Celebrating 30 Years of Rewarding Research

30 Years of Community-Engaged, Applied Research in Rural Alabama

Fall 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, a unique design-build architecture program located in the small town of Newbern in Hale County. Founded in 1993 by architecture faculty Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, Rural Studio was created to teach architecture students how to not just be good designers, but how to engage with community members, address difficult problems and find design solutions with limited resources. What might have easily been an experiment lasting only as long as one or two projects has persisted over three decades, due to commitment to those guiding principles and building trust within the community.

Architecture students have the option to spend a year off-campus at Rural Studio during the third and fifth years of the undergraduate program. In pure numbers, the Rural Studio has built more than 200 homes and community buildings since its inception through the work of more than 1,200 architecture students. The impact of the Rural Studio, its model and its research findings, have left an indelible mark on the region, but have also reached far beyond Alabama, as evidenced through national and international recognition, the growing capacity of its community partnership arm, Front Porch Initiative, and in the practice of Rural Studio’s many graduates.

Being in the community and building “with a purpose” to address community needs is central to Rural Studio’s work, along with maintaining the trusted relationship with the community through communication and action. Rural Studio faculty work with community leaders to identify needs, find project partners or clients, and secure funding. Community stakeholders are engaged throughout the project with presentations and workshops with partners almost weekly. More frequent meetings are held with the client when the students engage in a home-building project. The resulting projects benefit the students by helping them become better designers and the community members by fulfilling a recognized need. Of this relationship, current Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear wrote, “The idealism, determination and hard work of our students inspire the communities we serve, and the communities seem to take pride in helping young people learn.”

Completed projects have varied greatly in scale and have included houses, parks and community buildings such as the Newbern Public Library, Akron Senior Center, Hale County Animal Shelter and Perry County Learning Center. Though housed in Newbern in Hale County, Rural Studio has had projects across the surrounding counties of Perry, Greene, Dallas and Marengo, as well.

Affordable Housing

Andrew Freear, Wiatt Professor in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, was named director of Rural Studio in 2000; under his leadership, Rural Studio has continued to thrive while engaging in new areas of research. Hale County and many of the surrounding counties in the rural Black Belt are considered areas of persistent poverty where it can be difficult for residents to own a safe, healthy, resilient home. In 2004, the Rural Studio faculty and students were considering how to address barriers to homeownership more systematically and began the 20K project which challenged students to design and build a home for $20,000. At this amount, monthly payments on a 30-year mortgage would be roughly $100 a month, identified as an amount most local residents could afford. While the student teams found that there were challenges that made it difficult to stay within the budget constraints (variability in costs of materials and supplies, etc.), they created homes that responded to client needs while being well-designed, high-quality and affordable. Pushing beyond the 20K challenge, students began to look beyond initial construction cost and consider the total cost of home ownership over time. For instance, how could the homes be designed to resist extreme weather and lower the costs of maintenance and utilities? Factors like these are critical both to owning a home and staying in it long-term.

Materials and the Building Envelope

Rural Studio has been marked from its beginnings by experimentation with form and materials and construction techniques. Some of the earliest projects were built with unexpected materials: recycled tires, hay bales, carpet, salvaged wood and metal, an adobe of mud and newspaper, and corrugated cardboard. The desire was not to be novel just for the sake of novelty, but to find ways to use locally available resources. Being a region rich in timber, it is not surprising that the materials research has also focused on the application of timber products in construction. The Hale County Animal Shelter and Akron Boys & Girls Club projects featured dramatic vaulted roofs with a diamond pattern that allowed the use of off-the-shelf timber products for long spans (lamella roofs). The Newbern Town Hall project used 8-inch cypress beams as the primary building material, which in addition to its natural and rustic beauty, also provides insulation for the building. This consideration of wood as insulation has led to several ongoing technical studies of the properties of mass timber products. Determining whether the products will enable designers and builders to reduce the layers needed in a building envelope could lead to more affordable and sustainable construction. Use of local timber products also positively impacts the local economy.      

Expanding Reach: Front Porch Initiative

In 2018, Rural Studio established the Front Porch Initiative under the leadership of Rural Studio Associate Director Rusty Smith to share its research findings and provide technical assistance to affordable housing providers outside the Rural Studio service area. Since its inception, Front Porch has partnered with organizations across the Southeast to adapt Rural Studio designs for other locations with active partnerships with eight organizations across six states in the Southeast. The five current “product-line” houses offered by Front Porch are based on Dave’s House, MacArthur’s House, Joanne’s House, Sylvia’s House and Buster’s House, each initially developed as part of the 20K initiative. Through its partners, the Front Porch team has provided technical assistance on the development of 15 homes, with an additional seven under construction and five in development.

Smith said, “Rural Studio works across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the complex and deeply systemic issues faced in our rural communities, and then by bringing together our stakeholder partners across all areas of influence who, through close collaboration, can begin to address these complex challenges.”

By taking a broader view of affordable housing issues across the Southeast, the Front Porch team can share the lessons learned from 30 years of Rural Studio research while dynamically collecting new data from partners to provide feedback to Hale County. As the Front Porch organizational partners move forward and construct homes, they provide data to the Front Porch team about the actual construction costs, energy efficiency and sustainability codes met. Post-occupancy energy monitoring provides the team with ongoing data about the efficiency of the designs and allows them to make adjustments for future houses. In considering housing and affordability issues across the Southeast, the team has also researched policy issues affecting individuals like heirs’ property and mortgage options in rural areas. Moving forward, Front Porch is looking at the potential for incorporating more off-site construction elements for partners in areas with worker constraints, which could provide considerations for the faculty and students on the ground at Rural Studio considering ways to incorporate construction efficiencies and challenging work sites.

Rural Studio has only been able to accomplish these substantial projects through the generous support of financial partners, including Pella, Great Southern Wood, Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo, Alabama Power, Regions Bank, Habitat for Humanity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Auburn University, and with support from the Auburn University President’s Office and the College of Architecture, Design and Construction.