The rural state of Hale County, Alabama is obvious even before arriving there. Roughly 30 minutes from Selma, the town of Newbern is the central point of the county with a population of less than 200. The small community sitting on Alabama Highway 61 lacks modern infrastructure, but is lined with simple structures: a general store, library, townhall, fire station, several churches and a handful of other time-stamped brick-and-mortar footholds.
But some of the buildings are unique, designed with striking aesthetics, intended to stand the test of time. Buildings that provide solace for individuals and a sense of security for the community. Those structures are the product of Auburn’s Rural Studio, which will soon celebrate 25 years of providing support for a county that otherwise would not have it.
“One of the strengths of the program is it essentially ‘found’ Hale County,” said program director Andrew Freear. “It started off in Greensboro, Ala. for a couple of years, but then we got this space in 1995 and really we’ve become a neighbor. The local politicians and the not-for-profits all recognize us as a resource and have gotten to know what we can do. We’re neighbors, we’re friends and we’ve done between 200 and 250 projects out here and counting.”
Founded in 1993 by architecture professors Samuel Mockbee ’74 and Dennis K. Ruth ’68, Rural Studio utilizes third- and fifth-year architecture students to design and build projects on a rolling basis. Over time, they also realize how certain issues in rural living can influence architecture.
“The programs focus on rigorous and relevant academic experiences inside and outside the classroom,” said Vini Nathan, Dean and McWhorter Endowed Chair, Auburn University College of Architecture, Design and Construction. “Our Rural, Urban, and futures studios provide immersive projects for engaging our students in contextual, complex, contemporary issues related to architecture, design, and construction.”
For Freear, answering Mockbee’s original question of ‘how can architects serve and make a better world,’ goes beyond engineering.
“Everybody, rich or poor, deserves what he called ‘a shelter for the soul,’” said Freear. “He was challenging architects to think and deal with more socially-oriented issues.”
Freear, a traveling professor originally from the U.K., worked with Mockbee for two and half years. He did not know anything about the south or design-and-build programs, but wanted to see and listen to what was going on at the studio.
“We hit it off and worked together; I think he was seduced by my accent or something,” Freear said. “I was just going to be there for a year and I met (Mockbee) and he was looking for some help at the end of that year and he said ‘Do you want to come and play in Hale county with me?’ He said there was enough money to last until Christmas and, unfortunately that was 19 years ago — it’s all his fault,” laughed Freear.
When Mockbee passed away in 2001, many were afraid the program would collapse. With an uncertain future, there came a request for a Boys and Girls Club and a baseball field. Freear decided they would try to complete those projects, however possible, a spirit of resourcefulness and perseverence that continues today. In the process, the bond between Hale County and the studio has become something special.
For many students, the reality of Hale County comes as a shock, but a cornerstone of the program has been its dignity to the residents they help.
“I bang the drum at the beginning of the semester about being respectful of the hard work and the respect that we’ve not only built, but have for the environment,” said Freear. “We don’t preach to people, we don’t try to tell people how to live their lives, and I always say the students kind of ‘borrow’ the place for a little while when they’re here. We expect them to leave it a little better than they found it.”
MORE THAN JUST A BUILDING
Assistant Professor Emily McGlohn ’03, a former student of the program, still remembers hearing Mockbee speak as a freshman, when she realized what it means to give someone a home who may otherwise not be able to afford one. McGlohn said there can be a tendency amongst students to judge people’s living conditions, but the program stresses how precious these existing spaces are and how important it is to provide the warmest, driest, most beautiful home they can.
“It’s grown from wanting to do good, nice things to appreciating this learning environment where students get to build the things that they design,” said McGlohn. “It makes you a better architect and a more sensitive designer as well.”
Whether they are establishing a town hall or creating an organization, Freear said the program is looking to work with people who want to bring something to Hale County.
“There’s a tremendous energy here, but also a tremendous work ethic,” Freear said. “At the end of the day, people respect hard work, discipline and buildings that last. We’ve gone from buildings at the beginning that were probably quite idiosyncratic and today have become more about durability and sustainability.”
One of Rural Studio’s most noticeable programs is the 20K Home Project, a student-led research project to design and build houses on a budget of $20,000. The homes utilize effective architecture to
optimize energy consumption and maximize limited resources. The 20K Initiative is a faculty-driven expansion of that program, with the goal of creating a scalable, sustainable and resilient process for delivering the homes.
Freear said the studio created uniquely designed individual client homes for nearly 10 years, but in 2005, frustrated with “reinventing the wheel every year,” the studio was tasked with establishing models as a product line which could be developed and then released to the world. The projects not only require frugal resource management, but an unyielding desire to improve.
“For me, it’s a moral responsibility. We have people in need here, and it’s easy for us to raise the money to build a home. So each year we’re building one, we’re testing it, and next year we try to do it better,” said Freear.
Recently awarded Auburn’s Presidential Award for Interdisciplinary Research (PAIR), the program is undergoing many new and exciting improvements, but the 20K program isn’t the only project the studio initiates.
“It’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of the work that we do,” said Rural Studio Communications Manager Natalie Butts-Ball ’05. “We do many other projects besides the 20K projects. Four students in their early 20s are designing and building these projects and that’s usually really shocking to most people, especially when you come here and experience it and realize these students had no experience in building and are able to dig in and learn by doing.”
