The house that Janis built

Yes, it's an unusual building site: dream homes for poor people. But what you notice is the women builders. By Esther Oxford. Photographs by Liza Hamlyn
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The Independent Culture
The Greenstreet building site in Lewisham, southeast London, tickles the imagination. Passers-by think the muscled women up on the scaffolding must be former offenders doing community service; locals class them as hippies; loitering men, fresh from an afternoon in the pub, suppose there are orgies going on "left, right and centre", says Janis Gibbs, 43, the site manager. Then there is the neighbour with the baseball bat who refers to the women as "you effing c...ts".

The 15 adults and nine children fit into none of these categories. In fact they are pretty normal - except that their conversation is dotted with references to "empowerment", "community" and things being "ecologically sound". That and the fact that they have decided to build themselves ten houses on a small patch of land in Lewisham. They may well want to have orgies (at least half are single), but most don't have time: under housing association rules they must work 21 hours on site a week - as well as earn an income, look after the kids and get on with the business of living.

The project is funded by a pounds 420,000 grant from the Housing Corporation plus a top-up of pounds 140,000 from various housing associations. The houses will be huge (three floors, large windows, sprawling balconies), many with cathedral ceilings. Members of the co-op are selected by a panel interested in "anyone who isn't a Sun reader". In return for their work, they have the right to stay in one of the houses, paying pounds 55 a week (or 70 per cent of the usual housing association rent).

The participants are proud to be involved: "This is my only chance to get somewhere decent to live", says Imogen Slater, 30, a single woman currently living in a shared house. Lewisham, a no- man's land of roundabouts, concrete and graffiti, wasn't their first choice. But bit by bit, after two years of digging soil, laying foundations, erecting beams, quarrelling, cuddling and laughing, the Greenstreet "community" is learning to love its new area.

"I come from Lewisham, so I feel quite at home," says Ms Slater. "To me, self-build is a way of escaping the council housing list."

Peter Holmes, the architect behind Greenstreet, was inspired by Walter Segal, a German-born Modernist architect. Segal is known for developing a house-building method which allows ordinary people with no experience of building or designing homes to construct their own "dream house". Homes, Segal decided, should respond to the people who live in them: walls should be easily shifted (the weight of the house is supported by the wooden frames rather than the walls) and the houses should show a concern for comfort and utility. But most importantly the buildings should be made from easily available materials which can be slotted together using easily understood DIY skills.

The Greenstreet community say that their Lewisham buildings are only loosely based on the Walter Segal method. They have retained the medieval timber-frame structure, but the appearance of the finished houses bears more resemblance to Swedish or American self-builds than the flat-roofed structures advocated by Segal.

They have also ignored the stipulation that materials should be cheap and easily available. Theirs are expensive and hard to find. Why do they go for this option? Because Greenstreet have added their own ideology: they want "ecologically sound" building materials. All timber is from (Scandinavian) renewable sources, the paints and stains are organic (that is, paints based on citrus oil rather than petrol); even the insulation is made from recycled paper.

But Segal's community ideals have been preserved: Greenstreet will have a communal room and communal gardens and a communal laundry. The buildings are designed to be as communal as possible: balconies link into each other. Shared light. A communal herb garden. A pond. Maybe even a communal organic vegetable patch. "Will you help me put in my contact lenses later, Imogen?" asks John Nayar, 27, in a public display of platonic togetherness. "Yeah, John, I'd love to," says Imogen fervently, a cup of herb tea on the floor.

Have a word with Ms Gibbs, the site's manager for the past 18 months, (whose throne is a very comfortable-looking wheelbarrow), and the community dream is painted in vivid colours rather than pastels. "The little world of the self-build is like living in a soap opera", she says. "I'm expected to be mum as well as everything else.

"These people have given up their lives for five years to build a home. They are fired up with enthusiasm and very temperamental. You only have to say something vaguely untactful and - phhhst - someone has gone off for a week. They cry easily, too. They make a mistake, and - phhhst - they're off. It is hilarious. Mistakes are made, too. Frames being cut too short. Figures getting mixed up. People used to get very angry and scream and shout at each other. We've got beyond that now."

Ms Gibbs is paid pounds 21,000 for a "38-and-a-half hour week" at the Greenstreet project. Everyone else is unpaid. Ms Slater works as a housing researcher and earns pounds 100 a week - pounds 45 of which goes on rent; John Nayar, who is single, is on income support and pays pounds 60 a week for a shared house in Peckham; Dougal Martin, 43, also unemployed and single, pays pounds 58 for a small room in a shared house in Brixton; Carole Padmore, 32, on social security, lives in a two-bedroom house with her ten-year-old daughter.

The difference in income creates tensions, says Ms Gibbs. "There are a couple of trouble-makers who are very aggressive and demanding. They call me up at home to say things aren't going fast enough... When morale is low, it's all my fault... There is only so much you can take before you get burnt out. I've been thinking about resigning."

Then there are the tensions created by the necessity of juggling building life with work and home. Three couples have split up since the start of the project - which means that the remaining partner must either do double the work or find another roommate. There is also the problem of high expectations. Many people are attracted to the idea of building their own home, but once they discover the reality of it (manual labour, out in all weathers, work dragging on for four or five years) they pack it in, which then means a month may pass before new recruits are found and the hours rota kept up.

Occasionally, the new members have to be encouraged to leave, says Ms Gibbs with a smirk. "The co-op decided that we had to have a black family, so we ended up with a Nigerian man and an Irish woman who had numerous children. They did their hours for the probation time [two weeks], so the co-op being the co-op voted them in. They lasted a month: she picked fights; he went round threatening to beat everyone up. In the end he came round to me complaining that he was the only one doing any work. I said: 'Yes, you're right. You are the only person doing any work.' In the end he just handed me the keys and said: 'I'm resigning.'"

Aside from the internal "community" problems, there are the tensions from the external community in Lewisham. Last year, a house on another self-build site was set on fire by disgruntled locals. The carpenter (a night nurse who spent her days working on the house) had to start again from scratch. Then there was the man driving a digger on another self-build site who was shot in the face with an air-gun. The pellet just missed his eye.

Hearing about these incidents has made the builders on Greenstreet nervy: the frames of their houses are made of wood; the site is unguarded at night. The group has put an effort into local relations - there is a pile of timber scraps which neighbours have been invited to help themselves to - and one or two members of the community have knocked on doors to introduce themselves and tell people about Greenstreet. But they are still worried. "We're trying to finish one of the houses as soon as possible," says Ms Slater. "It'll help to have someone on site at night."

But this week the sun was steaming and the days so long that nobody thought about the worries of the night, or cared. Instead, they chatted about the design of their homes ("I'm still deciding where to put the loo"), and gushed about the dreamy touches: "I'm building my bed under a skylight so I can watch the stars," or "I'm building my bedroom with a galley - I want it to look like a ship." And they worked - fitting tongue-and-groove planks on to the gable of a house, putting in windows, building internal walls, putting slates on the roof. The scene was peaceful and contented. An "oasis of sanity", as Ms Slater puts, in a no-go area.

Research by Teresa Garfield