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22nd May 2016

HOME TRUTHS

 

This is an article that was originally written for The Northern Correspondent  and is reblogged here.

From red tops to broadsheets, there is wide agreement that we are amidst a housing crisis. Coupled with regressive austerity policies and welfare reform housing has never been so politically and socially divisive. We are also seeing a rise in increasingly ‘informal’ ways of home-making, from sofa surfing to ‘beds in sheds’ and tent cities. The homeless charity Crisis has found that there has been a huge rise in rough sleeping, which increased by 55% in England from 2010-2014, whilst 68% of households in Newcastle are only two pay packets away from losing their home.

It is within this context that PROTOHOME, a self-build housing prototype has been created. PROTOHOME has been constructed by members of Crisis over the past 3 months and is now temporarily sited in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle and open to the public from 13th and 14th May (at the Late Shows) until August. The ‘house’ will host a range of events, from film screenings, to artist residencies, forums, workshops, performances and more, examining issues of self-build housing, homelessness, austerity and the politics of land and development. The project attempts to reconnect notions of self-build housing to self-help, where self construction confronts issues of territorial stigmatisation, inequality, rising homelessness, intergenerational unemployment, so called ‘failing’ housing markets and empty homes.

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The building group (Photo Credit: John Robert Hipkin)

The premise for the project is not so much about creating a finished ‘product’ in the form of a working house (PROTOHOME is a shell-like structure and does not have services attached to it), but instead lies in the process of becoming that both the house and the people who made it have gone through. For the individuals involved in the project who have experienced homelessness, building has been a learning process, one that has been therapeutic, has helped to build confidence and has forged friendships and social ties.

 

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Putting the flooring in (Photo credit John Robert Hipkin)

However, this isn’t to say that this can’t or shouldn’t be a model which has the potential to be replicated into a fully functioning house in the future – indeed it is very much a provocation for the city. We hope that this project can initiate a conversation into housing that reframes self-build as an educational and therapeutic tool, to widen access to housing through participation, particularly for low income groups, in the vein of this quote from one of the members of the group:

“I think, fundamentally, that being involved in a collective, community-based, socially-grounded-and-rooted project like this allows real growth and change across the board – and at a rapid pace, to boot. Construction. Solid, long-lasting, sustainable construction – which itself has room for growth, expansion and continuing development – all involves tapping into both the individual and collective skillsets and creativity”.

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For the many people involved, the project has created an awareness and a confidence in our ability to self-build housing, something which has largely dropped out of the collective imagination – something that we have un-learnt. The design, which was completed by xsite architecture and put into being by Crisis members alongside Tilt Artistic Services, is based on the Segal method of timber frame construction which is specifically designed for untrained self-builders and offers a flexible approach to how a house is designed, built and used. It makes self-building achievable, even for those without any previous woodwork skills. Learning and training being at the core of this project this system of building offered an approach through which learning could occur whilst building.

So this project is ultimately about reframing housing as something that is active – as a verb, as something that has social use and value, thereby challenging the preoccupation we all have with the economic function of housing – as collateral, as a pension, as an inheritance. We hope that it provides a small glimpse into more engaged and engaging methods of house production which has both an individual and collective process of learning at its centre.

 

15th April 2016

“WE’VE LOST THE ABILITY TO USE OUR HANDS”: A conversation on self-help housing

 

Untitled

 

Everybody lives in shanty towns in Belize. I lived in a little shack there once for three months. It’s all timber framed buildings and everyone builds their own. They have some professionally built places for hotels and that but they’re all built from wood. Brick is too expensive. They don’t feel very secure though, there’s guns everywhere. They build the first floor, then roof, second floor, then roof, third floor and then don’t put a roof on top of it. It’s probably for tax purposes.

 

You don’t see homeless people in Albania because they can just build their own.

 

So where in this country can people build? The weather causes problems for this type of building, as well as government regulation. Where can you get the money to build and put electricity in and that?

 

I don’t see a problem with squatting. Buildings are sitting there year upon year empty. Just as long as you don’t destroy them or make a mess, I don’t see why there should be a problem.

But the Tories changed the law on squatting so it makes it more difficult.

I was squatting in a breeze block building that was built whilst they were making the new library. I was there for five years.