A GIANT WALKS INTO THE ROOM
In November of 2017, the program’s knowledge and credibility brought Fannie Mae to the Studio’s front door. One of the world’s largest housing financing companies sent three CEOs worth a combined $6 million to visit and lunch with a community whose average individual annual income was close to $10,000. Despite a portfolio of $3 trillion, neither Fannie Mae nor the rest of the industry have found a feasible, affordable way to solve the many issues afflicting rural communities.
“It’s pretty remarkable that a company with their resources would search out an undergraduate program in the middle of nowhere because of our expertise in rural housing,” said Freear. “I’m shocked no one else has copied the idea academically, and in part it’s because people think it’s boring. Everyone thinks it’s easy. Well, if it was easy, why isn’t there better housing out there?”
All of the aspects in rural society — finding and maintaining a job, education for children, access to healthcare — are part of the housing question in Hale County, yet all nearly invisible. Freear said seeing it as a house is the easy part. Everything else is much harder.
As the interest from Fannie Mae draws attention, it’s clear to everyone the impact the program has had over the last 25 years. Newbern now has a functioning library with working internet, the fire station is on standby and helps with access to local insurance, while the town hall functions as a community hub for the city council and local gatherings.
“Now with the international interest, we’ll see where it goes” said Freear. “The truth of the matter is that the 20K is kind of a ‘trojan horse’ for all of these questions of rural living. Whether it’s the food insecurity, health insecurity or education insecurity, it’s tough to live out here.”
A decision had to be made as to how an international corporation would utilize the ideas Mockbee and Ruth began with years ago.
“So we said, ‘Do we ride with this or what?’” Freear said. “And in the spirit of the studio, you’ve got to dare, so my colleague said ‘Are we sure we want this?’ and I said ‘We’ve got to be brave.’”
Interest in Rural Studio outside of Auburn is obvious, but the program is also evolving to garner more interest in the academic world. Starting in the Spring of 2019, the first master’s class will start at the studio, with an option for an internal or external track, making it possible for students from other universities to apply for the studio and participate for three more semesters, starting in the fall.
This isn’t simply academia playing around, but rather using architecture to deal with complex problems, an important one being drawing attention to the issue itself. While recently completing a fellowship at Harvard with emphasis on rural housing, Freear was shocked to find “rural” wasn’t even in their academic database.
Despite the obvious need, none of the success at Rural Studio would be possible without the students. McGlohn said the program has fueled conversations about solving regional issues unique to rural housing. As the program grows, so does the scope of its challenge.
“Your health is connected to your environment, to your diet, to your transportation, your access to healthcare. We can be the conduit I think for how those problems are solved,” said McGlohn.
ADDRESSING AN URBAN ATMOSPHERE
As Rural Studio continues to grow, Urban Studio is continuing a similar path in a slightly larger location. Founded in 1991 by associate professor Franklin Setzer and Daniel Bennett as a teaching and outreach program, students diagnose an area or quadrant of the city of Birmingham, explore available opportunities and create a strategic plan with internal projects around it.
“Urban studio is an opportunity for us to provide students an environment where they can explore ideas in an actual city context,” said Urban Studio Director Alex Krumdieck ’86. “We use Birmingham as a laboratory to study several ideas of design and architecture in an urban setting.”
In the past, students focused on integrating the “innovation district” near the Northwest quadrant of Birmingham into the city through a walkability study, then created a strategic master plan with 12 projects within that district. In 2019, students are working with a sponsored studio focusing stakeholders in the Parkside District.
“It is a district that has seen a lot of activity in the last six years, so they wanted a fresh look at how they could improve the way the district is growing,” said Krumdieck. “The interest was already there, we want to create a framework that improves the existing projects going on there.”
A major focus of the Urban Studio in its 28th year is establishing a permanent home at a building on 4th Avenue, with plans to later evolve the program to include industrial and landscape design, interior architecture and more. Unlikethe Rural Studio, the Urban Studio has a 12-week internship program built around partnerships with local design firms throughout Birmingham.
Krumdieck said the goal is to grow the studio’s presence, while establishing partnerships with the city and outside developers to improve affordable housing and what is termed as “the missing middle housing” component. There are plans to combine work between the Rural and Urban studios moving forward, enabling the two to share decades of experience and research.
“It seems like we’re hitting both ends of the spectrum. We don’t have a lot of diversity in the housing types that we’re developing in Birmingham, so it’s only reaching a certain audience. Diversity needs to be addressed so that it is increased within cities,” Krumdieck said.
THE FUTURE BEGINS IN MOBILE
The recently-established futures studio is a field studies program where students develop new products and marketing materials for local businesses. While only in its third semester, the Mobile-based team has already been working with noteworthy events and businesses like the Hangout Music Festival.
“We’re product designers, but we’re more than that,” said School of Industrial and Graphic Design Professor Randall Bartlett ’80. “We also do user-experience design and system design. Primarily, we’re known for designing products, furniture, appliances and equipment.”
In fall of 2017, the futures studio began working on multiple projects in Mobile, like creating new street signage to give neighborhoods an identity, litter traps for culverts and streamlining passenger embarkment through a partnership with Carnival Cruise Lines, all within the first semester.
Though the studio won’t have a physical space until Fall 2019, its students are already embodying its motto “Study Beyond.”