Front Porch Initiative

Partners in Purpose: CADC’s 2021 Legacy Award

Both Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative and and the College of Architecture Design and Construction (CADC) share the common commitment to making a positive impact on the world. Informed by Auburn University’s Strategic Plan, we are committed to 1) enhance health and well-being, 2) build resilient communities, 3) shape intelligent solutions, 4) create a more secure world, and 5) promote opportunity and equity through education. And as we tilt into the holidays each year the CADC recognizes students, staff, faculty, and partners that share these commitments at our annual College Awards Banquet.

The CADC Industry Legacy Award recognizes organizations that share these goals and have demonstrated a sustained commitment in working with the CADC to meet them. This year we were delighted to host Maria Evans (Vice President of Community Investment and Development), and Tim Carpenter (Senior Director, Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding), in recognizing Fannie Mae for their ongoing commitment in developing innovative solutions to one of society’s most pressing, multi-dimensional social crisis: the lack of equitable access to high-performance, affordable housing. Together with Rural Studio, Fannie Mae is committed to eliminate the barriers to efficient and resilient homeownership in the communities that need it most but can most often afford it the least.

Left to Right: Vini Nathan, CADC Dean; Christian Dagg, APLA School Head; Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of Community Investment and Development; and Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director
Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of Community Investment and Development

1)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae Is committed to enhancing health and wellbeing.

Healthy housing is prevention, and prevention is the key to long-term wellbeing. By working to directly address the insufficient housing needs often found in low-wealth communities, Fannie Mae seeks to provide the liquidity and the incentives necessary to borrowers who incorporate health-promoting design features into their homes, ultimately working toward health and wellness outcomes for all homeowners regardless of their financial circumstance.

2)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to build resilient communities.

Fannie Mae is committed to creating better outcomes for those facing or affected by disasters. With the increased frequency and severity of disasters affecting communities nationwide, Fannie Mae is focused on engaging with with disaster-affected communities to forge partnerships and to learn about local needs. Their Disaster Response Network assists homeowners and renters affected by disasters by providing no-cost financial counseling so they can return to normal faster.

3)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to shaping intelligent solutions.

Fannie Mae seeks out thought leadership and leads the market in uncovering insights that drive business efficiencies, improve the borrower experience, and provide a deeper understanding of critical housing topics. Fannie Mae engages its industry partners to seek solutions to the housing challenges of our time and in the future.

4)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to creating a more secure world.

Chartered by the US Congress to deliver liquidity, affordability, and stability to the US residential mortgage market and promote fair access to mortgage credit, Fannie Mae’s mission demands that it address these complex environmental, social, and governance issues. In these challenging times, expanding equitable access to safe, energy efficient, and durable housing is the key to securing economic well-being for individuals and families—and is central to securing vibrant communities. As an important part of this mission, Fannie Mae is committed to improving environmental sustainability and durability in the homes they finance, as well as in the communities they serve. As the largest green bond issuer in the world, Fannie Mae offers the only mortgage loans backed by new-construction, single-family residential homes with ENERGY STAR® certifications.

5)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to promoting opportunity and equity through education.

Fannie Mae is dedicated to improving access to affordable homes for all families across the country. To do so means expanding access to reliable homebuyer and renter educational resources to help an increasingly diverse generation of homebuyers and renters make informed decisions. It also means fostering an inclusive workforce and industry that better reflects the diversity of the people it serves. Fannie Mae’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in both homebuyer education and workforce development in the home finance and construction industries is instrumental in delivering on this critical need.

Left to Right: Vini Nathan, CADC Dean; Tim Carpenter, Fannie Mae Senior Director, Disaster Recovery &
Rebuilding; Betsy Farrell Garcia, Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative Research Professor; Collette Garcia;
Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director; Aubie; Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of
Community Investment and Development; Mackenzie Stagg, Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative Research
Professor; and Christian Dagg, APLA School Head

Working together, Fannie Mae and Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative are dedicated to creating positive environmental, social, and economic outcomes for families and communities through responsible homeownership. By spotlighting and celebrating our collective values and shared commitments with Fannie Mae, the Front Porch Initiative aims to inspire other organizations, regardless of their size or scope, to join with us in driving positive change, and creating a better future, and a better world.