 

Then there’s beds in sheds. Cheeky bastards rent their sheds out, should just let people stay there.

 

I’m getting a tent to live in and I’m going to put it on pallets. I’m going to fill in the gaps with wood.

 

Which land can you use?

 

I saw something about PROTOHOME-type houses being built in France where they’re moving refugees into them in the campsites in Calais. It shouldn’t be necessary to do things like this.

 

I thought about shanty towns when I heard of this project.

 

I think we’ve lost the ability or the imagination to build our own housing, nowadays people don’t really bother.

 

I went to Borneo and I was sleeping in a hammock in the trees. We made mud huts. We made a wooden frame and then added mud. We were there 6 months and each would take 6 weeks to build. It was the only way that they could put a roof over their heads.

 

There’s a survivalist on YouTube who does wattle and daub houses. He makes them big enough just for himself and builds his own accessories and furniture.

 

I think the ruling classes have got rid of our traditional skills and removed our ability to survive so we have to rely on someone else higher up the chain to help us survive when catastrophe happens. The new world order. We will be enslaved to them.

 

Allotments are going, the steel industry has gone, coal mines have shut, shipyards have gone. We’ve lost the ability to use our hands.

 

 

24th March 2016

ON CREATIVITY – Nyree Denney

Julia (the Protohome project leader and visionary – well, it’s true – because she has both envisioned and functioned as catalyst for (and within) this project – asked me to write a blog entry. As all members of the project have been or will be invited to do.

About creativity.

Urk. Heart missed a beat. Creativity. First thought – nooo – someone else would be much better talking about THAT. Anyone else would be much better-placed to talk about THAT.

The instant Nyree-knee-jerk-reaction to the word creative.

But, I like a challenge. Sometimes especially when it’s one I don’t really want in the first place. I’m a bit contrary-weird like that.

So. Why is this, I’m now asking myself?

 

Creativity. Dictionary definition: “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.

Yup. For a long time now I’ve thought of myself as someone fundamentally lacking in imagination, originality, creativity – but utterly adored, supported and celebrated it to the nth degree in others. I mean that’s been a HUGE part of my life. As a daughter, sister, mother, friend, employee, colleague, leader, supporter. HUGE part in the sum of the whole me.

However, when it comes to myself – not so much. Like not at all. Like to the point of freezing whenever the situation arises that I’m asked to ‘create’ something (improvise music – give me sheet music ANY day – someone else’s creativity to attempt to interpret) or draw a picture (draw a stick man even)(draw lines and circles even, for goodness sake!)[this latter part from a recent art class, which I attempted, for two sessions only, at Crisis Skylight Newcastle], or simply (simply? ha!) “write down all the things you would do with £1million and unlimited possibilities” [part of a recent goals workshop – also at Crisis].

Unbelievably (to me) I wasn’t always like this…. My early report cards, i.e. throughout primary school, (from first day at school until last day of primary 7) [my mum kept every single one], all speak of a lass with a huge imagination and fearless capacity for creating and communicating – art, music, drama, movement, writing – the whole kit and kaboodle. That’s also consistently evident through four school changes during that period alone – as my parents’ business of big building & renovation projects were all our homes, for the most part.

My introduction to the Protohome Self-Build project came via my only very recent discovery of the wood workshop at Crisis Skylight Newcastle. I had tried many other things at the centre, but hadn’t spotted the workshop before. Daughter of a carpenter, growing up loving the smell of wood and watching my Dad, Grandad and other craftsmen at work – and having been given my great Grandad’s beautiful old saw not long ago (one of the few things to survive my move from cottage to car-homelessness), I thought – why not? Do it! So I did.

But. I got the days wrong. I turned up for Creative Woodwork, not DIY woodwork. Froze on entering the door. Muttered something about being good to come back on the proper day. But Dom (the tutor) encouraged me to stay – in amongst all of the already-busy creating folk, (some of whom I’d previously encountered and been in awe of their talents in the art class), all, without exception, making hugely diverse and truly beautiful things out of wood. I stayed – and for the next matter of weeks, twice a week I’d have a spring in my step as I headed to the workshop to practice sawing and drilling and sanding and whatever….in my little space amongst the ‘real creatives’ and making notes about it all (what tool, what technique) in my notebook, to report back to my Dad on our now nightly phone calls, since mum died last year.

