Author: Natalie Butts-Ball

Building Anew: A Rehabilitation and Rebuilding Initiative in Rural North Carolina

Marshall, North Carolina

Supporting its mission to increase high performance rural housing, Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative has partnered with the Community Housing Coalition of Madison County (CHCMC) in North Carolina. In 2022, the CHCMC secured funding to replace four substandard houses in their service area. The CHCMC has historically focused on the repair and rehabilitation of existing homes in their service area but recognized the opportunity to invest funding more sustainably through replacement housing. For the first of these projects, CHCMC chose to use a Rural Studio design, which will accommodate the challenging housing site. The site has both a restricted buildable area and a significant grade change.

Replacement home on the left and existing home on the right (red roof)

The Sylvia’s House prototype was well suited for the narrow and steeply sloped rural site where an existing home—which remained in place during construction—and septic lines limited the buildable area. The new home overlooks a stream across the road and nestles into a hillside while maintaining driveway access to the existing home. The selection of finishes favored durable and low-maintenance materials. Access and space planning considered the future mobility needs of the client: in addition to the ramp at the front porch, grading at the rear porch will allow a zero-step entry. Inside a roll-in shower will accommodate aging-in-place. Where possible, the Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative team incorporated equipment and appliances from the client’s existing home to reduce construction costs.

Construction began in mid-February of 2023 with CHCMC serving as the general contractor with some subcontractor labor. On August 2, 2023, CHCMC had an open house for all the partners involved to see the home as it nears completion. This first ground-up build will serve as a demonstration home for the organization to expand and provide homes that are affordable, high-performing, and efficiently designed to accommodate the needs of their clients.


In addition to ENERGY STAR 3.1 (a national energy performance standard program), the Front Porch Initiative team elected to pursue a North Carolina state standard: Green Built Homes. This point-based standard resembles LEED for Homes, but with less intensive documentation requirements. The organization’s experience in weatherization has proved valuable in design discussions of air tightness and insulation, and this new construction project has served as a learning opportunity for the construction team, informing their understanding of beyond-code construction. We want to give a special shout out to Hunter Dendy of Eco-Sense in Asheville, NC. Hunter graciously donated his consulting services AND the cost of HERS and ENERGY STAR certifications for the new home.

Long-term Affordability

As the first new construction project for an organization accustomed to housing repair work, this project has provided valuable lessons for CHCMC. Project development has highlighted the need for establishing clear expectations and communication with the client and for understanding the limitations of funding sources. For example, CHCMC learned that HUD funding precludes a deed restriction providing right of first refusal for the organization; furthermore, they recognize that some clients prefer to maintain the option of transferring a home to a relative or heir at default, potentially limiting the number of interested clients.

We are continuing our collaboration with CHCMC on future projects, helping to increase their capacity to deliver replacement homes in the community. 

Press Articles:

Asheville Citizen Times: “Madison housing organization breaks ground on replacement home program: ‘There’s hope again’” by Johnny Casey

Rural Studio Receives Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists at the White House

Andrew Freear accepts the 2023 Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists at the White House.

On September 12, the Japan Art Association (JAA) announced its selection of Rural Studio as a 2023 recipient of the Grant for Young Artists. Wiatt Professor and Director of Auburn University Rural Studio Andrew Freear traveled to the White House to receive the Grant on behalf of the Studio.

In 1988, on its 100th anniversary, the JAA established the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize to honor Prince Takamatsu and annually given to artists in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theatre/film. In 1997, the Praemium Imperiale expanded to include an annual Grant for Young Artists, most often given to organizations rather than individuals. The nominating team identifies those who “actively contribute to the development of young artistic talent.” Each year an international advisor to the JAA selects the Grant’s recipient(s) from among the worthy nominees. This year, Hillary Rodham Clinton served as the international advisor and selected Rural Studio and the Harlem School of the Arts for the Grant. Rural Studio is the first recipient in architecture in the Grant’s 27-year history.

We couldn’t be more delighted! It’s heartening to see architecture education recognized and supported. It’s especially heartening to see the rural take a spotlight. As Director Freear notes, “There’s a perception that design is just part of the culture of cities or urban places. To bridge this misconception, it’s important to bring young folks into an isolated rural place, like Newbern, to encounter the many provocative design challenges and opportunities.”