Photo credit: AU CADC Communications

What do we know?

As part of our ongoing research to better understand the barriers to equitable housing access in our community, Rural Studio students have designed and built numerous affordable prototype houses over the years.

We’ve been working iteratively to develop dozens of prototypes on the ground in Hale County. The following are just a few of the critical lessons that we have learned along the way.

First and foremost, it is essential that a house be designed to be durable, buildable, weatherproof, and secure.

But as important as these basic criteria are, they are just the minimum of requirements. We have also found it to be equally important that a house should be designed to be aspirational as well.

1) A house should directly express a sense of presence and dignity for the homeowner.

Dave's Home with title Presence

2) A house should intentionally foster a sense of community and engagement in its design.

3) A house should actively contribute to the health and wellbeing of those that live in the homes, as well as for those that build the homes.

4) A house should provide opportunities to both age in place with dignity, as well as shelter in place in safety.

And finally, even though our houses are intended for local people, and built with local materials, and with local labor and know-how, above all else,

5) A house must be well crafted.

But knowing these essential criteria is not enough. It is what we do once we know them that matters most. However, the gulf between knowing effective strategies and implementing them is enormous. In medical research, this is often referred to as the “Know-Do Gap,” and we have found it to similarly exist in architectural research as well. In our next post we will outline some of the implementation strategies and communication products that the Front Porch team has developed to begin to narrow this gap between what we know, and what we do.

It really DOES take a village: a systems-based approach to housing access and affordability

Forkland, AL (Photo by Joe Weisbord)

Today’s housing affordability crisis is a slow-motion, multi-generational, public health disaster of our own making. And until we recognize that how folks live today in America is actually the intentional outcome of long-standing intersectional injustice, we never will be able to truly provide equitable, sustainable, healthy, and durable housing access to those in our country that need it most but can afford it the least.

Rural Studio has always been a “Housing and Food First” organization, which means that before we can begin working with our neighbors to address the broader issues faced in our low-wealth community, we must first work together to make sure everyone is decently housed and adequately fed. That said, Rural Studio students have designed and built well over 200 projects for our community, including a lot more than just houses. So why is that if we truly believe in the “housing and food first” approach?

Well, think about the Newbern Firehouse, for example.

Newbern Firehouse (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

While working on developing affordable house prototypes, our students came to realize that one of the significant barriers to affordable homeownership in our community was the lack of adequate fire protection.

“But why is that a problem?” they asked.

Well, because houses were burning down at an inordinate rate.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, that meant that you couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, you can’t secure a mortgage. And of course, as we have come to find, if you can’t secure a mortgage, no amount of work that we might do as architects by “designing the house this way or building it that way” would ever solve this problem; housing access and affordability simply aren’t brick and mortar problems. It is in this way that Rural Studio works with across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the deeply systemic issues faced in our rural communities, and then by bringing together key stakeholder partners across all areas of influence who through collaboration can begin to address these challenges.

Together with our partners, we embrace the idea that the best way to learn how to do something is by actually doing it. Rural Studio is action-oriented, and we get things done.

We have also found that when faced with difficult problems, it is always best to tackle them together. So Rural Studio is extraordinarily team oriented as well. Combining our belief in the importance of action with our penchant for partnerships, Rural Studio acts not just as a research “Think Tank,” but also as a sort of “Do-Tank” as well.

In the coming weeks we will be sharing more about not only what we have learned relative to increasing equitable access to high-performance, healthy housing, but also what we are doing about it as well.

Music City “Micro Homes” Complete!

