Sue Wheat talks to John Struthers from Headway Self Build Group Collective
Among the many inspiring people doing incredible things in the borough, John Struthers must be somewhere near the top of the list.
A local dad of three from Priory Court between Chingford and Walthamstow, he and his family were living in cramped conditions and desperately needed to move but couldn’t afford to buy. With an estimated ten-year wait to get rehoused he decided the only option was to build a new home himself.
“Ever since my uncle took me to the Ideal Home Show when I was 11 years old I’ve been interested in building my own house,” 47-year-old John explains. “Many years later here I am.”
But this was no ordinary house-building project. In 2006 he put an ad in the Waltham Forest Guardian, leafleted homes and libraries, and went round the estates talking to people and asking them to get involved.
Twenty people responded and John and others formed the Headway Self Build Group Collective with the help of the Community Self-Build Agency (CSBA).
For another six years John talked to the council, housing providers, and contractors to try to realise his dream.
In 2012 discovered an ideal plot of land off Penhryn Avenue in Chapel End – a derelict Warner Estate garage court.
“The garages were built for old cars and there was no room to open the doors on newer bigger cars! The land was owned by my landlord – Circle 33 – and I persuaded them to allocate it to us to build 10 houses.”
“The crucial elements were – all the tenants had to be in serious housing need, we would all be involved in the build as much as possible, and we would stay as renters.”
Using a local contractor was also part of John’s vision, and the group chose Leytonstone company Kind and Co, pairing them up with one of the UK’s foremost self-build and ‘eco’ architects, John Broome to design conventional-looking but highly energy efficient properties.
Solar PV electricity panels, high-spec insulation in the walls and argon low-e double-glazing were chosen to keep winter bills low.
It took seven years for all the planning applications, plans, transport studies, local consultations, designs and contracts to be agreed and in Dec 2013 the build started of one two-bed house, seven three-bed, one four-bed and one two-bed house for a wheelchair user.
Kind and Co built the shells of the conventional timber-framed, brick-clad two-storey houses, the infrastructure and the road. Waltham Forest College provided tailor-made training in basic construction to the self-builders and also provided tutors and apprentices to work on site helping them carry out ‘second fix’ carpentry and decoration.
One of the self-builders, Theresa Philip, a single mother of two, is wearing a hard hat and building clothes when I visit and she shows me around her house with pride.
“When John approached me five years ago I’d never heard of self-build,” said Theresa. “But my children were sharing a bedroom and needed more space and I wanted to do something for myself and show my kids you don’t have to rely on the council or a man – and if there’s an opportunity to do something good you should do it.”
Theresa and the other self-builders fitted kitchens, bathrooms, doors, skirting and made all the finishing touches allowing them to personalise their own houses.
“We had to commit to working 20 hours a week but I worked here 9am-5pm every day from July last year to this March as I’m not in employment. It’s been an amazing experience.”
On 16th March this year, the ten families moved in. After nine years of hard work it was “less of a party more of a big sleep,” explains John.
The project cost £1.3m from beginning to end, meaning each house cost on average £130,000 for Circle 33.
“A housing developer may say they could do it cheaper,” says John. “But this project gave everyone skills they’ll go on to use in in life and jobs, enhanced people’s confidence, has ‘recycled’ their old rented properties into the community and increased the social housing stock.
“But most of all, it’s created a strong, supportive community. In years to come what will our children think? They’ll think ‘that was amazing’.”
“The families really bonded,” says Nick Cox, Carpentry Lecturer at Waltham Forest College who worked with them.
“You can tell the site will be a strong community and self- policing as everyone’s invested so much in it.” In fact, Nick was so inspired he wants to work with John on another project for the borough and move in himself.
I suggest to John he was lucky to find this piece of land but he comes back quickly with: “If you define luck as ‘labour under correct knowledge’ then I was lucky – it was seven years of hard graft.
“There are many more pockets of land like this scattered around Waltham Forest, he insists, still enthusiastic to do more. But for the time being he’s having a rest with his kids in their gorgeous new home.
“The kids are buzzing around with big smiles on their faces and the parents say they wake up every morning and can’t believe they’re in somewhere as beautiful as this. There’s so much to be said for having a ready- made community. It’s very nice, very nice indeed.”
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