Tucked down a winding lane in a leafy pocket of south London, you’ll find Walters Way: a collection of houses designed by namesake architect, Walter Segal. It’s just one of the incredible neighbourhoods you can experience at the Open House Festival: a two-week celebration of the people – and places – that make London so special. And this year, Rightmove and Open House are teaming up for the event, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
The enclave of Walters Way has taken part in Open House since the festival began in 1992. From architecture fans, to curious visitors keen to hear more about this special urban community, the street attracts crowds of festival-goers who travel from far and wide to explore these unique timber-framed homes, and to speak to those who live there today.
Walters Way sits on a markedly steep incline, so it wasn’t possible to build conventional bricks and mortar houses here. This meant that up until the 1980s, the council-owned land had sat disused.
Segal launched a project with Lewisham Council to design the current timber houses, which were relatively easy to build, and would be well suited to the awkward ground. The plots were assigned to people who were on the council’s housing waiting list, with the houses designed so that the residents could self-build them.
It’s this bold and visionary approach that makes Walters Way what it is today, and it’s one of the many fascinating stories you’ll find behind the homes you can visit at this year’s Open House.
Ian and Shiree, who have lived on Walters Way for 25 years, adapted their two-storey house to suit the needs of their growing family. They’ve been welcoming festival-goers into their home for 18 years, and are looking forward to returning again this September.
What makes homes in Walters Way so special?
The timber-framed houses in Walters Way sit on stilts, with the wood layered and bolted together, which gives the interiors a distinctive panelled effect throughout. The houses have no weight-bearing walls, because the timber stilts – that were plunged six metres into the ground – bear the entire load.
“This meant that residents could make decisions about how to divide up their homes, and adapt them in a way that worked for them,” says Ian.
“Whether that be living open-plan, putting in glass walls, or building extensions. Even though the 13 houses work off the same blueprint, each home has its own unique story to tell.”
One neighbour has built a wall out of reclaimed stained glass, and another has towering conservatory walls made from materials originally destined for Heathrow Terminal 5.
Ian and Shiree’s own three-bedroom house is a testament to the couple’s creativity.
“Years ago, when some surrounding trees were being felled, a falling branch put a hole in the wall,” says Shiree.
The family had always wanted a porthole window, so they turned this problem into an opportunity.
“It took about two-and-a-half hours one evening to cut the wall away and install the window. The other residents sat around and watched us do it, drinks in hand. It demonstrates just how adaptable these houses are.”
‘We want to empower people to look at what’s possible’
Open House is the perfect event to share the incredible history of this London community, with visitors queuing up to ask questions. “We’re challenging what they know, and what’s usual. People will ask if it’s a kit house, and if we have to use a specialist heating system. But we have normal radiators,” laughs Ian.
For Ian and Shiree, being part of Open House is about sharing their story and inspiring others.
“We want to let people to hear about the history of the building, why it’s here, what’s unusual about it. They may even go away thinking ’we could do that ourselves‘.
We want people to absorb Walters Way and its quirks, as it has a big story to tell. It becomes a bit of a day out for people: we have tea and cake, the kids might do a car boot sale, and people will sit in the garden if the weather’s good,” says Ian.
The festival can also open people’s eyes to what’s possible. What might seem idyllic, and maybe even unachievable, is exactly how little pockets of London are living in 2022.
“People will ask what it’s like to live in a wooden house, as if it’s an unusual thing,” laughs Shiree.
“I’m from New Zealand, and I grew up in a wooden house. I’ve been in a wooden house during an earthquake! People also ask if it’s cold here, but it isn’t – countries like Scandinavia are covered with snow for half the year, and they live in wooden houses.”
Opening up London neighbourhoods
Ian and Shiree have loved seeing more small, residential homes taking part in Open House in recent years. “One of my favourite things I’ve visited during Open House was a row of terraced houses in Hackney,” says Ian. “You’re seeing a lot more artisans taking part and a breadth of different properties, which is great.”
“People that come to Open House are interested in your story – whether that be the architecture, or how your home came about – rather than the artefacts in your home. You can just open up the parts of your home you want people to see. For instance, we keep a bit of privacy by only opening the downstairs level, and the garden.”
Shiree also notes how the community spirit of Walters Way has been an added bonus of moving here: “In this day and age, it’s very easy to become insular, to not speak to your neighbours. I grew up in a place where people left their doors open, so coming to London was a shock.”
The Walters Way residents recently did egg rolling for Easter, and have an annual gathering where they build a stage, plus a big barbecue. “Most summer evenings the residents will sit out, the kids will play football – Walters Way isn’t for those wanting a quiet life!” says Shiree.
It’s fair to say their annual return to Open House is partly about bringing other Londoners into the Walters Way fold, even if only for the duration of the festival.
“A lot of people say we must be the only street in Britain that’s like this, but we aren’t,” says Ian. “We want to empower people to look at what’s possible, yes in terms of buildings, but also in terms of people helping each other.”
“We’re very lucky. We have this property, and street, but we have the community as well.”
London’s Open House Festival: how you can get involved
This year’s festival aims to have the biggest and most diverse range of buildings and places taking part.
Any kind of home or building can feature in the programme, from rental homes, studio flats, and entire housing estates, to factories and faith spaces such as mosques and synagogues.
If you have a story to tell about your home, workplace, neighbourhood, or somewhere in London you find fascinating, then the festival is for you.
If it’s special and interesting to you, it will be to others too.
You can find out more about how you can contribute to this year’s festival here.
London’s Open House Festival 2022 runs for two weeks, from the 8th to the 21st of September.