by STIRworldJul 31, 2021
West Alabama is typical of the rural American South. It is mostly farmland, and mobile homes are as ubiquitous as cows. When first researching this place, an assortment of dismal information jumps out: per capita income less than half of the national average, labour force participation below 60 per cent, high rates of diabetes, limited access to fresh food. Yet people here don’t seem to dwell on these facts. Throughout the region, countless houses display optimism with applications of bold-coloured window trim and shutters, national flags and various forms of signage, holiday wreaths, wind chimes, and, most notably, “do-it-yourself” constructions that add indoor and outdoor living spaces to mobile homes and small houses.
Since 1993, Rural Studio, the design-build programme co-founded by Samuel Mockbee (1944–2001) and DK Ruth (1944–2009) as an extension of Auburn University’s architecture school, has called this place home.
Over the last three decades, Rural Studio has completed more than 200 student-led building projects in Dallas, Greene, Hale, Marengo, and Perry counties—many of which have gained the trust and appreciation of the local communities and the attention of architects and the international press. Currently, with its 20K Project, Rural Studio is studying alternatives to the mobile home: the most ubiquitous type of house in the region is also the most problematic, due to its rate of decay, small size, and failure to endure natural disasters.
But the Studio as a whole is more than a solutions-focused, design-build practice. Since its founding, the programme has brought middle-class university students, mostly from suburban backgrounds to under-resourced rural areas where they are introduced to lifestyles and systems of value outside of their own. Interested in this unique approach to architecture education, I decided to visit Rural Studio to learn more about the students' work and points of view, and how they acknowledge the values of the people they design for.
In conversation with students in fall 2020, it was explained to me that they were aiming to develop an affordable and flexible house model in response to rural housing problems. Student objectives were described with a handful of words: “affordable,” “sustainable,” “durable, “efficient,” “beautiful.” This school year, students introduced the notion of flexibility to re-evaluate the Studio’s focus on universal models as they believe that fixed and final solutions may be perceived by locals as imposing or limiting.
Understanding the complexity of their situation, students are aiming to be as sensitive as they can within the scope of their programme: they know they are guests here, visiting only for the better part of a year before moving on with their careers. Yet, they want to use their privileged position to achieve a positive impact on the local community; with support from Auburn University and donors, Rural Studio has an opportunity to make more lasting alterations to the built environment than many of the region’s lifelong residents.
These topics of discussion, combined with recognition of the customary “do-it-yourself” building practices across the region, led students to address questions of ownership and identity in their design for an open-ended kit house prototype. Conceived as a starter model for clients in need of stable housing, the kit house allows its owners to independently build additional rooms and features within it over time. The idea is to facilitate methods of informal building that are already present in the regional culture while taking a backseat as designers when it comes to determining specific outcomes.
"Many people in the area don’t have disposable income to hire contractors, so a lot of the home expansions you see around were actually built by the owners themselves,” student Becca Wiggs told me. "We thought these expansions had characteristics that felt more true to the place than anything we could design ourselves,” she added.
Their kit, designed to be assembled quickly and relatively inexpensively, consists of a pole barn roof (a common type of farm structure in the region), a poured concrete slab, and two platform-frame starter volumes, each with corrugated metal cladding and their own roofs independent of the pole barn roof above. The starter volumes can be arranged in various positions on the concrete slab and later renovated as needed. According to the students, the pole barn roof creates a large, protected space that allows residents to add new structures as they see fit.
When it comes to renovating, the aim for residents is to implement their architectural changes within the armature that the roof and slab provide, without ever altering these major elements structurally. The purpose of the armature is to help ensure that home expansions be carried out more safely and successfully, mitigating any roof leakage, overheating, and possible structural failures.
Speaking with director Andrew Freear, he likened the pole barn structure to a big umbrella, emphasising that one of the main goals is to allow people to build independently in a condition that’s much more forgiving. “I think giving people a really good foundation and a really good roof is half the battle…give something that’s protected, give an opportunity, and let’s see,” said Freear. “Will it be architecturally pretty?” he asked, “I have no idea, and the architects might not like it, but I think that’s all right.”
