Author: Rural Studio

Ribbon Cutting in Johnson City, TN

Group in front yard of home watching dedication ceremony
Representatives from the City and community gathered to celebrate the dedication of a new affordable, energy-efficient home.

On May 15, the Front Porch Initiative team celebrated a ribbon cutting with Eastern Eight Community Development Corporation (E8CDC) for a new affordable, energy efficient infill home in Johnson City, Tennessee. The project represents outcomes possible when mission-aligned partners work together; this collaboration was made possible thanks to the commitment of E8CDC, the City of Johnson City, Johnson City Housing Authority, NeighborWorks, Appalachian Service Project, and Auburn University Rural Studio.

In 2011, Eastern Eight purchased a piece of property in a well-established neighborhood only two miles from downtown Johnson City. The site fronts a tree-lined street and slopes down in the rear, with alley access and a wide view of the neighborhood. The 50-foot-wide infill lot with setbacks limiting the buildable width to 34 feet, ideal for a house in the Front Porch Product Line. E8CDC selected the two-bedroom Sylvia’s House prototype for the site, with porches addressing both the front yard and back alley. The resulting intervention matches the scale and rhythm of the existing neighborhood fabric. Durable exterior materials minimize required maintenance, and a tight building envelope with high-performance mechanical systems minimize energy required to heat and cool the home.

Aerial view of houses
The new home fits comfortably into the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

E8CDC was awarded HUD Community Development Block Grant funding from the area’s HOME Consortium to enhance local housing opportunities. E8CDC partnered with Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a non-profit builder historically focused on repairs and replacing homes in their five-state service area. When breaking ground on this project in April 2021, merely a year into the pandemic, the full impacts of rapidly rising land and housing costs, a tightening labor market, and emerging supply chain issues were not yet known, nor their effects on the affordability equation. However, E8CDC always returned to the most important question: “What does it cost if we don’t build this home, and others like it, when they are needed now, more than ever?” Now that the home is complete, it will be sold to a family in the local community.

Rural Studio is both proud and humbled to have been included in this partnership. Together we have all learned a lot on this project, and we look forward to working hard to do again and again!

Press coverage of the event:

Johnson City Press: “Eastern Eight CDC unveils new affordable housing project” by Sarah Owens | May 17, 2022

Group photo with Rural Studio team and partners in front of home

Newbern Library Summer Reading Festival

student reading to children

Last weekend, the Newbern Library brought together kids and community members from across Hale County for the 2nd Annual Summer Reading Festival. This year’s theme was “Oceans of Possibilities,” and it wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of the library board and a host of volunteers. This year’s event featured ocean-themed crafts, face painting, read-aloud story time, fly-fishing demonstrations, live music, and science activities from both the University of West Alabama and Mississippi State University. The first ever craft market was a new addition this year, bringing in local artists and makers to sell their creations to festival-goers. Rounding out the two-day event were door prize giveaways and a delicious barbeque lunch. All of the activities were a huge hit, and the kids of Hale County are ready to get to reading this summer!

Cheers to everyone who made this event possible! A big thank you to library board members Mary Jane Everett, Angela Cabil, Andrew Freear, Jean Watson, Felicia Briggins, Freda Braxton, Kaleda Zanders, Betty Tims, and Carolyn Walthall, librarian Barbara Williams, and Rural Studio’s 3rd-year instructor Judith Seaman for planning such a huge event for the community.

Thank you to our current “leftover” students for running the craft and face painting tents; Hale County Extension for providing healthy snacks and story time; Hale County Hospital for running another healthy snack booth; Leah Vaughn with Mississippi State University’s NASA at My Library program; University of West Alabama for bringing out their Betabox activity center; and the McWane Science Center team. Also, huge thanks to Mark Carlisle, Barbara Turner, Kelvin Bell, and Patrick Braxton for lunch; Sweetbriar Tea & Coffee; Emily Neustrom for the music; Frances Sullivan and Bonita Benner for planning the Craft Market; and of course, every single attendee that came out to enjoy the fun! We have such a wonderful community in Newbern! We look forward to more events like these in the future.

2022 Pig Roast!

Our small, rural community of Newbern, AL, nearly tripled in size for the 2022 Pig Roast weekend! This year’s event, the first since 2019, was a two-day celebration of West Alabama filled with three project ribbon cuttings, eight alumni lectures, a 100-mile current projects tour, graduation ceremony, and lots of fantastic food and music! A lot happened, so let’s take a look at Pig Roast by the numbers!

