Author: Natalie Butts-Ball

Treating wastewater and improving health in West Alabama

Phase 1 Ribbon Cutting of Newbern’s new sanitary sewer system located at Rural Studio headquarters

The Alabama Black Belt region has long struggled with a lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is necessary for both the safety of wildlife and the health of residents. Only half of Black Belt residents have access to a clean and effective municipal sanitary sewer system. The other half are expected to treat waste on their own property.

Rural Studio is part of a large collaboration aiming to address this challenge through an alternative wastewater treatment system. We celebrated the completion of Phase 1 of this new sanitary sewer system at a Newbern Community Fish Fry & Ribbon Cutting on Tuesday, June 4th, 2024.

Community Fish Fry Dinner provided by the University of Alabama

The event welcomed nearly 150 neighbors and friends to learn more about the project and what’s next for the broader Newbern community. On hand to greet and educate the community was the whole research team, consisting of six university and not-for-profit organizations: University of Alabama, University of South Alabama (USA), University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, Columbia University, Black Belt Community Foundation, and Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater.

The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium devised solutions to address wastewater needs throughout the Black Belt, and Rural Studio is hosting the demonstration of one such solution. Called a “cluster” system, this treatment unit will initially connect clusters of 50 or so homes within a five-mile radius of the Studio. The homes will share one water treatment unit, which is specially designed for the Black Belt soil. It uses two-inch pipes (instead of larger sewer pipes found in septic systems), so it can withstand the challenges of the clay soil.

For many rural residents nationally, septic systems provide the necessary wastewater treatment, but this method is not an effective solution in the Black Belt. These systems average $10,000-$30,000, making them exorbitantly expensive for lower income residents. Even more prohibitive is the Black Belt’s soil condition: the area’s soil is made of clay, which often leads to backups in septic tanks. It is estimated that roughly half of rural residents in Black Belt counties have failing septic systems or are simply dumping wastewater directly on to their land, leading to raw sewage in and around homes. The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium, comprised of volunteer experts from industry, government, and academia, was formed in 2018 to directly address the rural wastewater challenge. As part of this consortium, Rural Studio is leading the way in wastewater treatment for Hale County.

Wastewater treatment unit shown at the 2024 Pig Roast (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The Rural Studio wastewater project is a prototype for future projects, leveraging funds from several state and federal agencies, including the American Rescue Plan Act, commonly known as the Biden infrastructure bill, the USDA, and Columbia World Projects. These agencies are collaborating to build a plan for increasing the number of Black Belt residents with access to proper wastewater treatment from 50% to 75%. Initially, the wastewater project will be limited to the Rural Studio community, before expanding into community homes. This first phase will provide a proof of concept for local rural residents and show that such a system is both effective and non-invasive.

Associate Professor Emily McGlohn, who spearheads Rural Studio’s wastewater project, stresses the importance of this acceptance: “We know that for a community project to be successful, especially one being presented to the community from an outside group, you really need to let people see it and understand it. So, phase one will just serve us. It’ll be open to the public, and it will let our local community, our local government, individuals and anybody else to come understand the system.”

Along with its hosting role for this first treatment system, Rural Studio, particularly McGlohn, acts as the connective tissue between the government agencies, the Consortium, the collaborating universities, and—most importantly—the residents of Hale County. “I am the community advocate. I communicate with our neighbors to make sure they know what’s going on, with the engineer, with the other faculty team with USA and Alabama, and with the contractor.”

Over its 30 years, Rural Studio’s mission has expanded to promote community wellness in its rural community, and the wastewater project is an outgrowth of that work. Clean sanitation improves the health and well-being of our West Alabama neighbors in an area that has been under-resourced for generations. McGlohn emphasizes the Studio’s vital role in this important work: “It’s truly a public health crisis that the Black Belt counties find themselves in. And there are so few solutions. That’s why we’re here to help.”

Looking Back, Moving Forward

The Front Porch Initiative team had a busy 2023. Over the course of the year, we provided technical assistance to twelve partners in six states. They built homes based on Rural Studio housing prototypes that incorporate climate-resilience and energy-efficiency. At the close of 2023, Front Porch Initiative housing partners had ten houses in development, six housing units under construction, and six homes completed. While recent blog posts shared the home dedications for Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County (SC) and Community Housing Corp of Madison County (NC), the team also celebrated the completion of another four homes in Greenville and the dedication of a home in Lafitte, Louisiana, 45 minutes south of New Orleans. 

Completed Homes in Greenville, South Carolina

These homes represent milestones for our housing provider partners: for Habitat Greenville, the accessible two-bedroom, two-bathroom design expands the client base the affiliate can serve, including single homeowners and those with limited mobility. For New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH), the home dedicated in April 2023 is the first in a disaster recovery effort to rebuild a working coastal town decimated by Hurricane Ida in August 2021. As a replacement home leveraging the homeowners’ existing property and infrastructure, the home is certified to both ENERGY STAR and FORTIFIED Gold for Hurricane standards to increase resilience for an uncertain energy future and potential weather events. Partnerships with these organizations have deepened our understanding of the housing procurement process, equipping us to share those findings with other partners working through similar challenges in land use, financing, insurance, or other areas.

