Diggers Self Build, Brighton

“On a steeply sloping site, the co-operative, and their architects, have created an Arcadian retreat with strong overtones of the great British seaside shack... ...the rustic informality of this scheme comes as a breath of fresh air after the contrived ‘vernacular’ style of so much recent housing.”


The verdict of the judges for the 1997 Housing Design Awards, sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions, the R.I.B.A., the R.T.P.I. and the N.H.B.C. The awards were presented by new Housing Minister Hilary Armstrong, who praised the scheme as: 


“ a microcosm of what could be achieved on other sites all over the country by harnessing the imagination and skills of ordinary people.”


Indeed, a project such as this stands testament to the sheer guts and determination of the self build group over a very long period of time – far in excess of the actual construction period. Current social housing funding criteria are not designed for, and do not encourage, end-user involvement in the development and design process. 


The Diggers are a group of five families and four single people in Brighton, who chose to self build for rent as an affordable way of providing their own permanent homes. Members wanted individual houses set in communal gardens, incorporating energy saving features and environmentally healthy specifications. They were keen to be actively involved with their architects throughout the design as well as the construction process, and chose Architype both because of their experience and track record with self build projects, and because they shared a cooperative approach to the organisational structure of the project. 


The scheme brings back into use the derelict site of a disused golf club, surrounded by a mixture of postwar housing developments on the outskirts of Brighton. The site is edged by trees and enjoys views over the town to the sea, but was difficult to develop conventionally due to it’s steep gradient. Planners’ initial concerns about density were overcome by specifying a sea of grass roofs to provide wildflower gardens where overlooked from the flats behind. 


The simple timber frame method was pioneered by architect Walter Segal on several ‘community’ self build schemes in the early 1980s, and since developed and updated by Architype to exceed current construction standards. It is particularly suitable for people without previous building experience, as it is carefully specified to make economical use of ‘off the shelf’ materials, and detailed to require as little cutting as possible, whilst keeping the construction process largely ‘on-site’. This ensured that the self builders benefited directly from retaining control over both quality and waste – they have a vested interest in both as their rents are linked to the overall scheme cost. 


The post and beam structure utilised minimal pad foundations at the foot of each post and allowed development close to mature trees and on a steeply sloping site without expensive retaining structures. Because the wall elements are independent of the structural frame, variations to the ‘base’ layout were easily achieved. The houses were designed in close consultation with the group and individuals to enjoy the natural advantages of the site, with generous windows and natural light, changes in level, conservatories, balconies and verandahs. No two houses are the same: some wanted open plan living / dining / kitchens off a conservatory, others wanted their living areas upstairs in order to maximise their enjoyment of views down the valley towards the sea. 


The specifications were based on ecological principles aiming to limit the energy consumption and pollution which can result from production and building processes as well as subsequent use. The dwellings require minimal energy for heating due to high insulation levels, and achieve excellent NHER energy ratings; amongst the highest in the country – 9.8 out of 10 for the largest 3-bedroom house, with annual space heating costs of around £50. 


A ‘breathing wall’ construction was used which avoids plastic vapour barriers, combining a healthier internal environment with the elimination of interstitial condensation within the structural envelope. Turf roofs sown with wildflowers provide excellent insulation, together with recycled cellulose insulation in walls and floors. Finishes included organic, non-toxic paints, stains and waxes. The result, according to the judges, 


“displays that indefinable quality which marks out the outstanding from the excellent”


Jeremy Melvin, writing in the Architects Journal, was: 


“more taken with the extremely taut interior planning which results in generous and attractive spaces - some also double-height - than the inevitable effect of filigree suburbia which a collection of freestanding timber-framed buildings with balconies creates, especially when there are so many flowers and vegetables” 


The image that the scheme projects says many different things to different people; for some it is the soft, arcadian appearance that sends gentle messages of how the future could be constructed – if only..., for others it represents an object lesson in just how radically different housing can both look and function when the end occupants take a deep interest in it’s conception.