The ceremony was the icing on the cake. It began with a brief video montage featuring each of the honorees. First, the video introduced the Laureates: painter Vija Clemins, sculptor Olafur Eliasson, architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, musician Wynton Marsalis, and theater director and artist Robert Wilson. Then, it introduced the recipients of the Grant for Young Artists, the Harlem School of the Arts and Rural Studio.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden welcomes 34th Annual Praemium Imperiale laureates, Grant for Young Artist recipients and attendees to the White House on Tuesday, September 12, 2023.

The ceremony was held in the East Room at the White House. After the Laureates proceeded to the podium and were seated, Dr. Biden gave a rousing opening. She poetically remarked,

The artists we honor today invite us to join a conversation with the world, to step beyond the limits of our imagination. It’s a conversation that speaks across borders, languages, and centuries; as we tilt our heads to see just one more angle, bend our ear to take in just one more note, our hearts and hopes reach toward each other.

Her apt description of the “conversation” captures the conversations we have not only within our discipline but with those for whom we build and those who make architecture possible.

Honorary Advisor Mr. David Rockerfeller, Jr., gave a concise history of the Awards and noted that the Praemium Imperiale is “one of the world’s most important arts awards,” with “its mission to recognize the vital role of artists in our international discourse.” The Laureate distinction has often been called the Nobel Prize of the Arts. And the Grant for Young Artists facilitates nurturing the next generation of artists. Mr. Rockerfeller noted that artists’ “contribution to peace and understanding has never surely been more important.” Although Prince Hitachi could not join the ceremony because of health reasons, Chairman of the JAA Mr. Hisashi Hieda passed along his respect and his “hope that these Awards will stand as a reminder of how the arts contribute to” worldwide “peace and harmony.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67th Secretary of State & International Advisor to the Praemium Imperiale, introduces each Laureate.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments were dotted with gentle humor. She, too, lauded the importance of the Awards, and she called out to past recipients who were in the audience, including none other than two of our good friends, both Billie Tsien and Tod Williams! We’re so glad they could be present. Former Secretary of State Clinton also introduced each Laureate, highlighting their work, then invited Mr. Hieda back to the podium to present the Grant diplomas and call attention to the work of Rural Studio and the Harlem School of the Arts in turn. As Andrew stood on the podium, she described Rural Studio’s “ambition . . . to help students understand social responsibility in architecture through direct involvement in construction work as well as design.”

Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of the Japan Art Association, and Hillary Rodham Clinton present the Grant diploma to Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear.
2023 Praemium Imperiale Laureate Wynton Marsalis

After the live-streamed ceremony ended, in-person attendees were treated to a fantastic live performance by the Harlem School of the Arts All-Stars, accompanied by 2023 Laureate Wynton Marsalis.

Rural Studio is honored and humbled to stand among such talent in such a historic setting.

Final thoughts from Dr. Biden:

But art stops us in our tracks.

It feeds our spirit when we’re hungry for something more. It shows the contours of our sorrows and our joys so that we know that we’re not alone. It brings us back to the beauty and humanity of every moment.

Art matters. And that is why we’re here today.

All photos courtesy of Japan Art Association

Let’s celebrate Patriece’s Home & C.H.O.I.C.E. House

Aerial view of Patriece's Home ribbon cutting

Late summer brought hot weather and warm festivities to Hale County, as Rural Studio celebrated two completed 5th-year team projects. Adam Davis, Daniel Burton, Laurel Holloway, and Lauren Lovell completed Patriece’s Home for our neighbors, Patriece and her family. And AC Priest, Davis Benfer, Hailey Osborne, and Raymond Teo designed and built a flexible duplex for C.H.O.I.C.E., a community organization in Uniontown, Alabama. Andrew Freear, Director of Rural Studio, praises the students and their projects: “These homes celebrate and serve rural communities and families, reflecting the best of Rural Studio’s mission. I am proud of the student teams, their important work, and their exciting futures.”

The Rural Studio community joined us in this celebration, including team members’ parents, local partners, generous donors, and esteemed alumni as well as beloved colleagues, friends, and neighbors. As we celebrate 30 years in Hale County, we are grateful every day for their energy, support, and encouragement. Freear, along with Justin Miller, Head of Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, offered opening remarks at each project’s ribbon cutting. Recipients of the homes and other members of Rural Studio spoke as well.

