Building in the Black Belt

The story of Rural Studio, its students, and the people they serve

by Mary Boland

Sometimes the greatest innovations are born from the simplest elements. In the 1992–93 academic year at Auburn University, two professors, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D. K. Ruth, established an innovative academic program called Rural Studio built on the simple foundation of fulfilling two needs: Auburn’s architecture students need hands-on experience designing buildings, and the people of West Alabama’s Black Belt region need buildings built. Mockbee believed in socially responsible architecture that could “delight the senses, inspire the masses, and serve the soul.” To strike at the heart of the region, Rural Studio was built and headquartered in the centrally-located town of Newbern in Hale County, Alabama. Today, the Studio continues to evolve and work toward providing the underserved communities of greater Hale County with beautiful and economical buildings from community centers to family homes.

The projects began small, with homes for individual families. “Sambo was really good at talking with people, getting to know the residents, learning their stories and then building houses for what ended up becoming friends,” explains Alex Henderson, third-year instructor at Rural Studio and an alum of the program himself. After Mockbee passed away in 2001, Andrew Freear became the new director of Rural Studio, driving the vision forward. After more than 20 years within the community, Rural Studio has become a trusted neighbor and friend to the people of Hale County.

This organic relationship with the community fosters successful and meaningful projects that are co-created from concept to building. From the start, the students work in tandem with the clients, listening to their needs and designing solutions. The community projects are done by a team of four fifth-year students, beginning with “design charrettes” and quick ideas to more tangible blueprints. “Very soon in the process [students] will be introduced to the clients, and at periodic meetings, they’ll present their ideas, get feedback from the client group, and then try to incorporate that feedback into the next iteration,” Henderson explains. For the students, this experience is invaluable; they have the opportunity to see every phase of construction from beginning to end.

Along with the hands-on education, the students get another immersive experience as well. They not only work in Hale County, but live there, too. In Newbern, a town of about 180 residents, the students live with few distractions, and the demographics are different than what many are used to. Learning how to relate to people of diverse backgrounds cultivates a social consciousness in the students they may not have expected. Henderson reflects, “A lot of people, I think, can romanticize it looking from the outside in, but once you get in it, it’s tough living out here. We can call it a sacrifice because we chose to come out here … but maybe that isn’t the best way to see it.” While the Studio curriculum doesn’t directly address this social activism element, Henderson notes it is still ingrained in the experience: “It’s more conversations that you have with your buddies on the porch one night about why you’re here, what you’re doing and what you’re going to do next.

Typically, a community project will take about two to two and a half years, meaning the students will graduate while still in the midst of the project. Most will stay on and see it finished. “They don’t have to stay,” Henderson says of the students. “It’s made clear that you are a volunteer staying at the Studio, and we fondly refer to these students as ‘leftovers.’ By that point, they’re so invested in their projects, they’ll have it no other way.” It is this ability to take their time—a luxury most large architectural firms don’t have—and refine all the details that results in good quality, economically constructed buildings.

Creative economic designs, though, can sometimes be too innovative. Students often take the resources they already have on hand to save on costs, crafting attractive and functional, albeit unusual, designs. Henderson elaborates, “They’re beautiful, and they work, but the issue is that you have something like a wall made of tires and a glass window meeting that wall.” Very few construction firms outside of Rural Studio would be able to fix such a unique structure, which puts added pressure and cost on the Studio to handle any needed repairs. As a response to concerns around this design process, the 20K House project was born.

The 20K houses are designed with affordability and simplicity as the driving elements. The materials are easily accessible, and the construction detail can be built and repaired by just about anyone. The name 20K reflects how much the house should cost to build, covering materials, labor costs, and contractor profit. However, while the Studio has proven these houses can be built cheaply, they are often appraised, and tend to appreciate, for well beyond $20,000. Keeping that price down is one of the biggest challenges Rural Studio faces. And the problem goes deeper than the physical design; it lives within the housing system itself, from mortgages and bank loan policies to zoning laws and local regulations. Rural Studio uses materials so efficiently that local code officials often fail to fully understand their innovative construction set, which can cause problems at every level of the financing and legal processes.

In order to keep the 20K house at $20,000, Rural Studio needs to infiltrate the system from the inside to change the way their designs are understood. The simplicity of the 20K designs means, “In theory, [the houses] are simple enough for a non-experienced person to build,” Henderson says. Rural Studio is working to turn the 20K project into an educational platform that provides an instruction set for their affordable designs. This would educate code officials, contractors, and as Henderson suggests, just about anyone, on what and how to build, and even why it needs to be built that way. If mass marketed, the Rural Studio instruction set has the potential to greatly impact housing for underserved communities both near and far.

The future of Rural Studio is certainly promising, with national and international interest evident in the growing news stories that cover it. Those graduating from Rural Studio have a special and difficult task ahead of them—to take what they’ve gained from the program into the larger, profit-driven architectural firms they will surely find themselves in. Henderson understands it well. “It’s a question that everyone going through a program like Rural Studio has; they try to figure out, how do I do something like this whenever I leave?” Regardless of what their future holds, the impact that the students have already had on the community of Hale County will always be cherished for as long as the buildings stand.

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