Current Projects

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.”

Presenting… Your New Leftovers!

Summer has begun, and we’re getting ready to begin our tenure as official “leftovers” here on the Fabrication Pavilion team.

Pig Roasted

At the end of April, Pig Roast was the main event. Our team had a great time attending alumni lectures, seeing all the projects in progress, attending the Rosie’s Home ribbon cutting (two members of our team worked on the project in third year), and presenting our design to all of our visitors. The night ended with a bang of Samuel Mockbee’s famous “whiffle dust” and a graduation ceremony under the stars, with roasts of graduates and delicious catfish all around.

We graduated!

The next weekend, the team made the trip to Auburn for the university’s graduation ceremony. It was a wonderful day surrounded by friends and family.

What’s the Scope?

After a lot of reflection and unforeseen circumstances, the scope of the Fabrication Pavilion project has changed. From now on, primarily we will be focusing on a prototype weather screen, a presentation and tool storage core, and the replacement of the existing roof.

Weather to Screen

Since we returned from graduation, we have been refining the design of these elements, beginning with the weather screen. We have been testing out different heights visually against the existing columns, and hammering out the details of how this new system will interact with the existing structure. With the redefined scope, we will be constructing a screen on the eastern side of the pavilion to test its effectiveness long-term, and the faculty will be installing the screen at the western side after the roof is replaced.

A Storage Core

Further, the mock-up that we built for Pig Roast was an overall success. It served well as a pinup space for both the Fabrication Pavilion and CLT Core House teams. We have been refining this design to serve as a storage area for woodworking and metalworking tools and cleaning supplies, utility access, and a presentation space.

The concept is for the presentation space to appear as a continuous plane the eastern shear wall. The closet doors will be concealed to maintain this as a clean surface for pinups. The utilities will be concealed in the space between its southern wall, while the tools can be safely locked inside. Finally, this core will provide electrical outlets for building and PowerPoints. We have also been exploring lighting solutions for nighttime presentations.

See you again soon for our next update!

Starting the Summer at the 18×18 House

The 18×18 House team has been BUSY! The end of the spring semester came fast, bringing a big ol’ Pig Roast celebration with it. Dozens of family members, friends, and alumni crowded around the house to see what this project is all about. We had a great time sharing the work, and figured out just how many guests can fit onto two parking spaces…

Post-Roast Tasks: Roofing

After the fun of Pig Roast, the “18s” hit the ground (or the scaffolding?) running to get the roof installed. Without a watertight roof, the team couldn’t install insulation or drywall, so it was the priority. The first step was laying rigid insulation over the roof sheathing, then attaching purlins across the top. These purlins will be what the metal panels are screwed into later.

Then all the corners and edges got metal flashing installed on them. The whole roof was outlined in metal profiles to keep water OUT!

The team laid the metal roof panels across the length of the house, attaching them one by one. The back side of the roof was the easy part, but then it was time for the dormer…

Before installing the metal on the front, the team had to install the roof and the siding panels on the dormer. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a way to reach the dormer walls later. Meagan and Jake did some tricky flashing work from the scaffolding to install everything over the purlins and insulation. And then, a finished dormer emerged!

The rest of the panels went on smoothly after that. And isn’t it pretty? After it was finally done, Meagan took a break.

Insulation Nation

But no time to stop! As soon as the roof was finished, it was time to insulate. The 18s stuffed the house full of hemp wool and mineral wool batts. And then some more mineral wool. And then some more… Let’s just say there was plenty to do. Meagan had to take another break.

Closing in the Walls

The last step before drywall can be installed was to hang cement board in the bathroom. Cement board is a water-resistant substitute for drywall in showers and other wet areas of a house. The team will be tiling the walls of the shower later on, and this will provide a sturdy base for it. Julie and Meagan measured each panel, scored them with a utility knife, and broke them along the scored edges. Then Meagan took a break, again.

And drywall was delivered to the house this month! We watched as the sheets were lifted into the house through upstairs windows. It all fit inside just fine, and the house is once again crowded with materials. All that’s left now is to hang it up!

We aren’t the only ones eager to see what will come next at the 18×18 House. Watch out to see what happens as summer goes on!

Kitten in doorway
Awwwwww

Here Comes the Leftovers

Students walk across the street
DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO

Since the team’s last blog post, a lot has happened. All of April was spent preparing for Pig Roast and the Executive Reviews that followed. The team focused on refining our thesis to fit our goals. We tried to bring the level of detail of the whole house up to as high a standard as possible. There always seems to be another layer of detail to dive into as we learn more about the project.

One to one detail drawing of whole house section.

These big upcoming reviews naturally meant that we needed to spend more time on how the house feels, inside and out. We are having a good time zooming out of detail land and drawing through how the elevations may look and what kind of interior finishes we want. We have some general criteria for making these decisions, but we are approaching a time when seeing how these things look in real life is becoming ever more important.

