Hands-On Soulful Designs

No place fits the proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention” better than Hale County in west-central Alabama. It’s here in the fertile Black Belt soil that Auburn University’s internationally renowned Rural Studio took root, driven by the belief that both the rich and poor are worthy of good design.

Auburn University architecture students design and build context-based, socially conscious houses and community buildings in impoverished Hale County using practically anything they can get their hands on. Scavenged and donated materials, discarded building supplies, car parts and even bottles, old road signs, license plates and carpet tiles.

Many building projects are in Newbern, the Rural Studio’s headquarters, and other towns in Hale County, including Mason’s Bend, Akron, Moundville and Greensboro, the county seat.

Newburn Town Hall, built by the Rural Studio in 2011. Together with the fire station the Studio built seven years before, the buildings form a civic square fronting a public courtyard. The east side of the courtyard is bounded by a covered barbecue pit and a vegetated screen wall.

These houses — acclaimed by the design world — replaced rickety shacks without heat or plumbing that residents once called home. From a design standpoint, the Rural Studio buildings rival anything famous architects with important clients are creating. And they do it with cast-offs at a fraction of the cost.

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Take the Yancy Tire Chapel, designed and built by three thesis students for $15, 000. Constructed in 1996 from used tires retrieved
from a landfill, its space is as elegant and awe-inspiring as any cathedral in Europe. The chapel sits on a bluff in Hale County and features open-air walls formed from stacked tires reinforced with rods, then covered with wire mesh and coated with stucco. Floor slates were quarried from a creek, roof beams from an abandoned church and the roof made of rusty tin shingles.

A model of the Yancy Tire Chapel was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for twice as much as it cost to build the chapel.

In “Architecture after Modernism, ” author Diane Ghirardo praises the Rural Studio for teaching students how their skills can make a difference to people living on the margins of society, and uses the Hay Bale House in Mason’s Bend as an example, built of, yes, hay bales for $6, 000 in 1994.

Ghirardo’s description of the Hay Bale House, the Rural Studio’s first completed building, encapsulates the Studio’s principles: “The little house does not proclaim grand social goals. Rather it insists on the dignity of the residents and their right to decent, inexpensive housing built according to their wishes, and even to skilled design.”

Another notable building is the Butterfly House in Mason’s Bend. Built in 1997, it’s named for its dramatic, wing-shaped roof. The roof’s two large intersecting rectangles provide cover to a 250-square-foot screened-in porch and resemble a butterfly’s wing.

Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear in a mock-up of the Thinnings Bridge — a bridge constructed of logs thinned from a pine forest.

Twenty years and 150 projects later, the Rural Studio is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The program was established by the late Samuel Mockbee and the late Dennis Ruth, who was then head of Auburn’s School of Architecture. Mockbee ran the Rural Studio until he died in 2001, and Andrew Freear became its director in 2002.

For Mockbee, architecture was a social act rather than an avenue for self-glorification. Yet glory came. The first architect to win the MacArthur “genius” grant, he was driven by what he called “a moral sense of service to the community” as much as good design. He already had garnered considerable attention practicing architecture in Mississippi before establishing the Rural Studio.

Mockbee saw no better place to train students to become ethically responsible architects than in one of America’s most destitute regions, a three-hour drive west of Auburn University. Walker Evans and James Agee visited Hale County during the Depression and documented its poor in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Director Gail Andrews, of the Birmingham Museum of Art, calls Mockbee and the Rural Studio “one of the most influential forces not only in architecture, but social justice.” The museum sponsored an exhibit in 2003 of Mockbee’s work as both an architect and artist. At the time of his death, he was about to submit a design proposal for a major expansion of the museum.

In recent years, the Rural Studio has focused more on community projects that have a greater impact than single-family houses. “It wasn’t a deliberate trajectory, but we started getting lots of requests for community projects, which actually allow us more flexibility, ” Freear explains. “We can finish them in phases with each new group of students as our resources dribble in.”

Akron Boys and Girls Club, built in 2007, features a large lamella-roofed basketball court that connects to a 1, 500-square-foot recreation space.

This anniversary year will see the completion of the following in-progress community projects: Greensboro Boys & Girls Club, a Scout Hut in Greensboro, the Newbern Public Library and two phases of Lions Park and the Rural Studio Farm.