The opening of Patriece’s home was accompanied by birthday cake and a song because Patriece and her two children all have birthdays in August! We toured Patriece’s Home, a flexible, two-story house that will adapt to her family’s evolving needs. The number of occupants and their relationships can change in the future without home alterations or additions.

Students on the Patriece’s Home team look forward to bright futures as well. Adam is going to Chicago to work with friend and consultant Kiel Moe; Daniel moved to Birmingham (got married earlier this month!) and is working (remotely) for Seay, Seay & Litchfield Architects, who are based in Montgomery, Alabama; Laurel is now working with Brian MacKay-Lyons as a resident at the Ghost Lab in Nova Scotia, Canada; and Lauren is working at Fuqua & Partners Architects in Huntsville, Alabama. Read more about the project, in the students’ own words, on their blog.

Patriece’s Home

Evening view of the exterior of Patriece's Home

C.H.O.I.C.E. House

Nearly 200 people turned out for the opening of C.H.O.I.C.E. House, including the organization’s Director, Emefa Butler. This home, a flexible duplex, will be C.H.O.I.C.E.’s first emergency shelter for recently homeless individuals and families. It is also a prototype home: in the coming years, C.H.O.I.C.E. hopes to construct another house on the same site, using this project as a model for both design and construction techniques. The two duplexes will share resources like laundry facilities and outdoor recreation.

Ribbon cutting and champagne toast of C.H.O.I.C.E. House

The C.H.O.I.C.E. House ribbon cutting featured a bountiful meal prepared by Newbern Mercantile and Abadir’s. Newbern Mercantile provided barbeque pork sandwiches and coleslaw. Abadir’s menu included produce from Rural Studio Farm; it featured arugula and roast eggplant salad, fresh and roasted veggies, Za’atar sourdough bread, black-eyed pea spread, and plum cake.

We send best wishes to the C.H.O.I.C.E. House team for the next adventures. Davis is moving to Portland, Oregon; Haley is moving to Spain to work as a language and culture coordinator for a year; AC is looking for a job out West; and Raymond will stay on at Rural Studio this fall and then be off to find his next adventure. Read more about the C.H.O.I.C.E. House on the students’ blog.

Thank you to all who make this work possible!


Photos by Timothy Hursley

Rural Studio celebrates three decades of living, working, and learning in our West Alabama community.

2023 Fall Semester Faculty, Staff, & Students

The 2023-2024 academic year marks the 30th Anniversary of the founding of Auburn University Rural Studio. As we celebrate the milestone, Rural Studio is focused on the interconnectedness, complexity, and challenges of healthful rural living. Everyone should have access to affordable homeownership. Everyone should have access to fresh food. Everyone should have access to clean water and reliable wastewater systems. How we choose and use our resources matters. How we plan for the future matters. These challenges aren’t isolated from one another: we must work on them as a whole, and together, to preserve the beauty inherent in rural living.

The Studio is rooted in building relationships and earning trust from our neighbors and friends in the community. Immersing ourselves in West Alabama has afforded our students the opportunity to apply their skills as designers, while also learning about nature, history, culture, economy, architecture, agriculture, and community in this unique educational landscape. Rural Studio would like to honor the place and its people, which have allowed us to thrive while maintaining passion and, we hope, rigor.

Our work in West Alabama over 30 years includes a range of impact:

  • Educated 1250+ students
  • Designed and built 220+ homes and community projects
  • Published 3 Rural Studio books with Princeton Architectural Press
  • Featured in 800+ publications, such as Architectural Record, Architect Magazine, Fast Company, Detail Magazine, Dwell, Metropolis, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal
  • Recognized with 39 national and international awards, from organizations such as the National Academy of Design; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian; the Thomas Jefferson Foundation; MacArthur Foundation; and the American Institute of Architects

This year, we’re introducing two student projects: a new home exploring a cross laminated (CLT) structural core and the second phase of the Rural Studio Fabrication Pavilion. In addition, the upcoming year will see the completion of the following student projects: Patriece’s Home, C.H.O.I.C.E. House, Rosie’s Home, 18×18 House, and the Rural Studio Bathhouse. We will continue tackling barriers to homeownership, access to fresh food and wastewater systems, and exploring how to use local resources—wood—in innovative ways. The Studio will also host a number of events throughout the year, including a special lecture series of national and international guests; Halloween Reviews; Soup Roast Reviews; Spring Farm Dinner; and Pig Roast & Alumni Lectures Weekend.

