Author: Natalie Butts-Ball

Sweat and Sweat Equity in Four Marianna Homes

Partners celebrate the ribbon cutting and dedication of four new high-performance homes in Marianna, Florida.
Photo courtesy of Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity.

On a hot, sunny day exactly 511 days after breaking ground on the first of four homes in the Chipola Street Development, we gathered on July 21 to celebrate the dedication of the four completed homes. These homes represent a collaborative partnership between Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH), who developed the homes and managed construction; Chipola College Building Construction Technology (CCBCT), whose students received clock-hour credit while working to construct the homes; and Auburn Rural Studio, who provided the designs and technical assistance to build these high-performance homes. This collaborative also represents a nexus of needs to which organizations are working to respond: first, expanding equitable access to housing, second, providing high-performance homes that continue to benefit homeowners over the lifespan of the home, and third, growing a local workforce trained in building these high-performance homes. In addition to this tripartite collaborative, Regions Bank and Fannie Mae worked with CAHFH to ensure home affordability while simultaneously increasing CAHFH’s capacity to deliver more homes in their local communities.

Equitable Housing Access

The site for the four homes was a parcel that CAHFH had held in their portfolio for quite some time, as the narrow, sloping lot had proved difficult to develop. The benefit of the parcel, however, was its centrality to resources, including proximity to the town’s civic complex (including post office and courthouse) as well as to grocery stores. And, though the size of each individual parcel did not meet the minimum requirements of the zoning ordinance, CAHFH’s good relationship with the city allowed for them to both obtain a variance and demonstrate a method for infilling these small, in-town parcels.

On the financial side, CAHFH, Regions, and Fannie Mae worked together to pilot a process by which the sweat equity built into the houses is valued as a contribution to the downpayment. The affordability of the house is preserved via a deed restriction developed by Grounded Solutions Network and specifically designed to work with shared equity programs.

High-Performance Homes

All four homes were designed, constructed, and certified to meet ENGERGY STAR, FGBC Green Home, and FORTIFIED Home for Hurricane Gold standards! The house completed first, Buster’s House, received a final HERS score of 38; it is predicted that the house will save $697/year over a comparable home built to-code. Over the course of a 30-year mortgage, that equates to a whopping $20,910 in savings. In addition to their energy efficiency, the homes are also designed to resist damage from high winds and rain. Since Florida already has robust building codes around resilience, CAHFH was already very familiar with the concept of providing a continuous load path – meaning that the roof is tied down to the walls and the walls are tied down to the foundation, allowing the home to resist strong wind forces. In addition to the continuous load path, the homes feature impact-resistant windows and extra layers of water protection on the roof. FORTIFIED certification can potentially lead to lower insurance premiums for the homeowner, providing monthly savings in addition to increased peace of mind. This project gave us our first opportunity to look into Florida Green Building Coalition’s Green Home standard. This standard is a points-based program (similar to LEED) and seeks to address Florida-specific climactic conditions for improved efficiency, health, and resilience performance. These high-performance homes aim to provide the homeowners with safe, comfortable, and durable homes that will continue to be an asset for many years to come.

Local Workforce

Sometimes opportunities emerge out of challenges. Construction on the homes began while there will pandemic-related challenges were limiting the number of CAHFH’s volunteers – a crucial component of the Habitat social and affordability models. Around the same time, Chipola College launched a Building Construction Technology program as part of their mission of enhancing CTE (career and technical education) opportunities across the state of Florida. Timing proved advantageous for both CAHFH and Chipola College – they initiated a partnership whereby CCBCT students received clock-hour credit toward construction certifications while building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Furthermore, these students received practical experience on the construction of high-performance homes, better able to respond to climactic challenges.

Needless to say, the Front Porch Initiative team learned a ton from this project! We’re grateful to have such wonderful collaborators in the Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity team (Carmen, Isaiah, Pete, Cynthia, Jennie Anne, and Tamara) and the Chipola College Building Construction Technology team (Darwin, Scott, and the CCBCT students). Here’s to the first four of what we hope are many homes to come!

The homes in the Chipola Street development represent four different product line homes, from left to right: Buster, Dave, Joanne, and Sylvia.

Press coverage of the event:

WJHG News Channel 7: “Habitat for Humanity finished four new homes in Marianna” by Ramsey Romero | July 21, 2022

Dothan Eagle: “Ribbon cut to signal finish of Habitat for Humanity tiny homes in Marianna” by Deborah Buckhalter | July 22, 2022

Auburn University Rural Studio Receives Prestigious 2022 National Design Award in Architecture / Interior Design

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s National Design Awards program honors innovation and impact and recognizes the power of design to change the world. Rural Studio is receiving the 2022 Architecture / Interior Design Award, one of only nine Awards this year, each in its own category. Rural Studio’s Award represents the first time a university-affiliated studio has won in the Architecture / Interior Design category.

