated housing systems. Called the Abse house, nothing came of it. Nearly two decades later, however, the Donohue House, a holiday home at Cahore Point, Ballygarrett, Co Wexford, for Michael Donohue, an Irish engineer, became the first ever self-built house using the Segal method. Donohue and a carpenter (probably Fred Wade) built the 58.5sqm, three-bedroom structure in three weeks for £925. The finishes were basic, the external wall sandwich build-up comprising unpainted plasterboard on the interior, woodwool slabs and an exterior weathering of green mineralised felt. Half a century later, the house, although modified, still exists.
Three years later came his greatest Irish work, a holiday home for Americans Milt and Martha Lomask, who had retired to London. Milton was a violinist and regular recording collaborator with jazz legend Charlie Parker, among others, including Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, while Martha was a writer of cookbooks, including the All-American Cookbook. The house is divided into three parts on stepping platforms that overlap to form a circulation and service spine connecting the master bedroom and study at the top, the children’s bedrooms in the middle and the entrance, kitchen and living room at the bottom, all gathered around a large west-facing sundeck. Every room is south-facing, with a view of the cove. The construction is classic Segal: simple pad foundations with timber stilts and bracing. Walter described it as a model of his method: “Once the frame is up, the roof goes on and you move the building materials inside and work under cover.” Here, for the first time, as in most of his subsequent projects, he specified autoclaved fibre-cement Glasal façade boards as the outer leaf of the sandwich panel, friction-held in position by vertical battens, without the use of nails, screws or adhesive.

The Lomasks sold the house to the German family Büttner in 1982. Dr Ute Büttner told Nicholas Cunningham that her family, who had been visiting Ireland since 1970, rented a holiday house by the sea in 1982. “Across the next field, in ca 200m distance, we discovered a very interesting, unusual house, snuggled into the hill behind, consisting of three cubes arranged like big stairs with an inner open terrace between. The house consisted of more than 75% windows and some grey timber walls. We got in contact with the local estate agent and in November he told us that the house was for sale. When my husband then came to Rossbrin, the sky was as grey as the house, but inside it seemed to be brighter. From then on we passed every summer and some Easter and autumn holidays in this house. We only changed the windows, because they were mostly broken at the edges – no wonder, standing 20m away from the Atlantic ocean! We restored two wonderful Walter Segal chairs we found broken in the garage, which are comfortable and extremely modern. We did not add any insulation; the house is only heated by a black cast-iron stove, which is ok for the summer period.”

The architectural historian Peter Blundell Jones reckoned that the compulsive utilitarianism of Walter’s work was born of deliberate restraint – probably a reaction against his extraordinary and privileged upbringing in the artistic commune of Monte Verità, with its religious and vegetarian cults. Without looking at the buildings too closely or knowing the man, it is easy enough to dismiss them as ordinary, banal; ‘not really architecture’. Walter’s reply? “Real appreciation of simple architecture depends on a good and well-trained eye… Superficially these dwellings are modest and simple, but their detailing is superb.” It is fortunate indeed when they fall into good hands.