To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re creating a new fundraising effort to provide perpetual, concrete support for our students designing and building in our West Alabama community. We can reach this goal with 30 named endowments, each with a pledge of $30,000 over the next five years. That’s just $6,000 a year to build a legacy of supporting students’ work at Rural Studio. Learn more here!

It’s an exciting time at Rural Studio. Stay tuned as we celebrate our 30th year!

Not familiar with Rural Studio?

Rural Studio is an off-campus design-build program, rooted in Hale County and part of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture of Auburn University. Our core mission is the education of our students, coupled with research on sustainable, healthful rural living through both housing and the vital systems we foster to ensure our communities thrive. We are committed to cultivating students who are both local architects and citizens of the world.

Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee; it has been directed by Andrew Freear since 2001, with Rusty Smith as associate director since 2005. With three decades of experience, the Studio is one of the oldest and most well-respected design-build programs in the world. The impact we have had is grounded in establishing long-term roots in the Black Belt. Deep connections let us learn from our neighbors’ wealth of insight and can-do attitude.

Farmer Eric talks about food, land ethics, sustainable production, and rural living.

Illustration of Eric Ball
Illustration of Eric Ball by Courtney Windham

Eric Ball, our Farm developer and manager, makes his family home in Newbern within walking distance of Morrisette Campus. Eric does far more than toil in the soil: for ten years, he has been learning, adapting, and applying a range of sustainable farming practices to find solutions to the often-overlooked food needs of rural communities.

What is your educational and professional background, and how did it lead you to an interest in farming?

I studied continental philosophy and biology—especially evolution and ecology—when I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon, and I have a bachelor’s in both. Each of these is a lens through which I could better understand the world: biology, and science in general, to examine and understand the natural world, and philosophy to probe at deeper questions of human experience like existence, meaning, and ethics.

I see farming as being an intersection of both of these: it is the manipulation of the natural world toward human ends. My training as a scientist has been essential in thinking about growing crops, especially in the broader context of an ecosystem, how the soil microbiota, weeds, pollinators, and insect pests all interact together. It also prepared me for how to use experimentation to refine my practices and methods and to fine-tune which crops to grow when and under which conditions. But all of this is informed by big-picture philosophical questions about why we farm the way we do. Questions like, How should we relate to the land? Should we see it as a precious resource to be stewarded with gratitude and respect, or should we view it simply as a resource to be exploited and extracted from? 

I’m also currently working on a master’s through Auburn’s Master of Science in Crop, Soil & Environmental Sciences program.

Why did you choose organic farming? What challenges does it bring?

In the face of unchecked consumption, climate change, rapid population growth, and the destruction of prime arable farmland for urban expansion, I think it would be irresponsible to not question our impact on the planet. The choice to grow food using organic practices, such as not using synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, has very real consequences for the long-term health of the soil, our waterways, and wildlife—especially honeybees and other pollinators—as well as human health. Choosing to grow the way we do is also taking a position on our relationship to the land and a position that challenges some of the drawbacks and harms of the conventional way of growing food in the US, which is predominately the industrial, large-scale production of a single crop (monoculture).

Of course, there are practical challenges, too, like the abundance of insect pests and weeds, and we can’t just spray away these difficulties. But there are solutions that we use successfully—and without the need to spend so much money on chemicals. For example, just planting many crops together (polyculture) and devoting a small portion of the Farm to aromatic herbs and flowers or trap crops eliminates a lot of the insect pressure. Reliance on chemicals also stifles innovation, discouraging farmers from seeking creative solutions.

What were the first successful crops at the farm?

I had to fail pretty hard for a few years in order to learn how to grow so many different things, let alone to grow them well. Some early successes for cool-season crops were lettuces, greens, and carrots. Many of the warm-season successes were crops often thought of as Southern staples like sweet potatoes, okra, and black-eyed peas. Sweet potatoes were probably my biggest early success. We harvested about 400 pounds all at once with a dozen 3rd-years. It was like a treasure hunt. Seeing so much food suddenly unearthed from out of the ground by a group of excited students was a really gratifying moment.

What new crops do you plan to plant in the next couple of years? In general, what future plans do you have for the farm?

