Rural Studio Adapts to Social Distancing

Like all Americans, the Rural Studio community has felt the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. We live in a difficult time, but our community has always adapted to new circumstances and has done so again. Social distancing and remote teaching has undoubtedly created unique challenges to our place-based, hands-on model of teaching and learning. However, as always, we remain committed to our neighbors and the work.

Sheltering in place invokes shelter for the soul, and the current challenges have only affirmed how important the work is. For now, our students may have laid down their construction tools, but they continue to work diligently —preparing the necessary communication, planning, and documentation needed to insure the viability of the future of their projects. Our commitment to the students’ success has never been stronger. Our Farm continues to increase its capacity to produce fresh nutritious vegetables, offering an alternative to food scarcity in rural communities. The Front Porch Initiative is also growing, adding partners and staff to build capacity and celebrating recent home completions. Through our ongoing research and development, we stand firm in our commitment to housing, health, wellness, and all aspects of sustainable rural living.

Student Work

Social distancing has required Rural Studio to move all instruction online, but with the students’ detailed planning, we will complete all projects for our partners and clients once social distancing is lifted.

Our 3rd-year students have protected the site of Ophelia’s Home and preserved their documentation so that next year’s 3rd-year students can complete the design and construction. Two 5th-year projects—the Hale County Hospital Courtyard II and Reggie’s Home—will also be completed in the future, informed by the strong documentation being developed by the current student teams.

The Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation 5th-year project team graduated in May and will continue their research this summer in the Rural Studio master’s program. Students on the Breathing Wall Mass Timber Research Project team are the first graduates of our master’s program. They are collaborating with our partners, Salmaan Craig and Kiel Moe at McGill University and David Kennedy at Auburn, to draft a research paper about their findings. The 2020 20K Home team is drafting step-by-step instructions about how to build their design, which will contribute to the work of the Front Porch Initiative research team.

The Horseshoe Courtyard and the Moundville Archaeological Park Community Pavilion teams made significant progress this spring. When Auburn transitioned to online instruction, students secured both of these sites and immediately began developing the documentation required to complete the projects in the near future.

In addition to their studio projects, students exceeded expectations in adapting to their classes moving to an online format. In the History & Watercolor course, 3rd-year students traveled virtually to historic wood buildings in West Alabama and created watercolor hand drawings of each building. A new cabinet course for the 3rd-year students focused on the design and fabrication of millwork for 20K Ophelia’s Home. In the On & Beyond the Chair class, 5th-year students experimented by “taking a line for a walk,” producing daily drawings using quick hand drawings as a tool for both wondering and wandering.

The Farm

While many of us stay home, we have seen images from around the world of our Earth flourishing with cleaner air and water, affirming nature’s perseverance, plentifulness, and beauty. Rural Studio’s Farm has been similarly bountiful. Even during a time of social distancing, our Farm continues to produce nutritious food from earlier spring plantings. The Farm team continues to process and store as much of that produce as they can for later use. New plantings will also feed the Rural Studio community this fall.

The Front Porch Initiative

The Front Porch Initiative continues to grow our team.  Working online, the team continues to foster collaborations with both Institutional Partners and Field Test Partners, planning and building 20K homes in rural communities. In collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, two high performance homes have been completed in Opelika, AL, and several other Field Test Partners will be breaking ground on homes this summer.

For more information and news about Rural Studio’s ongoing work, visit our website and continue checking our project blogs daily. Rural Studio will also publish its annual printed newsletter later this summer with more special features about students, more details about projects, and updates about Rural Studio’s many activities. Follow our news and blogs by subscribing to our email updates.

Farm Support Structures

Some crops on the farm have a growth habit that is best supported with the helping hand of a built structure.

Growing pole beans climb the bamboo and twine trellis

One such crop is pole beans, which send out runners to wind their way up whatever they can find. So farm manager Eric Ball and Emily McGlohn built a bamboo and twine structure for the growing bean vines to wind themselves up, though the runners still need a little help to “train” them to find the right places to climb.