Completed home in Lafitte, Louisiana

Auburn alum Christian Ayala joined Rural Studio as a Research Architect in January 2023 after receiving his Master of Science in Architecture with a focus on housing from Rice University. With the expansion of the team, our capacity to provide technical assistance expanded significantly, and the product line of homes grew to include two new additions: a new adaptation of the Dave’s House prototype with an added nook and a duplex prototype. Products offered to housing provider partners draw on the research conducted by faculty, staff, and students in West Alabama; for this version of Dave’s, the housing partner needed a home with additional living space, so we incorporated a quarter-bedroom concept developed by Rural Studio students, the 3rd-year team that built Ophelia’s Home. As part of prototype development this year, the Front Porch team explored new technologies, including insulated concrete forms (ICF) with NOAHH, in partnership with concrete industry partners; we even participated in the build. Future material and process investigations may include mass timber and offsite construction. 

In addition to meeting with partners across the Southeast, we traveled to Cosanti, Arizona, to present at the Building Technology Educators’ Society (BTES) Conference; to Salt Lake City, Utah, to present at the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) Summit; and to Washington, DC, to attend the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) Conference. We welcomed an array of visitors to Hale County as well: representatives of Fannie Mae’s leadership team, participants in a HAC Placemaking Summit, builder partners, and regional policymakers. 

Fannie Mae visit to Newbern

In 2024, we already have some exciting opportunities lined up, including presentations at the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Conference, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) 112th Annual Meeting, and the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC) Residential Building Design and Construction Conference. Stay tuned!

Build with Strength: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and Auburn University Rural Studio Construct with Insulated Concrete Forms

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) is involved in a groundbreaking nationwide initiative with esteemed partners like the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA), Holcim, BuildBlock, and Auburn University Rural Studio to support the “Build with Strength” campaign. These efforts are impactful in addressing the growing need for affordable, sustainable, and resilient innovative housing solutions. This interdisciplinary collaborative effort assembles industry partners with housing providers and designers to promote innovation in construction methods and materials.

In need of workforce housing, NOAHH sought the assistance of Rural Studio to design and develop a multi-unit prototype for workforce housing that will serve their AmeriCorps employees and NOAHH volunteers. To achieve this vision, BuildBlock and Holcim provided materials and technical support for the project, with insulating concrete forms (ICF) and ECOpact, a low-carbon concrete mix. The goal is to create affordable rental housing, with the initial duplex situated near NOAHH’s office and ReStore.

Ownership of the structure will be retained by NOAHH, so they will be able to observe how the duplex performs over time. NOAHH is exploring the possibility of constructing the same design out of wood in order to directly compare the two construction types (wood and concrete). The concrete structure of the house will provide resilience against high winds. Should the structure ever flood, the concrete material is less susceptible to mold, potentially shortening any post-disaster renovations, resulting in decreased displacement from the home.

The project aims for ENERGY STAR 3.0 certification, a HERS rating of 38, and FORTIFIED Gold certification. NOAHH may pursue Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH) certification, delivering an energy-efficient design that prioritizes resiliency. The use of ECOpact, a low-carbon concrete for reduced environmental impact, is a key sustainable feature in this housing endeavor. This innovative concrete mix boasts a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared to standard concrete.

During a public build week led by BuildBlock, NOAHH’s project materialized with the active participation of BuildBlock, NOAHH, members of the Front Porch Initiative team, and community volunteers. The advantages of ICF construction were evident as the exterior walls were assembled efficiently, engaging minimal crew in a couple of days. With the walls set, the next milestone is installing trusses in the upcoming week. The aim is to have the house “dried-in” by year-end, entailing the installation of the exterior roof, and sheathing to shield the interior from the elements. The anticipated completion for construction is set for the summer of 2024. As NOAHH continues its collaboration with industry partners, its mission remains to construct resilient, energy-efficient structures in the community.

“Behind the build” media event

Recent Press:

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity: About Habitat and Build with Strength

BuildBlock: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity ICF Project, November 2023

Biz New Orleans: Habitat Partners to Build Concrete Housing

Build with Strength: Habitat Partners to Build Concrete Housing

Rural Wastewater Demonstration Project Launches in Newbern

We have excellent news to share: Rural Studio is working with a consortium to demonstrate the viability of applying a cluster-design sanitary sewer to a rural area, including retrofitting local homes that have problematic septic systems. This work has the potential to improve the health of rural communities.

Blackland Prairie Image credit: (Map) US Department of Agriculture and Extension (Photo) Rural Studio

The Problem

Fifty percent of Black Belt residents use on-site septic systems, and it’s estimated that 90% of these systems are failing or don’t work as they should. The reason for this startling number is that soils with high clay content hold wastewater on the ground surface, creating contaminated pools or soggy areas in yards. Soil that’s good for catfish ponds is terrible for on-site wastewater treatment. Engineered mound systems that work in these soils can cost up to $20,000—too expensive for most people. Both problems demand new ways of thinking about rural wastewater management.