We also finally have a site! Due to the nature of our project being non-site-specific, it made sense to spend a certain amount of time designing the house without the bias of knowing where our version would go. We are excited to dive deeper into the site, analyzing every inch. Our site is fairly flat undeveloped land, surrounded by trees. Also, it is located right off the road in downtown Newbern. With the downtown projects so close by, we have a high bar to live up to!

Model of house photoshopped onto site photo

We still have to explore through drawings, models, and research before we can try building. Even so, a mock-up is on the horizon. While the finishes are important, the most critical parts of the building process are what need to be tested with this mock-up. The processes of building, moving, installing, and protecting these cores throughout that duration is the real focus of our thesis, along with how all of that process will impact the house.

Pig Roast!

Enough about the preparations. We had a great Pig Roast Weekend! Both 5th-year teams worked hard, and we all felt our presentations went well. It was a beautiful day, and the wind blew our drawings away only once—nice! We tried to have some fun and act out our building process. A little improv went a long way. In the end, it was great to celebrate with friends and family, and the event at Chantilly was unforgettable.

Did someone say leftovers?!

After all that fun, we had to go to Auburn for the much less fun but equally (in some ways) important Graduation. So that’s it. We are adults now who have all the answers to everything. There is nothing we are unprepared for in the real world because now we have a degree. All jokes aside, it has been a pleasure to spend our final school year at Rural Studio. We are so thankful for our time at Auburn and beyond excited to start our time as leftovers to continue the hard work.

Students pose together at graduation
WAR DAMN EAGLE!

Taking a Slab at It: A Bathhouse Concrete Story!

Hello dearest reader and welcome back to the latest edition of the Rural Studio Bathhouse blog!

The past few months have been a very exciting and productive period for the Bathhouse. We are very happy to share what all we’ve been up to since we last spoke!

Students pose for picture on metal deck

At the time of our last update, we had just finished all the underground plumbing and preparing the CMU foundation walls for the floor structure.

We picked up on site where we left off by moving the structural beams into their places in the foundation walls and securing them in place!

View of students looking over metal deck from below
Greetings, Earthlings!

After cutting our metal decking to size, we were able to place the decking and began securing it to the CMU walls. Our good friend, Shane, helped us out by welding the decking down to the beams.

Once the deck was in place, it was time for Spring Break, but we did not take a break from the project. We had a very relaxing week in the woodshop building all the modular formwork for the slab!

Student screws pieces of wood together
Assembling base module supports

Once it was all built, we got busy on site installing the formwork. We started off with ledger boards on the CMU walls, then installed the base support modules and plywood base, and finally pulled strings to set the upright walls in place. We then braced these walls back to the base and added plywood to the inside face, completing the formwork.

image of completed formwork
Finished formwork

When the formwork was set, it provided a nice square base to measure all the penetrations in the slab from. We started off with the holes for the threaded rods.

Next, we marked out all the electrical and plumbing penetrations in the decking and cut them out.

While all of this was going on, we also began plumbing the whole Bathhouse and installing all the electrical conduit and boxes in the crawlspaces. While plumbing was occurring, rebar was being cut to size on the ground. We used bracing attached to the formwork walls to help support the PVC sleeves for the threaded rods and the plumbing and electrical stub outs.

After all the plumbing was completed and tested, we were able to begin putting the rebar reinforcement into place.

The team tied all the pieces together to form a large rebar mat for the slab. With the rebar in place, it was time to add in the last thing, metal mesh, which helps prevent cracking within the slab. The team finished this final step just in time to celebrate at Pig Roast!

We had a great time on Friday night of Pig Roast weekend listening to all the alumni lectures and really enjoyed getting to show off our project and the progress we have made to all our friends and families on Saturday. We finished the day off with an evening of festivities, great food, and wonderful live music.

The team speaking with former Rural Studio student
The bathhouse team meeting and looking at construction photos with original Supershed and Bathhouse team member, Jacqui Hart!

After a weekend of fun, it was quickly back to work for the bathhouse team! First thing Monday morning we got Concrete! An excellent team from JM concrete in nearby Uniontown made quick work of the pour and did a fantastic job with the finishing.

team posing with thumbs-up for concrete
Thumbs up for concrete!

We are so proud to have the heart of the project completed!

As she stands now

We are so happy to share the huge amount of progress being made! Next, we will be preparing to pour all the curbs under the timber walls and beginning the process of stacking the timber modules for the walls.

The team poses in front of project

Thanks so much for reading along and we hope to provide another exciting update very soon!

– Rural Studio Bathhouse Team

Carla, Ambar, Ashley, and Logan