Then one afternoon Dom said there was a project coming up that he thought I’d be very interested in. Protohome. I said “YES please – where do I sign up?”, before he’d finished describing the bare bones of it.

So here I am, just weeks in – and already part of this individual experience of self-discovery and collective-participation building. Because it is SELF discovery – to the nth degree – and it’s happening so quickly and fully (I think) because of the collective, participatory, supportive environment. It’s made me think of the times I’ve volunteered (Amber Films cinema, Star & Shadow Cinema, Comfrey Project, to name only a few) and how much I’ve got out of that collective participation. It’s more than enjoyable – it’s……..energising and empowering.

I’ve discovered that, other than watching my kids (x5) grow and launch into ‘themselves’ – and music (oh MUSIC!) playing and listening – working with wood is another indefinable ‘something’ that makes the heart, brain and core of me, vibrate and makes me internally sing like a loon.

It’s not confined to the 3.5hrs on Mon/Tues for Protohome or the 3hrs Tues/Fri in the regular workshop sessions – or the Saturdays spent deconstructing the old Star & Shadow Cinema (in preparation for reconstruction and development of the new building) – either.

It’s actually (with no exaggeration here) spilling over and then out into the way I tackle, prepare or do….anything. Job applications, volunteering, business planning, cooking, my social activities, my living situation and my interactions with folk, in each and any given setting…and with me, myself, Nyree.

There’s a new self…..not just confidence…….self-assurance. I’m discovering – and quite possibly learning to love and celebrate parts of me that I’d most likely never noticed were actually there all along. With the added bonus of being highly receptive to learning and discovering the potential of…..more to come.

I’ve never (I think) been afraid to have a go, or get stuck into something – a project, a problem, a situation. I’ve always had this deep down trust that nothing was impossible, really; that no problematic or physically or emotionally difficult experience didn’t have some possibility somewhere for a positive outcome. Even if only just the benefits of coming through the experience itself – the good, the bad AND the ugly. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Or in my case – and what I usually tend to think these days (like Batman’s (Heath Ledger) Joker) – stranger. I am what I am!

I don’t know why then – high school onwards – the lack of belief in my own talents and inherent creativity. (Apart from one determined and joyful period between 17 and 18, when I ditched all university offers and took myself and trombone a-knocking at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music’s door. Though a combination of personal factors and yup, deep down belief that I was a fraud and didn’t really deserve to be there anyway – resulted in my departure in only the second term of my first year). I do KNOW that I’ve been a walking/talking contradiction – by supporting and encouraging others to explore their own passions, talents and…..creativity!…..whilst denying it in myself.

So what’s changed – and why has it changed – and so quickly, too?!

I don’t know how to express it properly. It’s a common failing of mine, which usually results in kooky metaphors and Nyree-isms/expressions, which only folk very used to me are able to even half-decipher!

To have a stab at it – I think, fundamentally, that being involved in a collective, community-based, socially-grounded-and-rooted project, like this, allows real growth and change across the board – and at a rapid pace, to boot. Construction. Solid, long-lasting, sustainable construction – which itself has room for growth, expansion and continuing development – all involves tapping into both the individual and collective, collaborative skillsets and creativity.

NOT something our current government seems to understand or champion. NOT something our education system, OR our capital-loving, money as both basis-and-a-marker for success, non-environmentally-nurturing, destructive rather than creative(!) and constructive, societal system of values celebrates. Well, mostly. For of course there IS a ‘wealth’ of the good stuff happening out there – with good people, places and spaces – and I can honestly say that I feel privileged incredibly lucky to repeatedly find myself discovering them.

So. Back to creativity. A word with a million different definitions, connotations and interpretations. (Possibly more.) I really like this one:

“In order to be creative, you need to be able to view things in new ways or from a different perspective. Among other things, you need to be able to generate new possibilities or new alternatives. Tests of creativity measure not only the number of alternatives that people can generate, but the uniqueness of those alternatives. the ability to generate alternatives or to see things uniquely does not occur by change; it is linked to other, more fundamental qualities of thinking, such as flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity or unpredictability, and the enjoyment of things heretofore unknown.” [From Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken.]