The Consortium

As a member of the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management, Rural Studio is partnering with engineers from the University of South Alabama, University of Alabama, and the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn to help solve this public health crisis. Rural Studio will be the demonstration site for a rural wastewater cluster system paid for by the American Rescue Act Plan, USDA, and Columbia World Projects. The technology behind the pilot project is tried and true, there are many successful examples in Alabama. The innovation is to use these effluent-only sewers in a rural, retro-fit setting. A cluster system takes only the waste liquids from a household or business and treats it to a high-level of purification.

Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management

The Project

Phases 1 of the Rural Wastewater Demonstration Project will serve Rural Studio’s campus, Red Barn, Newbern Library, and the businesses on the west side of Alabama Highway 61. The demonstration will be open to the public so our neighbors can come see and smell the treatment center. Rural Studio’s long-term goal is to bring other community members onto the new sanitary sewer. If these cluster systems are fully used across the Black Belt, another 25% of residents could have access to a managed and affordable sanitary sewer system. Rural Studio is excited to work with our partners to offer new solutions for rural wastewater management in the Black Belt.

Rural Studio Morrisette House Campus Image credit: Google Earth

The ground has already been broken, and we hope to have the system functioning in the next few months.

Strengthening Neighborhoods in Greenville, South Carolina­

Habitat partners with new homeowner on the front porch

On June 1st, 2023, Habitat for Humanity Greenville (HFHGC) dedicated their seventh home at Heritage Hills development in the neighborhood of Nicholtown. The Heritage Hills Development is a former Hope VI subdivision of which the City of Greenville did not complete development. HFHGC plans to build 29 homes over the next couple of years to strengthen this historically African American neighborhood southeast of downtown Greenville. This is the first of six Rural Studio prototype homes to be completed in the neighborhood, with the other five expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Group raising wood-framed wall on concrete foundation

HFHGC has historically offered three- and four-bedroom homes but recognized that four adjacent parcels could be subdivided to accommodate five smaller prototypes. In planning conversations, Rural Studio offered several two-bedroom prototypes, of which HFHGC selected Sylvia’s two-bedroom, two-bath model (2/2). The design is well-suited to the narrow sites (with parking at the rear) because the back porch, which can be screened, serves as an informal entry. This prototype has expanded the affiliate’s client base; for the first time, two single individuals have qualified to purchase homes through the affiliate. The accessibility of the prototype will also allow an owner with limited mobility to age in place.

As the Sylvia 2/2 House prototype was new to the affiliate, HFHGC elected to proceed with one house before moving forward with all six; this process allowed the procurement and construction teams to learn the nuances of a new prototype. Construction of the first house allowed the teams to adjust wall alignments, insulation material, and window and door types in subsequent iterations. Because the high-efficiency mechanical system differs from the typical conventional systems specified for the affiliate’s larger houses, this prototype prompted the affiliate to seek out a new mechanical contractor with more competitive pricing.

HFHGC has adapted the drawing sets to reflect their palette of finishes and standard details, which will streamline production for their volunteers and incorporate the finish offerings typically offered to their partner families. Because the affiliate typically builds to ENERGY STAR, beyond-code aspects of rigorous air sealing and high-efficiency equipment are familiar.

Financial Stack

Site work and infrastructure were funded through grants and a capital campaign, Building New Communities One Neighborhood at a Time, that raised approximately $2M. Two-thirds of the construction budget for each individual home is sponsored by organizations or through fundraising, with grants and profits from ReStore sales covering the remaining third. The mortgage portfolio also brings in funding through a combination of mortgages currently serviced and those sold to other lenders after origination. HFHGC received funds for this first home from their build partner, BMW Group Manufacturing, based out of Spartanburg, SC. Rural Studio will continue to work with HFHGC to explore their interest in third-party lending.

Energy Efficient Homes

HFHGC is pursuing ENERGY STAR, Indoor airPLUS, and WaterSense certifications; they have a longstanding relationship with a third-party evaluator to ensure construction meets the standards. Financial incentives do not exist to justify pursuit of FORTIFIED. HFHGC has applied learning from Rural Studo’s technical assistance to their three- and four-bedroom home designs, yielding better air tightness results and lower HERS scores. Based on the research Rural Studio shared regarding the energy savings possible with hybrid heat pump water heaters, HFHGC has committed to installing them in all future houses and has modified their standard specifications accordingly.

Housing Access

Homeowners for the first five homes have been selected and are working to complete their 250 sweat equity hours. HFHGC is working with single homeowners for the first time, the addition of a smaller two-bedroom house to the Heritage Hills neighborhood has proved ideal. The prototype is also designed with accessibility in mind and can accommodate the limited mobility of one of these buyers. Since the sites are configured to offer parking at the back, a ramp will be added to the back porch.

Press Links:

Greenville Journal: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County complete Habitat Arena Build” June 18, 2023

Fox Carolina: Habitat Greenville Builds a Home at the Well” June 13, 2023

Fox Carolina: Greenville Habitat for Humanity celebrates new home” June 1, 2023