Four Rural Studio-designed homes were the star of the show in Nashville, TN on June 29, 2021. The Music City was celebrating a successful partnership between local housing provider and CDFI Affordable Housing Resources (AHR); efficiency-minded contractor Honeybee Builders; and Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative. Based on Dave’s House, MacArthur’s House, and Joanne’s House, each one-bedroom house is between 510 and 540 square feet. Situated on two side-by-side parcels in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, Nashville’s R6 zoning allows for two detached homes per lot. The completed homes are now for sale. With an estimated total monthly mortgage cost of $900, the homes are less than the average monthly rent cost in Nashville which, in 2020, was $1390 per month!

L-R: PJ McCarthy, Fannie Mae; Zulfat Suara, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member; Chris Ferrell, The Barnes Fund Commissioner; Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director; Eddie Latimer, Affordable Housing Resources CEO, Alfred Degrafinreid, AHR Board Chairman; Latrisha Jemison, Regions Bank Sr. VP/Regional Community Development Manager; Bill Herbert, Nashville Codes Administration Director; Bob Mendes, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member

Early in the day, a dedication and press event was held to showcase the affordable, energy efficient homes. Speakers included representatives from AHR, Rural Studio, Nashville Codes Administration, Regions Bank, Fannie Mae, the Barnes Fund, and city council representatives. Local city councilwoman, Zulfat Suara, lauded the innovative use of land and construction that make these homes affordable in a Nashville housing market where mortgage costs have skyrocketed, leaving many would-be homeowners priced out. The event gained citywide attention through multiple press stories (linked at the bottom of this blog).

Later in the day, around 80 members of the Greater Nashville Auburn Club and other Auburn friends, including former Rural Studio students, attended an open house at the site. Alumni were invited to tour the homes and learn about their energy-efficient design, durable construction, and economical use of land. Our own Rusty Smith spoke to the crowd about how Rural Studio found itself in Nashville: “…we met Eddie Latimer and Affordable Housing Resources. He shared the challenges you all face here in Nashville, and while Nashville might seem a little different than our hometown of Newbern in West Alabama, some of the challenges sounded similar, something we wanted to be part of, and to learn from.”

The Nashville homes mark a significant milestone for the Front Porch Initiative: they are the first mortgage-bearing Rural Studio houses to be built outside of Alabama. The Initiative continues to scale up the research and housing accessibility work of Rural Studio throughout the Southeast. But, there is still much to learn about innovative approaches to zoning, mortgage financing, insurance, and home performance. These four modest homes are a big step forward in our research and ability to share information with a broader constituency of housing providers.

Press links:

The TennesseanHow ‘micro homes’ could be part of Nashville’s affordable housing solution

Fox17 WZTV NashvilleMicro-home development opens in Nashville in aims to help affordable housing crisis

WKRNNew micro homes in Wedgewood-Houston small step toward more affordable housing in Nashville

Photo credits:

AHR Wharf Ave Dedication and Greater Nashville Auburn Alumni Open House events photographed by Tausha Dickinson, provided by AHR.

Completed project photos by Ford Photographs, provided by AHR.

Digitally staged interiors by Brighteous Media, provided by AURS.

Women Build with Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity

Volunteers for the 2021 Women Build
Photo by CAHFH

Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH) recently broke ground on two Rural Studio-designed homes. House 61 is based on the Buster’s House design and House 62 is based on the Dave’s House design. On Friday, May 7th, construction of the homes took a big leap forward, thanks to CAHFH’s Women Build event. As stated on the CAHFH website, Women Build “spotlights the homeownership challenges faced by women and addresses those issues by bringing women together and igniting our collective power.”

Approximately 50 women from around the region, including seven colleagues from our partner Regions Bank, volunteered their day to lend a hand on the homes. Mackenzie Stagg from Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative team also joined the crew for the day. Many of the volunteers are regular supporters of CAHFH, including local businesses connected to the organization and larger industry leaders who want to show their support.

On House 61, the volunteers framed up all of the walls, both interior and exterior. The future owner of the home was able to participate in the event and frame the walls of her own home. Hurricane straps were installed on House 62 to connect the walls and the roof and create a continuous load path. Volunteers also used caulk to seal the framing to the floor and seal the framing to the sheathing. This air sealing is a critical step in increasing the home’s energy efficiency.