3 Project Openings

8 Alumni Lectures, PechaKucha-Style

  • Samuel Maddox ’14, Boston, MA
  • Stephen Durham ’13, Kauai, HI
  • Ally Klinner ’12, Washington, DC
  • David Frazier ’11, New York City, NY
  • Cameron Acheson ’10, Birmingham, AL
  • Betsy Farrell Garcia ’08, Auburn, AL
  • John Marusich ’07, Birmingham, AL
  • Laura Filipek Patterson ’06, New Orleans, LA

2 Bands

  • Friday night: Raina Shine from Tuscaloosa, AL
  • Saturday night: Debbie Bond Blues Band feat. Carroline Shines, “Radiator” Rick, Marcus “Jukeman” Lee on drums and Alabama Blues Camp graduates

4 Projects Presentations With 4 Amazing Clients

2 Class Presentations

  • History and Watercolor Class by Dick Hudgens
  • Woodshop Class by Steve Long

2 Rural Studio Initiatives Updates

4 Meals

Friday night’s dinner at the Horseshoe Courtyard was provided by The Stable and Abadir’s. We had mountains of tasty turkey and veggie wraps from Monique Kitchen at The Stable. Sarah Cole from Abadir’s treated us with a special farm salad, a chard + chickpea grain salad, an orange blossom ginger cake, and a coconut cake. Seriously delicious! We kicked off Saturday morning with treats from Wayside Bakery, then our favorite tacos for lunch from our very own Catherine Tabb and Doris Ward in the Rural Studio Kitchen. Saturday night, we had delicious BBQ pig by Bobby Scott along with more yummy BBQ and fried catfish from Mustang Oil!

23 Sponsors

Thank you to our incredible local sponsors! We couldn’t do this without you! Alabama Power, AerCon, BDA Farm, Hale County Hospital, NAPA Auto Parts, Parker Tire, Peoples Bank, Price Drywall, Reynold’s Electric, Superior Metal, Sweetbriar Tea & Coffee, The Stable, Blue Shadows B&B, City Furniture, Dozier Hardware, Greensboro Depot, Holmstead Company, Partridge Berry, Stillwater Machine, the Smelley family, Citizens Bank, Freeman Chiropractic, & Johnson-Torbert House

1 Graduation Ceremony

Introductions were given by Hale County Probate Judge Arthur Crawford and Karen Rogers, Acting Dean of Auburn University College of Architecture, Design & Construction. We also honored several special guests: Chelsea Elcott, Emefa Butler, Mary Jane Everett, Timothy Hursley, and Dr. John Dorsey. With surprise valediction speakers Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning from Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Santa Monica, CA, we celebrated our graduating 5th-year students: AC Priest, Adam Davis, Brenton Smith, Caitlyn Biffle, Collin Brown, Daniel Burton, Davis Benfer, Hailey Osborne, Jackie Rosborough, Laurel Holloway, Lauren Lovell, and Yi Xuan Teo.

AND 1 Marriage Proposal

Congrats Jake & Lauren, two returning alumni!

And, of course, no Pig Roast would be complete without a few of our favorites: the Spencer family’s cannon blast of “Whiffle Dust” and beautiful (and massive) fireworks seen from every corner of Newbern.

If you missed Pig Roast, you can still catch up on the news from Rural Studio with blog posts from each team here.

Lastly, BIG congrats to our 5th-years who graduated from Auburn last week. We’re so proud of y’all!

Thank you to everyone for your support! #WarEagle

Hello, Habitat!

Last month, the Front Porch team attended the Habitat for Humanity International 2022 Affiliate Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In collaboration with two of our long-time field test partners, Front Porch Initiative presented work from those partnerships in conference sessions. The Front Porch team also hosted a booth with our research sponsor Fannie Mae to share our housing affordability research with attendees visiting the exhibit hall. Members of the Fannie Mae Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding team encouraged passers-by to stop and learn about our work, showed off the prototype models, and, and fielded questions about the pilot investigating sweat equity valuation.

Interested attendees stopped by the booth to learn more about Front Porch Initiative and our work with partners across the Southeast.

Mark Grantham, Executive Director of Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity (AOHFH); David Hinson, CADC Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research; and Betsy Farrell Garcia presented ongoing research on high performance housing affordability. In 2018 and 2019, AOHFH constructed two of the Buster’s House prototypes in Opelika to beyond-code energy standards and a resilience standard. Energy consumption data from those houses, as well as a third AOHFH house built to local code, is being collected and evaluated relative to the construction details, construction cost, and usage predicted by energy models. Conclusions drawn from the collected data informs choices about where investments in improved performance produce the most return on investment. The engaged and knowledgeable audience eagerly shared valuable feedback from their experience building to high-performance standards and welcomed the findings on where best to invest in upgrades that return savings on energy performance.

Mark, David, and Betsy presented research on houses constructed in Opelika, AL, and results from the ongoing energy usage.