Eric built another structure last spring to support blackberry canes. In the first year of growth, the blackberries produce primocanes, which were pruned and managed so that they spread across suspended wires, making them nearly invisible. In the second year, the established primocanes become floricanes, where flowers grow and then bear the fruit Rural Studio Farm is now harvesting.

Because the primocanes were pruned and supported by the wires, the fruit is borne off the canes in easy-to-pick cascades at three-foot and five-foot heights. As the floricanes produce berries, the plants also sprout new primocanes that will be next year’s floricanes. Once fruiting ends, Eric will cut out the spent floricanes and begin pruning and training the primocanes for next year’s harvest.

Eric, Steve Long, Xavier Vendrell, and Mary English also built a support structure for determinate field tomatoes so that they will have something to hold them up once they get top-heavy and begin bearing tomatoes.

Meanwhile, in the greenhouse, plants supported on string-lines—cucumbers, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes—continue to bear fruit. The greenhouse zucchini has also been extremely prolific


Hello world, the Moundville Community Pavilion Team is now reporting from Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey to update everyone on the state of the project with the changes Coronavirus has brought.

With Auburn classes going online, the team had no choice but to hang up the hammers and spend some time at home. Navigating the pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone and the Studio has made the tough decision to suspend all ongoing projects in compliance with stay at home orders and Auburn’s online requirements.

Since the future is very unsure for the world and the Studio and in order to protect the communities of Hale County, we are not currently planning to return to Moundville. Although we may not have the privilege of finishing the project, the clients have been assured that the pavilion will be completed by the Studio in the near future.

It is indescribably hard to leave behind an unfinished project so close to the end and the community that we have become so entrenched in, but we are, and will always be, incredibly grateful for the time we spent in Moundville and the opportunity to meet the incredible residents and Park employees.

In order to document our time with the project, we are working together through Zoom meetings and Google Drive to create a project book. We hope that it will serve as a research tool for future Rural Studio teams and help guide the completion of the project by explaining our intentions for what remains to be finished.

We hope to continue to provide updates and content for the book through the blog. Meanwhile to brighten up your quarantine, you can hear a little more about the project’s involvement in the community as well as the team’s personal take on the experience of building in Moundville here: as part of the University of Alabama’s “Museums From Your Home” campaign.

Zoom Roast

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Rural Studio had to cancel the Pig Roast celebration hosted at the end of each spring semester to acknowledge the work happening in Newbern. To conclude the team’s two years of research, the team presented to a wide range of reviewers in a “Zoom Roast.” This celebration/critical review allowed the team to share their work as well as receive feedback on how to continue moving forward. Thank you to the Rural Studio faculty, Auburn University faculty, and our project collaborators from McGill University and Auburn University for spending the morning reviewing the project on Zoom. Also a huge thank you to Michael Jemtrud from McGill University, Z Smith from Eskew Dumez Ripple, Billie Faircloth from Kieran TImberlake, and Jonathan Grinham from the GSD at Harvard University for coming in as guest reviewers to critique the research project.

Zoom Roast with reviews from Auburn University, Rural Studio, McGill University, Harvard University, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.
Overview of experiments the team conducted in their two year research project.

The team is currently working on a draft of their first peer reviewed paper (!!!) to be published in Energy and Buildings. The “zoom roast” was an opportunity to analyze the experimental set ups before beginning the peer review process. The team has been working closely with Salmaan Craig in the past few months to finalize a draft focusing on three experiments the team completed in the past year. The paper explores a method of integrating ventilation and heating into a mass timber envelope, allowing for a mono-material building that is able to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases while also reducing the need for mechanical ventilation systems. The experiments in the paper lays out 1) how to optimize panel geometry and identify the design space for this system, 2) how the system could be synchronized with natural ventilation flows to obviate conventional HVAC, and 3) how transient behaviors affect the system. 

The team is also working on writing up the results and testing method for the thermal conductivity testing they completed in the engineering lab at Auburn University to be published in an architectural journal. 

