Author: Natalie Butts-Ball

Andrew Freear and Rural Studio Receive Esteemed Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture

The University of Virginia (UVA) and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation jointly bestow the esteemed Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal annually in three fields in which Jefferson “excelled and held in high regard”—one medal each in architecture, law, and citizen leadership—and in some years, in global innovation. This year, Wiatt Professor and Director of Auburn University Rural Studio Andrew Freear and the Studio itself have been selected for the honor in architecture. Other 2023 Medal recipients include Jason Rezaian for the Medal in Citizen Leadership and Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju for the Medal in Law.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal is the highest external honor granted by the University of Virginia, which does not grant honorary degrees, and celebrates the recipients as exemplars in their endeavors. Architecture is the original Medal category and Mies Van der Rohe was the first recipient in 1966. Other past recipients in architecture include Alvar Aalto (1967), Robert Venturi (1983), and more recently Sir David Adjaye OBE (2018) and Kenneth Frampton (2022).

Lions Park Playscape

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation is an “independent, nonprofit organization that owns and operates his home, Monticello.” As a museum and historic site, Monticello keeps alive the accomplishments of Jefferson, the complex man who penned the Declaration of Independence, served as the third President of the United States, and founded the University of Virginia in 1819–but who was also a slave owner. Today, the Foundation works to recognize the valuable lessons of history: that we must wrestle with them, rather than ignore them, and that we must continue to work for a just future. Past Medal recipient Wendy Kopp (Teach for America, Teach for All) used the honor to publicly address the difficult “paradox” Jefferson presents as both an enslaver and an architect of our government and its ideals, and Senator John Lewis, 2015 recipient of the Citizen Leadership Medal, went on to point out that we have not yet arrived at that future when he encouraged award ceremony attendees to “keep your eyes on the prize.” Following Senator Lewis’ instruction to us all, we are compelled to use this recognition to highlight the persistent housing inequities still found in rural America, inequities that have arisen from the ongoing legacy of human enslavement.

Andrew Freear and Rural Studio will receive the 2023 Medal in Architecture at the annual Founder’s Day celebration, a joint UVA and Foundation event held on April 13, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Professor Freear captured the sentiment of all of Rural Studio when he learned of the honor: “It’s quite extraordinary that a modest undergraduate program in West Alabama can be mentioned alongside giants in our field such as Jane Jacobs, Glenn Murcutt, Billie Tsien, Tod Williams, and Frances Kéré. We are deeply humbled to have been selected for this distinction not just for the honor, but for the light that it shines on rural America and society’s role in ensuring equitable, dignified communities.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Look for a post on the ceremony in April.

For more information:

University of Virginia Press Release

UVA School of Architecture Press Release

Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal

Newbern Firehouse

Photos by Timothy Hursley

2022 Soup Roast

Rural Studio’s Fall semester culminates in the annual Soup Roast, which is typically attended by longtime consultants Jersey Devil’s design/build legend Jim Adamson, and the Seattle crew: Jake LaBarre from Miller Hull and J.A.S. Design Build principals Kim Clements and Joe Schneider. This year, we also were joined by Mike Freeman and Nicole Abercrombie (both from J.A.S.), as well as Auburn faculty and Rural Studio alumnus Will McGarity and our Front Porch Initiative team, Rusty Smith, Mackenzie Stagg, Betsy Farrell Garcia. Together they critiqued the work of our 5th-year students with good humor and a fun spirit, despite the unpredictable West Alabama weather. This time was also used to celebrate the progress made by Fall semester 3rd-years on their project, Rosie’s Home, as well as their History and Woodshop class projects. We capped off Soup Roast Review (Day One) with a hot bowl of soup, bonfires, and Hale County tea.

A new tradition, Soup Roast Day Two, gave us a chance to workshop and charrette ideas from the previous day’s reviews with our 5th-year teams and visitors. Afterwards, Jake, Jim, and Mike each inspired students with brief lectures drawn from their own work. And finally, we were treated to a very special dinner created by Kim Clements and another friend from Seattle, Courtney Aguirre, using lots of Rural Studio Farm produce.

Cheers to another semester designing and building in West Alabama. We couldn’t do it without all of our supporters. Thank you!

Rural Studio Receives 2022 National Design Award in NYC

We are still processing the news of being a recipient of one of the 2022 National Design Awards. Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear and Associate Director Rusty Smith attended the gala along with Acting Dean Karen Rogers from the College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) and Justin Miller, Head of the School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture (APLA). They walked the red carpet, and when the ceremony turned to awardees, Andrew delivered the remarks for Rural Studio. The central message he delivered was that the award recognizes that people and place really do matter, and that everyone, wherever they live and no matter their circumstance, should have the right to beautiful, dignified, and equitable design.

2022 National Design Award Recipients: (L-R) Che-Wei Wang, Nader Tehrani, Taylor Levy, Emily Adams Bode, Chelina Odbert, (Cooper Hewitt Director) Maria Nicanor, Giorgia Lupi, David Hertz, Andrew Freear, and Willy Chavarria

Our folks were in excellent company across the board. Nader Tehrani represented another intersection of the architectural arm of design and a focus on equity, and Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), from the allied field of landscape architecture, was selected for work in places where socioeconomic inequity is extreme, environmental risks are high, and public investment is historically low. David Hertz won for his explicit work in climate action: his design of WEDEW, a self-contained, transportable, and sustainable water and energy generator that converts biomass into essential human resources. And Felecia Davis’s design is in computational textiles, or textiles that respond to their environment via programming, embedded sensors, and electronics, or by using the changeable properties of materials to communicate information to people. She applies this research and design in large part to architecture, and her work addresses social, cultural, and political constructions. All of these winners have a just, equitable, healthful future underpinning their efforts.

Two of our colleagues come out of the realm of fashion design. Cooper Hewitt aptly describes Willy Chavarria’s work as blending “the emotion of art and modern politics into a reactionary story of the human will,” with his fashions making anti-hate statements. Emily Adams Bode was selected as this year’s emerging designer, with her menswear brand and her designs for New York Fashion Week: Men’s not only incorporating historical techniques and female-centric traditions like appliqué but also focusing on sustainability through repair of articles of clothing.

Other recipients won for design that advances the human experience in other ways. The jury selected CW&T, the design duo of Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy, to recognize their insightful and product design that concentrates on improving everyday experiences. Their range of design impressively extends from interactive software to human-scaled tools. And Giorgia Lupi’s award recognizes her contributions to data visualization, with designs engaging data-driven narratives across print, digital, and environmental media that create new insight and appreciation of people, ideas, and organizations.

We can’t even come close to doing justice to the design work all of these colleagues are doing. Go to Cooper Hewitt’s “Meet the 2022 Winners” page to learn more about each of them. It’ll be well worth your time.

Rural Studio carefully transported to Newbern the trophy created by The Corning Museum of Glass, a trophy that in itself is a work of art. We are deeply humbled and honored to be recognized by the award’s Jury. The evening festivities from Wednesday night are over, but we will long be celebrating—as soon as the reality sinks in. And we’ll continue to champion the message of the rural, of people and place. It is being heard.

Images: 1, 4, 5, 8, 13 by Nikola Bradonjic, courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Images: 3, 7, 10, 11, 12 by Liz Ligon, courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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