15 September 2016

Headway Gardens E17

Headway Gardens looks like an normal housing estate, but it’s actually something rather special, a self-build project that has transformed an area of derelict lock-up garages into ten new family houses. The organising force behind the project was John Struthers, whose energy and tenacity drove the project through from the initial idea to realisation. I met him back in June during Green Open Homes weekend. All the other places on the tour were individual houses with some green improvements, but Headway Gardens is on a completely different scale. A group of visitors and fellow self-builders were assembled in his bright airy kitchen, kids were playing in the garden and a lady was hanging out John’s washing, despite protests.

John brought together a group of people who were on the council housing waiting list, people who saw little hope of getting better accommodation that way, and got together with Circle Housing (then Circle 33) to put in a bid to build on the council-owned site. It was a long haul, seven years from setting up the original group to finally being able to move in with a secure housing association tenancy. This is no hippy squatter community. Guided partly by the highly conservative requirements of the housing association, the group didn’t try to use way-out materials and unusual shapes. Even so, the houses were designed by architect John Broome, who specialises in sustainability and self-build.

Each group member took construction skills courses at Waltham Forest College, and pledged to spend at least twenty hours per week working on their house, time that was spent mainly on fitting out: carpentry, kitchens and bathrooms, and of course painting. They employed a builder to construct the house shells, sensibly recognising that they could not hope to do everything to modern standards without professional help. But judging by the open house, the interior work was a big job in itself and was done to a convincingly high standard. The houses are low-key, pleasant family-sized homes that should age well, and fit immediately into their surroundings. They have front and back gardens and somewhere to park, as well as being low energy homes that will cost a lot less to heat than the typical Victorian terraced house.

After the success of this project, John is involved with a new group, Family Foundations, who hope to build on the experience of this project to achieve results a little faster this time. Waltham Forest council are also working with various housing associations to build on all of their lock-up garage sites around the borough on more conventional lines. It’s encouraging to see affordable housing built on this modest scale, rather than the kind of profit-led overdevelopment that the big sites attract.

Facts and figures www.selfbuildportal.org.uk