Catching up with Rural Studio, the initiative that fuels design thinking across Alabama

Four hundred people descended on tiny Newbern, Alabama, in late April to mark a heartening occasion—the 30th anniversary of the Auburn University Rural Studio. Parents, students, alumni, honored guests, and bluegrass musicians gathered for a communal feast of roasted pig and fried catfish, where they toasted a remarkable academic achievement.

When Samuel Mockbee and D. K. Ruth launched the studio in 1993, few would have imagined that an off-campus design/build program in one of the poorest regions of the country would complete more than 220 projects, including single-family houses and a church, firehouse, community center, animal shelter, and library. The program and its projects have garnered nationwide recognition and respect from students and leading practitioners alike and continue to stress the importance of hands-on, socially sustainable work and practice. All the studio projects aim to serve the surrounding community—one that has been sorely overlooked by policy, but has been authentically uplifted by the Studio community.

person on bench outside a hosue
The Myers home, a house designed and built by Rural Studio. (Timothy Hursley)

We’re now standing 147 years post-Reconstruction, but poverty and substandard living conditions remain prevalent in the Black Belt region of Alabama, once known for its rich soils and wealthy cotton plantations. Today, in Hale County, nearly 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line—more than double the national average.

This is what the social landscape looked like when Rural Studio began. Starting with the Bryant Haybale House in 1994 and, a year later, the Yancey Chapel, whose walls were made of old tires, the program gained notoriety for its artful creations made mostly of donated and salvaged materials. But, over time, it’s been a long-term commitment to place that has enabled Rural Studio to take on complex, multiyear projects and build relationships that have positioned it for greater things.

people sitting in small house structure
Rev. Walker’s home, a Rural Studio project that encloses both conditioned and unconditioned space. (Timothy Hursley)

“I think the thing we’re most proud of is we’ve dug our heels in,” said Andrew Freear, director of Rural Studio since 2001. “We’ve stayed in one place. Not only, I hope, are we trying to do relevant work with the community in Hale County, but by staying in Hale County we’ve become a trusted neighbor.”

That trust grew with the studio’s work on the 40-acre Lions Park recreation site. The ten-year project included a strategic plan, social hub, concession stand, skatepark, scout hut, and more. “It’s a multimillion-dollar project that we basically did on $50,000-a-year seed money, one project at a time,” Freear told AN.

A Different Vision

After Freear began to lead the studio, its focus shifted away from the idiosyncratic shelters that Mockbee called “charity houses.” A different vision of affordable housing took hold. “I said enough of the charity houses. Let’s ramp it up and see what we can do relative to real housing issues—issues of a place like this—and iteratively build on that knowledge,” Freear said.

house by Rural Studio with historic building behind it
C.H.O.I.C.E House, a project that prioritizes an oversize front porch. (Timothy Hursley)

That brainchild took form in 2005 with the 20K House project, whose aim was to design homes a contractor could build for $20,000. In tandem, Freear introduced an emphasis on craft and detailing meant to create houses that would last for generations. The program advanced incrementally until, more than a decade later, Fannie Mae approached Rural Studio proposing a research partnership to develop rural houses. Freear was stunned. “They’re coming to a tiny undergraduate program in the middle of nowhere, asking for help with rural housing? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Through that partnership, Auburn recast the 20K program as the Front Porch Initiative. Building on studio research and the experience gained from student-built houses, the Front Porch Initiative began sharing the knowledge and house designs with housing providers outside of the studio’s service area. Typical providers include Habitat for Humanity affiliates, community land trusts, and community housing corporations. In turn, those partners have provided the same energy-efficient homes to their clients, said Rusty Smith, who spearheads the initiative. Five house prototypes are available, and each can be adapted for local conditions and building codes. Today, Rural Studio designs and technical assistance are being actively shared with 24 housing partners in 12 states.

Going Beyond Housing

In Newbern, student life also revolves around the Rural Studio Farm, a quarter-acre plot and greenhouse next to the studio’s permanent home, Morrisette House. Last year, the farm yielded more than 6,000 pounds of produce and donated several hundred of those pounds to the local food stand run by the Project Horseshoe Farm’s office in Greensboro.

The farm primarily grows healthy food for students and staff, but it also reflects the studio’s evolving mission to address systemic issues of poverty that extend beyond housing. “Sadly, even though rural America is where a lot of our food is grown, access to nutritious food is another way in which rural communities are trailing urban ones,” farm manager Eric Ball told AN.

2022 RS Farm Timothy Hursley sm03
The new Rural Studio Farm initiative  (Timothy Hursley)
people working in greenhouse designed by Rural Studio
Inside the greenhouse (Timothy Hursley)

Despite the Black Belt’s reputation for rich soils, today the land is hard to cultivate because of its heavy clay content. Ball is fighting that limitation by planting many different vegetables, rotating crops, and protecting the soil from erosion. “Many of our practices could be transferable to other rural communities,” he added. 

What’s Next?

In addition to its ongoing efforts to address housing and nutrition inequities observed in the local community, Rural Studio has begun a wholly new project aimed at addressing regional challenges with wastewater treatment. Fifty percent of Black Belt residents use on-site septic systems, and it’s estimated that 90 percent of those systems malfunction—again because of the clay-based soil. “There’s an enormous number of septic tanks that simply don’t work here, so kids are running around in sewage in the front yard,” said Freear.

wood structure
Thermal Mass Buoyancy Ventilation Project (Timothy Hursley)

With both public and private funding, Rural Studio will host a wastewater cluster system that takes the waste liquids and purifies them. The first phase will serve Rural Studio’s campus and other nearby buildings, and the treatment center will be open for public inspection “so that people can see it’s not smelly or dirty,” said Freear. The goal is to add more businesses and homes to the system and then use it as a model that can be replicated in other places.

While Rural Studio keeps expanding its work on the systemic issues facing rural communities, the day-to-day experience of students is about much more than just resolving building details or wielding power tools: Rural Studio’s pedagogy encourages architectural education—and more architects—to confront poverty. The construction of buildings can uplift families and the community at large by, as Freear said, “digging your heels in” and offering services right at home. It changes student lives and hopefully will continue to influence the next generation of designers.

aerial view of structure by Rural Studio
Rosie’s home, which hosted the recent pig roast. (Timothy Hursley)
group photo
At the roast current students, alumni, community members, and partners celebrated in Rural Studio style. (Timothy Hursley)

“[The students] have a certain maturity—a can-do attitude,” said architect Marlon Blackwell, a frequent guest critic who has hired Rural Studio graduates for his practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “They understand the necessary union between what it is to be critical—to make commentary—and what it is to be instrumental, or to demonstrate how that commentary can be useful. It’s powerful when you get those two things together.”

Vernon Mays is a writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia.

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