Established in 2000 as a project of the White House Millennium Council, the National Design Awards promote design as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world and are accompanied by robust educational programs throughout the year and during National Design Week. Honorees are selected based on the level of excellence, innovation, and public impact of their body of work by an interdisciplinary jury of design leaders and educators, design experts, and enthusiasts. The Awards seek to increase national awareness of the impact of design and demonstrate to the public that design matters.

Rural Studio will receive the prestigious Award, crafted by the Corning Museum of Glass, at the National Design Awards event, hosted by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York on Sept. 21, 2022. Rural Studio Director and Professor Andrew Freear will be accepting the Award on behalf of Auburn University and the Studio: “We are delighted by this recognition because it acknowledges the quality of our design work, and we are humbled to be honored alongside the roll call of extraordinary architects and designers. I hope this Award sends the message that everyone, wherever they live, deserves the benefit of beautiful, dignified, equitable design.”

Rural Studio will also take part in Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Week, including participating in the Design Career Fair on October 19, 2022, at the High School of Art and Design in New York City.

Meet all of this year’s National Design Award recipients

Nader Tehrani, Design Visionary
WEDEW by David Hertz, Climate Action
Emily Adams Bode, Emerging Designer
Rural Studio, Architecture / Interior Design
Giorgia Lupi, Communication Design
Felecia Davis, Digital Design
Willy Chavarria, Fashion Design
Kounkuey Design Initiative, Landscape Architecture
CW&T, Product Design

Learn more about the National Design Award here.


Cooper Hewitt is America’s design museum. Inclusive, innovative and experimental, the museum’s dynamic exhibitions, education programs, master’s program, publications and online resources inspire, educate and empower people through design. An integral part of the Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum, education and research complex—Cooper Hewitt is located on New York City’s Museum Mile in the historic, landmark Carnegie Mansion. Steward of one of the world’s most diverse and comprehensive design collections—over 215,000 objects that range from an ancient Egyptian faience cup dating to about 1100 BC to contemporary 3D-printed objects and digital code—Cooper Hewitt welcomes everyone to discover the importance of design and its power to change the world.

With almost three decades of experience, Rural Studio is one of the oldest and most well-respected design-build programs in the world. The Studio is located in Hale County, Alabama, and is part of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University. The core mission is the education of architecture students who live on site and build structures and landscapes for residents and communities in this under-resourced, persistently impoverished rural area known as the Black Belt. The design-build projects are coupled with research on sustainable, healthful rural living through both housing and vital community systems of support and prosperity. To date, Rural Studio has built more than 200 projects and educated more than 1,200 students in the Black Belt.  

Cooper Hewitt Press Release

Project images by Timothy Hursley

Workshop 1: Kiel Moe

Our great friend Kiel Moe kicked off this year’s fall workshop series, bringing his expertise to our 5th-year students as they begin to wrestle with the challenges of using mass timber to create a bath house. That’s right: using wood to create a bath house in humid subtropical Hale County, AL, where the summer temperatures soar, and the relative humidity is high year-round!

We are pleased to be able to call him our own now: after collaborating with us from McGill University on our mass timber and thermal mass buoyancy ventilation projects, he has joined Auburn University College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) as a Professor of Practice specializing in Mass Timber. In particular, his workshop addressed how we might reconsider the act and celebration of bathing, and the role of timber in that environment, and understand the transmission of heat in such a building and the long-term care of a building through its detailing. Like other workshops, students divided into charette teams to share the newly acquired knowledge among each other and thereby get to know one another better.

Tom Chung, another celebrated new Auburn CADC Professor of Practice in Mass Timber, contributed to the workshop, along with teaching partner Rural Studio alumnus Will McGarity of Stick Architecture LLC in Birmingham. Students in Tom Chung’s Studio III on Auburn’s main campus (also known as the Mass Timber design studio) presented their timber precedent studies under the shelter of the Great Hall at the Morrisette House.

This workshop was just the beginning for our 5th-year students. This Fall, they will participate in three weeks of workshops led by our consultants with expertise in subjects like landscape, structural engineering, building codes and ordnances, as well as designers, builders and makers. This process is directed toward students gaining familiarity with the year’s projects, with consultants exploring important questions related to their field. The workshop process culminates with students choosing the project and designing the team they will be working both on and with for the rest of their time in the program.

Keep your eyes open for a recap of the upcoming workshop with Emily Knox and David Hill from Auburn’s Landscape Architecture Program.