The team tested a variety of pine samples measuring the thermal conductivity of each.

Stay tuned for links to both of these papers once published and available to the public! 

From Builders to Writers,

The Jubilant Journalists 

Soundtrack: Paperback Writer  |  The Beatles

Calibrate and Graduate

Team is posing with their new outfit

Exciting things have been happening at HomeLab lately! First, the Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project (TMBVRP) Team were able to install airflow sensors into the Concrete Chimney Experiment. Second, the chimney has brought in some impressive data. And third, the TMBVRP team participated in an end of the semester presentation and round table discussion with their big sister team, the Mass Timber Breathing Wall Research Project, and a cast of professionals in the architecture and building science research field.

This week the team received their Sensirion differential pressure air flow sensors. The sensors record a difference in dynamic and static pressure which the team uses to calculate bulk flow. Bulk flow is the total airflow at the sensor location. The team installed two sensors into the Concrete Chimney Experiment, one at the bottom and one at the top, to measure updraft and downdraft ventilation created by the thermal mass.

Just to refresh your memory, updraft occurs during the night when the cool, night air is brought in the bottom ventilation opening, warmed by the thermal mass, and exhausted out the top. Downdraft occurs during the day, the warm, exterior air is drawn into the top ventilation opening, is cooled by offloading heat to the thermal mass,  and vents out the bottom.  Being able to measure the direction and amount of ventilation is critical to understand if the Concrete Chimney Experiment is performing as expected.

And the results are in, our initial measurements from the airflow sensors do show that during the day the chimney is operating in downdraft and during the night it operates in updraft. This gives us proof of concept, that thermal mass is able to alter the atmosphere inside the chimney so that it goes against the exterior environment.

graph showing airflow in the test chimney

The GreenTeg temperature sensors have also brought in proof of concept data, showing that the thermal mass is having a damping effect on the interior air. It is important that the temperatures of the thermal mass and interior air cycle with the daily swing in temperature so that heat is absorbed by the mass during the day and offloaded during the night. This shows that the internal thermal mass is effectively moderating the temperature in the chimney and causing continuous ventilation. We are continuing our testing to further calibrate the amount of ventilation to achieve the most efficient and effective heat transfer between the internal thermal mass and air.

Temperature signal graph comparison

To wrap up our undergraduate work, we had a roundtable presentation via Zoom to give an update on where our work is and share our exciting results with Auburn, our collaborators at McGill, and professionals in the architecture and building science research field.  This panel included Billie Faircloth, a partner and research director at the architecture firm Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia, PA.  Second, we were joined by Jonathan Grinham, who is a Lecturer in Architecture and Research Associate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.  Last but not least, is Z Smith.  Z is a Principal and the Director of Sustainability & Performance at Eskew Dumez Ripple in New Orleans, LA.  

It was a privilege to be able to present and have a productive discussion with such esteemed professionals.  We gained valuable insight on how to best relay the work we are doing do both those in the research field and the common person. In addition, their backgrounds led to an intriguing discussion on how The Optimal Tuning Strategy could be implemented at the building scale. It was especially awesome to discuss the successful data the team recently got form the Concrete Chimney Experiment. Both the data and the discussion gave the Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project Team a boost of confidence and pride in their work. It not always easy for these architecture students to wrap their heads around the science, but the hard work paid off. Thank you to Rural Studio, Salmaan Craig, Kiel Moe, David Kennedy, and the reviewers for a positive end of the undergraduate phase of the Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project.

Final shout out to the incredible Mass Timber Breathing Wall Research Project Team. As they complete the paper on their research and graduate from the Master’s program they still had time to do something very sweet for their little sister team. They passed along their Rural Studio lab coats, crossing out their names and writing the names of the TMBVRP team members. Their work, dedication, and attitude could not be a better example for the TMBVRP team to emulate. From one research project team to the other, thank you for helping us whenever we needed and being the best big sister team imaginable. We hope to live up the legacy! Well, everyone, stay tuned (optimally tuned) this summer for the start of the graduate program at HomeLab.