So it’s simple(!) really. No, really it is. Or it ought to be. Like anyone else – I am creative. There. I both acknowledged it and stated it. I’ve been actively creative all the time – without discreet, self-perceived gaps. It’s actually impossible to exist without being creative on a daily basis – in order to function. Whether that’s been in finding my own way to raise a family, tackle a work project, a course, cook a meal, improvise (I was doing THAT too?!) when I didn’t have the ideal tools, or money, time, strength and energy (or fixed abode) to make it work.

I think what I’ve also been – is – my own worst critic, as well as conversely my own support team and motivator. (For the most part, that is – because latterly I HAVE had and still have some amazing family, friends, lovers, colleagues and complete strangers, who have all given me their love, help and strength, when I could actually bring myself to accept it.) By hitting rock bottom (tho’ truthfully – I never, ever, at any point saw it as that), or maybe….more of a plateau, where I both realised and accepted that, actually, my best plan-of-action would be to seek out a wider support team (both professional and informal/staff and members of Crisis; medical and fitness professionals; benefits and support services; organisations and charities) in order to ‘arm’ or equip myself with the best tools and techniques available to do the job of not only recovery, but of building a far healthier, far stronger/more resilient…and sustainable me.

Again – the project’s a metaphor for all that. The creative part is not on the peripheral…..the creating and creative part? It runs like a river throughout it. NOT that you/we would want a river running through the house. I think the image or the thinking (such as it is!) to my mind, is that….it flows – and if you have that ‘flow’ in what you do – it’s both healthy, empowering and (exciting to feel) energising. When you lose it – or lack the belief that you’re capable of it – those thoughts block and disempower and….are exhausting.

But all of that – that’s just my perspective, my own personal take and subsequent witter on it. Creativity……by definition is ultimately subjective. To quote Allen Ginsberg (some lad), from his poem ‘Objective Subject’:

 

“It’s true I write about myself

Who else do I know so well?”

 

I’ve read and loved the whole poem so many times – and bizarrely, coincidentally, it made me, when I first read it, (aged 39), immediately write a poem about myself beside it. On the blank back cover of the book (heinous crime!) Without pausing or stopping to think about it. Just doing it. In ink. Committing to it. Lost in the flow of it. Writing creatively for the first time since I was a kid – and actually something I’ve never repeated again since.

Oh. Until now, I guess, haha.

So – what have I done within the project so far? I’ve learned the names, uses and techniques involved with a variety of hand tools associated with carpentry/joinery/building. Creatively – I’ve taken what I’ve learned and through trial and error (and asking a lot of questions/watching), I’ve worked out how to create and continuously develop a way of working (by healthy trial and error) that fits/suits me. In addition to that, I’ve learned to put pencil to paper (and mouse to computer program) to start creating and working on designs that are specific to my own imagination. HUGE. I’ve also felt completely free to add my own thoughts to a creative discussion about how to make the letters/signage for the building – and even quickly half-scrawled them on paper to illustrate my meaning.

Could I have come so far or so quickly, working alone – or in a business/commercial/competitive environment? Not a chance! Think bucket of intensely concentrated food colouring dropped into a pond, or a lake – from a great height. Can you picture it at all? THAT kind of effect. If that makes ANY kind of sense, hahaa.

The end. Phew.

 

20th March 2016

THE BOOTCAMP, THE BARCUZZI AND THE HOSTEL CIRCUIT

These last two weeks in the PROTOHOME workshop have seen a lot of drawing, walking, talking, baking and always a lot of laughing.

We are now over a month into the project and last Thursday our wood arrived, so we’re ready to start the big build. Up until now we’ve been learning various jointing techniques and mainly getting our mortise and tenon joints up the scratch (so the house doesn’t fall down!) Dean, the joiner, put us all on mortise and tenon bootcamp last week. Four hours of sawing, chiselling, sanding, going from 6.5/10 to 8.5/10 of slowly improving, taking more time and care over our joints, getting less haphazard with the chisels and saws (thankfully!) For the most improved joint-maker Dean made a joint-themed trophy (depending on which way you look at it it’s either advocating peace or fingers up to homelessness!)