At this point I’ve grown or tried to grow over 50 different fruits and vegetables. I would still like to grow Jerusalem artichokes and lemon grass, though. Most of the new things I anticipate coming out of the Farm in the coming years are from fruit trees and berry bushes that take several years to reach maturity and begin to bear. I plant a few new fruit trees each year. So far, we have apples, pomegranates, Asian pears, Japanese persimmons, mayhaw, crab apples, plums, elderberries, kiwiberries, blueberries, figs, and citrus.

What is your favorite fruit or vegetable, and why?

My favorite to grow is probably okra. It’s resilient, fast-growing, yields continuously for a long time, and beautiful. My favorite to eat is any of the alliums, particularly onions. They can be prepared so many different ways, and I include them in nearly all the foods I make.

What are your thoughts about food and health, especially in rural communities?

Food and health are directly linked. Sadly, even though rural America is where a lot of our food is grown, access to nutritious food is one other way in which rural communities are trailing urban ones. Rates of food insecurity are higher in rural areas as compared to urban ones. Food security means not just access to raw calories but access to nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.

Research has shown that an increase in local food investments is directly related to better health outcomes, and Alabama, compared to other states, rates very low in both categories. Systemically, we need more robust, healthy, and just local food systems to improve people’s lives, especially in rural places like this one.

Describe the ways that Rural Studio Farm contributes to the larger Hale County community.

The Farm operation is right in our front yard next to the highway. I have met a lot of people in the community who are surprised that we can grow many of the crops that we do, so I think the Farm opens people’s eyes to the possibilities of how we can work with the land.

More importantly, however, we are beginning to look outward to ways we can directly connect with the community. The Farm has been so successful that we are producing more food than we can use, so last year we piloted a CSA program with students and staff here, which can hopefully reach a broader membership in the future. We started sharing our produce with the new nonprofit Black Belt Food Project that helps distribute this free food to pick-up points in Greensboro. We also had a group of students come this summer to tour the farm and pick produce as part of Project Horseshoe Farm’s Summer Youth Program.

What are your teaching duties at Rural Studio? What do you enjoy the most about teaching?

My role as a teacher is mostly informal, yet it is a central role for Rural Studio because I am the only person who works with each and every student who passes through here. On average, the students work about two hours every two weeks on the Farm. So students learn more about growing and gain confidence in cultivating their own plants by spending time on the Farm. But I try to connect specific farm tasks with larger issues having to do with America’s food system and culture of industrial farming. I give a series of mini-lectures during lunches that more directly confront some of these issues, as well as topics like food literacy and trying to give students the information to make more informed decisions about what kinds of food they are buying and the impact these decisions have.

What’s your favorite farming tool? Why?

A Japanese soil knife called a horihori, which has a wide blade that is slightly concave, making it good for digging. It’s an extremely versatile, durable, and multi-functional tool.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to grow a small organic crop in their backyard?

Mostly I would tell people that it is absolutely achievable and that you can grow a lot in a small amount of space. You only need about 200 square feet per person to have intermediate yields. It’s best to start small with modest goals and build incrementally. That way you aren’t overwhelmed or discouraged. It’s also important to plan what you want to grow because there is usually only a narrow window of time in which to grow it, and if you miss that window, you have to wait a year. Cultivating the land takes some planning too. If it’s a new plot, I would prepare the land or build out raised beds in the fall, let any organic matter break down over the winter, and then plant in the spring. The great thing about growing organically is that you can utilize a lot of inputs that are essentially waste products in your community. Given enough time to break down, things like grass clippings and dead leaves can provide a lot of organic material that builds long-term soil fertility.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

I have albinism, which many people humorously assume is merely a condition of being extremely pale. I cannot tan in the sun, only burn horribly. As a result, I dress heavily in the summer months. Being a farmer in our Southern summers is not ideal for me, but I love what I do. Not only does albinism change my appearance, but it has altered the anatomy of my eyes and given me high photosensitivity and low vision, such that I cannot, for example, drive a car. Although albinism undermines my sense of independence, it opens opportunities as well. I spend a lot of time walking through Newbern—a town that can be driven through in about 30 seconds—and being on foot has allowed me to know Newbern in a way that most people do not. I watch the stars and the seasons and the growing things. I get to walk to work with my kids and visit some of our favorite places in town on foot.

What do you like about living in Hale County?

I’ve never lived in a rural place before I moved to Newbern. I enjoy the open spaces, the relaxed air of solitude, the profusion of birdsong, and a night sky awash with stars and other celestial activity.

Rural Studio Farm Greenhouse, photo by Timothy Hursley