Cheers to the Moundville Pavilion students!

We celebrated the current Moundville Archaeological Park Community Pavilion team at a special dinner with Rural Studio students, staff, and faculty. A beautiful meal was made by Sarah Cole of Abadir’s, with produce from our Rural Studio Farm.

The Moundville Archeological Park Community Pavilion project has been in the Studio for the last five years and was explored by two 5th-year teams. Both teams brought intellectual curiosity, hard work, and deep respect for the cultural treasure that is Moundville, and both teams had to manage circumstances beyond their control. The first team, graduates from 2019, had to halt construction due to the constraints of the COVID pandemic. The second team, who inherited the partially built project, recently learned the project was canceled.

On Friday evening we feted these remarkable students: Brenton Smith, Caitlyn Biffle, Jackie Rosborough, and Collin Brown. We toasted the care, insight, grit, and maturity of the team through the arc of the project. While the first team gave them an excellent start, the second team was able to approach it with fresh eyes. They critiqued and built upon previous decisions, taking time to understand the structure without fear of revising elements that could be improved. They preserved the project intentions as a place for teaching and holding events, and as a gathering space for Moundville Archaeological Park, its campers, and other visitors. Their goal was to have the Pavilion be modest and quiet, preserving the character of place, but also delightful, reflecting and disappearing into the landscape with the ceiling as a new sky. Above all, they too served the client with great love and respect for the place, recognizing its incredible significance, beauty, and meaning.

We were delighted to have Emily Lopez, of the first team, join the festivities. The many miles between Newbern and California (for Lauren Ballard) and Harvard University (for Katie Cantine and Sarah Page) kept the rest of the team from joining us in person, yet they sent messages of support.

We are immensely proud of our students’ thoughtful and careful designs, their collaboration, their intellectual curiosity, and more than anything their poise: the first team’s composure in handling the pandemic pause and the second team’s respect and maturity in handling the close of the project. These graduates will not have beautiful Tim Hursley photographs to complete their portfolios, but they will always carry the skills, insight, and respect that they cultivated over their time with Rural Studio and the Moundville Archaeological Park Community Pavilion.

Bravo, teams! Thank you for honoring us with your abilities and grace!

Warm Welcome to the Bayou

On June 23, the Front Porch Initiative joined New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) in launching a replacement housing program for a hurricane-affected community in Louisiana. Bringing disaster recovery and rebuilding to a community hit hard by Hurricane Ida on August 29, 2021, New Orleans Area Habitat announced their commitment to the town of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, with a press event sharing the vision for rebuilding and pledging a $4.5M investment to fund the recovery effort.

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity hosted an event launching a Hurricane Ida recovery event for interested residents of Jean Lafitte and were joined by representatives from the city and community.

At the press event, Rusty Smith joined Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner, Jr., Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng, State Representative Tim Kerner, Sr., and New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Marguerite Oestreicher in announcing the rebuilding effort. Rusty noted how energy efficiency, durability, and resilience contribute to the long-term affordability of the houses being proposed by reducing monthly utility bills and maintenance and repair expenses; how design features can contribute to positive health outcomes of the residents; and how the houses will contribute to strengthening the community fabric of Jean Lafitte.

Rural Studio’s Rusty Smith described new affordable, energy efficient homes proposed for Jean Lafitte and the benefits they will offer to residents.

According to NOAHH, more than 90% of homes in the area were damaged by Ida. Over the next two years, they aim to construct between 40 and 60 homes for property owners whose homes were destroyed by the hurricane. Built on homeowners’ existing property, Rural Studio’s energy efficient and resilient housing prototypes will be adapted to respond appropriately to the local climate and site needs. The first house will be based on Sylvia’s House, a two-bedroom model that has been adapted to include a second bathroom. To exceed base flood elevation, piles will lift the structure 10 feet above grade, creating usable space below the home.

Approximately 120 residents attended the event at the Lafitte Community Center. After the information session, residents were able to meet with NOAHH to begin the application process. The affiliate aims to limit homeowner mortgage payments to approximately $500, and fundraising is underway to establish a satellite operations base and construction warehouse in the area and to offset construction costs. Pile driving on the first replacement home began on July 27, and New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity plans to mark the anniversary of Hurricanes Ida and Katrina on August 29, 2022, with a community event. 

Press coverage of the event: “Habitat for Humanity plans 40 homes for Ida-weary Lafitte residents: ‘This means hope’” by Blake Paterson | June 24, 2022 | link “Home building group donates $4.5 million to build homes damaged after Hurricane Ida” by Rob Masson | June 23, 2022 | link