 

Bootcamp trophy
Bootcamp trophy

 

Bootcamp trophy
Bootcamp trophy

 

We’ve also been learning the design programme SketchUp (a freely downloadable and easy to use software) and had a visit from one of the architects from xsite architecture to work with us. We started putting the drawn designs for the house (see second blog post) into SketchUp and getting quite creative with this (64 inch TVs, in-house wood workshops, and spinning walls are just some of the things included in these designs). Some are definitely more ‘jazzy’ than others but its great to see that everyone has really different ideas about how they would use and lay out the space. One highlight over the last two weeks was the ‘BarCuzzi’. The BarCuzzi (shortly to be patented) is a barbeque and a jacuzzi on one – the heat from the barbeque heats the water in the jacuzzi – of course our ideas are always sustainable, affordable and energy saving!

 

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We also took a trip to the site which is in the Ouseburn area of the city. We took some group photos looking like a big, awkward family, but it’s as one of our lovely group members said recently:

“within that first day [of the workshops] we were a family… people were helping each other out… and I think that’s the sign of something good going on, is when people are connecting, because when something not right’s going on, like problems with mental health or problems with housing or whatever, that’s when things fragment or isolate… It’s like that social glue. It’s like these are dry joints with no glue necessary, and this is a project with no glue necessary.”

In this big family, some of us have certainly come out of our shells, and others have just continued to be as lively as always!

 

One of the other things we have done is to have a group conversation about homelessness, each group member having had experience of this. We firstly wanted to analyse what homelessness was. Some people thought if you were in a hostel or on a friend’s floor then because you had a roof over your head you weren’t homeless. Others differed in their ideas, saying that ‘hidden homelessness’ was huge and growing. However, our conversation became mainly about hostels and experiences of these. Most have had negative experiences of this system. One member said that hostels are,

“a kind of pressure cooker because very often people… they’re on their last gasp and there’s huge problems. So everyone’s trying to coexist in a little community but… things kick off all the time, you know, police are in and out all the time in my hostel.”

So “You’re as much subject to abuse inside a hostel as you are outside”. One member mentioned that he likes “a bit of peace and quiet” but this is very hard to find in a hostel, and sleeping on the streets is often a better option for getting a good nights sleep: “I went on the streets and I’ve slept ten hours like that solid”. They are also spaces that can make a situation worse, where troubles are intensified: “I got into more trouble than owt else. More drugs than owt else” living in hostels.

We spoke a lot about the prison-hostel cycle, where people go round and round. Once you’ve lost the tenancy on your house and go to prison it’s very difficult to get back. And then the hostel won’t release you from prison unless you’ve got a bail address, which is quite often a hostel. One member said that hostels “are bail hostels, basically” with people going in and out and back and forth in a cycle which is very difficult to get out of:

“Eventually I did end up into the hostel system, and once yer in, try getting out cos it’s virtually impossible. Once you’re in a hostel, you just go from there to there to there to there.”

We also spoke about the close connection between the environment of the hostel and that of the prison. “Magnolia walls”, the constant bedroom checks, searches, and no visitors allowed policies. “It gives you that institutional mentality, so it’s very difficult to leave that environment and live independently.” One member mentioned that they “need that control on a situation and I think you lose it when you get into the system.” So inside the hostel you are subject to a system of control that has very negative implications:

“There’s something about when you muck up and you make mistakes and you end up in a hostel, no matter how well meaning the staff are, that you’re then treated as someone that has problems and that can’t be trusted to get back themselves.”

 

These informal conversations have become a really important aspect of the project to check that people are enjoying it, on the same level and getting along. It also helps build relationships and good group dynamics, which is going to be pretty important if our “no glue necessary” joints are going to hold in place and keep the house standing!

 

13th March 2016

This animation was done by our good friend Ewan Morrison of Hobs Studio, showing the components to be used in the build and how they make the whole. We’re looking forward to see this happen in the flesh soon!

 

2nd March 2016

LEARNING SKILLS

We’ve learned people skills- communication, listening and especially how to make a good cup of coffee. You’ve got to muck in. We have good conversation and we’re working as a team. I’m apparently a live wire.

We make conversation together- about home and business, a little bit of everything. About our volunteering and training. We talk about homelessness. It’s nice to get out in the community more, I used to stay in the house but now we’re broadening our horizons and doing things.