While their premise clearly implies one major assumption—that residents will be able and willing to achieve their own construction ventures—it also challenges the traditional notion that architects should be the ones determining built outcomes. This way of thinking essentially transfers the design licence from architects to residents, which seems idealistic and may be disputable, to say the least. However, for social-interest designers building with tight budgets in a region where “do-it-yourself” construction is widely practiced, the idea of open-ended planning doesn’t seem like such a bad one. If their model actually succeeds at supporting change, it could provide an affordable, replicable system for people to live on their own terms as true individuals.
It is now summer 2021, and the students, working in a team of four, are building their design on site. So far, they have laid out the plumbing, poured the concrete footings and 170 sqm slab, assembled the pole barn roof, and framed the two starter volumes. Still, there is much more to do before their first client, Reginald Walker (nicknamed Preacher) of Perry County, can settle in. Walker will move into his new house, in which he will live independently, by the start of fall 2021. During my visit to the site, I had an opportunity to speak with Walker, who, as we sat down under the newly erected pole barn roof, shared his thoughts with me. Eager to express the project’s creative potential, Walker told me how the slab under our feet sparked many interesting design ideas. The following is a portion of our conversation.
Preacher Walker (PW): I was born and raised in Lakeland Farms. I left basically because of the situation in Alabama at the time. I left for Florida in '81. My brother graduated high school in '80, and I didn’t want to be the only kid around here, so I convinced my mama to let me come to Miami. Graduated high school in Florida, and from there I went to the military for four years. From the military, I went to Oklahoma. That’s where I started preaching. Then, back to the Alabama area.
Steven Sculco (SS): How did you get in touch with Rural Studio?
PW: Around the time when I hurt my shoulder, my friend Charlie saw me and asked if [the Studio] could help me, and they did.
SS: The students describe the model as an open platform, where residents can add rooms and features according to their own unique lifestyles. Have you thought about making any personal changes?
PW: Yes. What I’d like to do first is the long sides, actually. I’ll take two-by-sixes and close the sides all the way down. I have also been thinking about putting an end-cap on the front, where I can put a door and a tall window. I can probably build some [cement] blocks for the front wall. All I would have to do is buy some cement, and I can cast them out on the grass to get a nice texture. One side of the wall would say “PREACHER”. The window would say “FOR”, and the other side would say “REAL”. I think that would really make it stand out.
SS: Do you have any plans for the interior design?
PW: For the interior, I’d like to eventually extend one room across the slab. Down here, where the dirt is between the slab and columns, I can plant ficus trees and different types of plants lining the perimeter. Hopefully, I can also build a lizard sanctuary at some point. I got that idea from my friend down in Florida. He turned one of the bedrooms in his apartment into a habitat.
SS: Do you think this kind of do-it-yourself model would be a good fit for other locals here, considering different levels of age and ability?
PW: People here do have extended families, unexpected family moving in, and they’ll have to build onto their houses or buy larger mobile homes. People here don’t have a whole bunch of money, but with something like this you already have your blueprint—all you have to do is insert additional rooms. If somebody couldn’t renovate, I think it would also work. You can park your car under here, and it’s handicap accessible.
SS: As the first person to own a Rural Studio house of this kind, do you feel any pressure to make design changes, because of the narrative that students brought to the project?
PW: No. It’s all my own ambition.
After speaking with Freear and Walker, I am optimistic that a house of this kind could be useful for people looking for more secure “do-it-yourself” design expansions and creative liberty within the character of the region. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the model will be appropriate for a diverse array of residents; in its initial state, the interior living spaces are small and only accommodate a single person or a couple without expansion. Additional questions arise regarding the feasibility of distributing their kit houses more widely.
Nevertheless, the students' involvement in this programme demonstrates a major benefit of community engagement during architecture school. As students, designers, and builders, it is challenging to address broad issues while also acknowledging the specific needs of individuals. When it comes to affordable housing in the rural American South, Rural Studio’s latest house suggests that it is crucial to include space for growth and individual expression.