To celebrate its 20 years, the Rural Studio is designing and building eight $20K Houses in Hale County. The $20K House project began in 2005 and has become an ongoing Rural Studio research project. The
objective of the $20K House project is to design and build model homes that could be reproduced on a large scale by a contractor and built for $20, 000, addressing the need for affordable housing.

“With these small houses, because they are an experiment, we watch how our clients live in them and respond in the following years with even better designs, ” Freear notes. The target cost of $20, 000 is based on the amount people on government assistance can afford, a monthly mortgage payment of about $100.

The goal is to get these models built by contractors, providing an affordable alternative to mobile homes. A Rural Studio grad was hired to start a foundation to promote the $20K model; to get it to the people, while keeping the price down and the quality up.

The 500 to 600-square-foot $20K House will cost a contractor roughly $12, 000 for materials and $7, 000 to $8, 000 in labor and profit. To keep labor and profit at that price point, it must be built in three to four weeks by only three to four workers. Because it’s a learning process, students have the luxury of time when they design and build the prototypes.

Dave’s House, built in 2009, patterned on a vernacular “shotgun house, ” is one of the Rural Studio’s 20K Houses, designed to be built for $20, 000 or less.

A $20K House known as “Dave’s House” was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement” exhibit. No other student project or school of architecture was featured in the exhibit.  “Dave’s House” has 10-foot ceilings, a porch and is very well built, Freear says. It’s designed around passive systems for heating and cooling and costs about $35 a month in utilities. It’s now appraised at $40, 000, which Freear notes is not a bad return.

Alex Henderson, 24, came to the Studio as a fifth-year student in 2011 and graduated the following year with a bachelor of architecture degree. He remained at the Studio to work as a volunteer and complete his fifth-year project, which is common, he says.

Fifth-year projects often last two years or longer, and students often stay to finish it.

“It’s eye-opening and humbling to see the complexity of making architecture… to take on such a complex project as a team and to see it built is inspiring and empowering, ” says Henderson, a native of Albertville.

Henderson is working on the 40-acre Lions Park in Greensboro. Since 2005, the Rural Studio has completed six projects in Lions Park: six baseball fields, five restrooms, a playground, a mobile concession stand and a skate park. Currently under way are a Boy Scout hut, outdoor fitness area and extensive landscaping.

The skate park is a good example of how well the Studio can stretch a dollar. Skateboard superstar Tony Hawk donated $30, 000, which was intended to be seed money to begin construction. Thanks to their frugal approach, the entire skate park was built with the $30, 000.

The Lucy Carpet house, built in 2002, used 72, 000 worn carpet tiles donated by carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. The tower element contains a bedroom above and tornado shelter below.

About 30 students work and study at a time at the Rural Studio, both third-year and fifth-year (thesis) students. Third-year students come for a semester and live behind an old antebellum house in what they called the “pods, ” quarters constructed by previous students. Fifth-year students typically live in Greensboro where they rent old houses and downtown loft apartments. Some non-Auburn University outreach students also participate in the Rural Studio program.

Student teams are responsible for designing projects, presenting projects to visiting architects and clients and then incorporating their feedback into the design. They draft construction drawings, research materials and construction methods and create detailed construction schedules. They’re also responsible for budgets, fundraising, communicating with contractors and organizing contract labor. And as Henderson says, students “provide the physical labor to get the thing built.”

Freear says he would “have given an arm and a leg for this kind of education.”

The Rural Studio’s greatest achievement isn’t the awards and international recognition — maybe not even elevating the standard of living in Hale County or creating a model for affordable housing. Perhaps it’s the steady stream of students sent into the world to continue its good works.

More than 600 “citizen architects” have graduated from the Studio program since it began in 1993 including Bruce Lanier III, who graduated in 2000 and is now principal architect at Standard Creative in Birmingham. His experiences at the Rural Studio taught him that architecture occurs in the context of a community. Not only a dialogue with the client, but the cultural and natural environment,  as well.

“We learned to understand our clients and our community; their needs and aspirations. And just as importantly, we learned how to stop talking and get it built, even if we weren’t exactly sure how just yet. Keep moving forward, don’t step backward.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

text by Jessica Armstrong • photo by Timothy Hursley

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