We work as a team and help each other and if we see someone who hasn’t finished and we have, then we’ll help them

We’ve learned different names for joints like the dovetail half lap, the mortice and tenon joint and the bridal joint and we’ve learned how to make them. I’m quite pleased that I can do some of these quite quick. It took a while when I first started. We’ve learned different skills like using a tenon saw, mallet and chisel, different drill bits and how to use them safely.

 

Dovetail half lap joint
Dovetail half lap joint

 

Through dovetail joint
Through dovetail joint

 

I’d like to make my own bed. I’ve got all the wood bits in the shed and I’d like to do something with them. I’d like to make a nice magazine rack because I’ve got loads of magazines and letters that are sitting in a drawer and I’ve been after a magazine rack for a while. Just an achievement- rather than buying it, I’d like to be able to point to it across the room and say “I made that”.

I’d like to make a magazine rack for Protohome and one for me.

I’m more practical and hands on rather than using computers which is something I’ve learned about myself.

 

28th February 2016

DESIGNING PROTOHOME: SEGAL AND HIS SYSTEM

PROTOHOME design
PROTOHOME design

Welcome to the first post about the construction of PROTOHOME.

In this post I’m going to talk a little bit about the system of build that we’re using, called the Segal system. Walter Segal was an architect who developed a system of self-build housing specifically designed for untrained self-builders. Whilst rebuilding the family home he built a temporary structure in his garden using standard cladding materials, with no foundations other than paving slabs. It took two weeks to build and cost £800. He felt that this building was more interesting than the family home he eventually built, and went on to develop this systems of building in the 1970s in Lewisham through a series of council-led self-build schemes, an example of which is in the photo below.

 

Walter's Way, Lewisham
Walter’s Way, Lewisham

 

Flexibility of use and ease of construction is at the heart of the Segal system, which is reflected in the design of PROTOHOME, kindly developed by xsite architecture. The frame of the structure is on a dimensional grid, making plans easy to follow, and all construction is done using dry jointing techniques with bolts and screws, so there are no wet trades involved that might require more enhanced training. The use of a core structure means that the walls and partitions are not load bearing so the ‘in fill’ can be done incrementally over time. In the Segal method this infill is completed using modular panel walls held in place by wooden batons that can easily be unscrewed and moved around to change room formations. This also means that ‘in wall’ services such as electrics and plumbing can be easily accessed and repairs and alterations simply made. Like Segal we are making use of standard ‘off the shelf’ material sizes – each 8 foot in length so less cutting and waste is involved making the process more economical and also saves the time and energy of the self-builder. This system really makes self-building achievable, even for those without any previous woodwork skills. Learning and training are at the core of this project, and this system offers an approach through which learning can occur whilst building.

 

The Segal Method
The Segal Method

 

The modular approach also means that people can be creative in what and how they use the wall panels. In our build we will be able to easily change the formation of the room around, so that we can have flexible and movable presentation boards and even rooms if we wish. So the potentials for Segal system houses to change and grow as needs change or as families get bigger/smaller makes this system of building very practical.

 

 

PROTOHOME interior
PROTOHOME interior

 

Last week the group at Crisis was thinking about how they might use this system of building to design their own homes, based on the floor plan of PROTOHOME. Even though we aren’t able to show these different room formations physically we will be able to show them through visualisations in PROTOHOME once it’s up. However PROTOHOME will be 4.8m x 9.6m so almost the size of a one bedroom apartment. In this little design task it was interesting to see how each person would use the space differently, partitioning rooms and areas off in different ways, according to needs and wants. Some designs were more open plan, some more traditionally delineated different rooms. Some people were really interested in cooking, so the kitchen was at the centre of their design, others wanted a bigger living area. External space was also important to the group, reflecting hobbies and interests such as gardening or keeping pets.

 

 

Interior design
Interior design

 

Interior design
Interior design

 

Interior design
Interior design

 

I’m sure these conversations about different housing formations will carry on throughout the project, and we will build on the designs we started this week. However I really think that what this task demonstrated was the flexibility and ease of use of the Segal system, something that we’ll delve more into throughout the next two months.

 

To find out more about how you could use the Segal System, you can find a PDF here of the process.