With Carmen Smith, Executive Director of Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH), and Darwin Gilmore, Dean of Workforce and Economic Development for Chipola College, Mackenzie Stagg presented an innovative collaboration born out of a shared interest in increasing equitable access to high-performance housing in a rural community. CAHFH is currently building four Front Porch Product Line houses on a site in Marianna, Florida, a town still recovering from Hurricane Michael more than two years after the storm. Front Porch initiative supplied the designs for the homes and has provided technical assistance during the project’s development and construction. Students from the Chipola College Building Construction Technology program supplement volunteer labor while earning clock-hour credit toward a degree and construction certification. These high-performance, resilient houses will increase equitable housing access, facilitate continued disaster recovery efforts, and grow the skilled workforce needed locally. Affiliates attending the session participated enthusiastically and displayed great interest in building similar partnerships in their area.

Front Porch Initiative connected with many mission-aligned Habitat affiliates interested in expanding equitable, affordable homeownership while in Atlanta, and we hope to establish new partnerships with organizations across the country. We appreciate the Fannie Mae Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding team’s invaluable presence on the exhibit floor. Together with our partners’ incredible dedication to collaboration, we continue to reach a wide audience for the work of Rural Studio.

L to R: Tamara Dourney (CAHFH), Pete Fulton (CAHFH), Scott Phelps (Chipola College), Darwin Gilmore (Chipola College), Mackenzie Stagg (AURS), Sidra Goldwater (Fannie Mae), Carmen Smith (CAHFH), Betsy Farrell Garcia (AURS), Rusty Smith (AURS), and Jennie Ann Dean (CAHFH).

We look forward to the next Affiliate Conference!

Affordable Housing vs. Housing Affordability

In our work, understanding why we build a home in a certain way is key in addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. And while it is certainly important to ask, “what does a house cost to build?” it is perhaps more useful to consider what a house actually affords.

In other words, what impact might we have on the creation of more attainable housing if we could begin to consider the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation? Stated more directly, we have found that many low-wealth homeowners are not primarily challenged because they cannot afford their monthly mortgage payments. Instead, they are more often at risk of missing a payment and perhaps even losing their home because of one or more of the four following circumstances.

First, a homeowner may have an unexpected energy bill. In our part of the world, our homeowners may have an energy bill of $35–45 a month in March and April, and an energy bill of $350–400 in July and August.

Second, a homeowner may have an unexpected maintenance or repair bill. We live in an area of highly volatile climatic activity. Maintenance and repair due to storm-related events and the long-term displacement they often cause play a significant role in the financial security of our homeowners.

Third, a homeowner might have an unexpected healthcare event in their lives. Where you live matters, and living in substandard housing is one of the best-understood negative social determinants of health.

Fourth, a homeowner may face various forms of income disruption. Many rural homeowners rely predominantly on part-time work, shift work, and seasonal work to make ends meet. Additionally, they live in complex kinship networks in which everything is shared, from housing, transportation, and income to food, eldercare, and childcare. Any disruption in these community networks can be disastrous for generations of a family.

So, in addition to managing the upfront cost of construction of the home, it is even more important and impactful to understand how the actual performance of the home in four key areas—energy efficiency, durability and resilience, health and wellbeing, and the strengthening of community networks—all contribute in profound ways to financial and economic security.

Working with our builder partners and homeowners, the Front Porch Initiative provides the information, knowledge, and know-how around each of these instrumental areas to help them make informed decisions regarding both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of building performance, allowing for a clear decision tree that considers the cost and value of action, as well as the hidden cost of inaction.

Below, you see five variations of Joanne’s Home built in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

One of the important aspects of this iterative research is our ability to build multiple versions of each home in various climatic conditions and with different performance objectives as necessitated by our housing partner’s particular circumstance. Taken together, these homes become “Test and Learn Laboratories,” and this iterative process of evaluating both the cost and value of building performance criteria lends itself to a highly customizable process and yields a wide variety of housing options and variations.

Each house we build offers the opportunity to study different issues of efficiency, resilience, wellness, and community building. One of our research questions focuses on finding the balance point between the front-end construction costs of improved performance and the back-end performance consequences in each of these areas. In our next post, we will share a case study of two versions of the product line homes (seen below), and how we use our homes to explore the pluses and minuses of different building standards in their delivery— specifically, we will take a deep dive into the intersection of energy efficiency and resilience, and we will share some of the surprising things we have learned along the way.

Photo credits

Joanne’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AIR Serenbe: J. Ashley Photography

Ree’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AHR Wharf Avenue: Ford Photographs, provided by AHR

Ophelia’s Home: AU Rural Studio

House 66 & House 68, Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity: Matt Hall