Hark, dear reader, and hear my tale! In my previous journal, I happily announced the arrival of Spring in Hale County. Indeed, the change in temperature was welcome by friend and feline alike. However, I must admit that the boons of Mother Spring cannot be divorced from her burdens. The tempests of March are frequent, strong, and heavy as to turn stable earth into a muck so thick it will suck the sole off one’s boot. My crew has been battling these conditions in a campaign to prepare our site for an approaching concrete pour. Several tasks must be completed before the slab is laid down, the first being to install plumbing & piping. With a slab-on-grade foundation, all of the infrastructure must be installed prior to pouring concrete, this includes the electrical and water mains, as well as waste drains. Our process for this is as follows:
Although most of the digging was done by hand, we were able to make use of the trencher during a few particularly dry days. The width and depth of the trench that the machine makes is perfect for laying water and electric mains because it can easily dig beneath the frost line in the area. We are grateful when the weather is nice enough to start the trencher up.
You might be wondering why there is so much plumbing! Reverend Walker’s Home features a main living volume with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and loft. In addition to the main enclosure is a separate room that we have dubbed the “bonus room”. The bonus room is a partially unfinished space that is supplied with plumbing and electrical stub-outs to allow for many possible uses, whether for storage, a home office, a studio, or even another bathroom. The initial investment into infrastructure will enable a homeowner to quickly and easily expand their home.
You will be happy to hear, dear reader, that this step in the process is complete. My next order will be for my crew to set formwork for the slab and column footings! Despite the sky’s grim countenance, spring brings longer days and fresh growth, and morale remains high! The wind is at our backs and I will continue to push this team steadily towards greatness! Alas, dear reader, the magnolia leaves are dripping water onto my head, and I must retire to my chambers for chance I catch a cold.
Greetings, dear reader! A lot has happened since my last journal. Springtime in Hale County is always busy with excitement as the weather improves. Short and cold days gradually turn sunny and quietly cheerful. The cows are particularly pleased as their fields begin to turn green again with fresh and tasty grass. Cats like myself take to basking. The students welcome the shift. Jeans are replaced with jean shorts, toboggans with sun hats. Moral appears to be high. What follows is a synopsis of recent events.
Ground Breaking News
My crew has been hard at work pushing the design of Reverend Walker’s Home to a new level of detail. Progress is swift and we look forward to breaking ground within the coming days. But before the shovel meets the dirt, there is a lot of rigorous preparation that needs to happen to ensure a smooth process. The team has been putting together a series of construction sets ranging from batter board drawings to plumbing documentation.
Last week, our friend and mentor, Steve Long, joined us on site to put up our batter boards! Batter boards give us the ability to make exact measurements during the building process. In the next couple weeks, the boards will help us with marking for earthwork, slab formwork, setting columns, and positioning plumbing stub-outs.
In addition to studio and site work, Adam Maggard, an Auburn University Forestry and Wildlife professor and Extension Specialist in Forest Systems Management, brought the Forestry Department’s portable wood mill to give a demonstration to students and faculty, mill two trees that were felled on Reverend Walker’s site, and to inspect the studio’s own portable mill. With Adam’s help, as well as Rural Studio Alum Will McGarity, and Professor David Kennedy, we milled cedar for a closet, and pecan slabs for exterior benches.
Windows and Hatches
An important component of Reverend Walker’s Home is a light & ventilation unit we are designing and building. The system takes the components of a single-hung window: light and ventilation, and separates them within an overarching frame. The goal is to produce a system that is more durable than the windows that are typically within budget.
The system features a fixed frame glass panel next to an operable ventilation hatch, which is covered by bug screen. By separating these systems we can potentially create a product that is comparably priced, and more airtight than conventional windows.
After many iterations and with the help of Keith Cochran from Wood Studio, this is the current state of the system. It is a shop-built painted cypress frame containing a fixed glass window and an operable cypress hatch. We will be testing this design with a full scale mock-up in the coming weeks!
That is all for now, dear reader. I implore you to return for more information as I continue to document our endeavors. My evening tuna is being served in the officer’s hall, so I must leave my crew to continue their work. They are a self-sufficient and hard-working bunch, and I trust them to meet and exceed my very high expectations.
Hi there! Back for more, are you? Well, if you were intrigued enough to return to this humble little blog of ours, we should probably give you the low down on what Rev. Walker’s home is all about. As mentioned in our last post, our project is a continuation of the research started by the 2019-2020 outreach master’s team, who were interested in taking a pole barn structure and applying it to rural housing, as it is an efficient and easy building technique. This, combined with our own observation of trends in rural homeownership, in particular those of expansion, has led us to explore a starter home, completely separated from, but sheltered by a single-source, kit-of-parts pole barn. What is a pole barn? And why would we separate it from the structure of our home? We’re glad you asked!
Typically, pole barns use large, widely-spaced wooden posts buried straight into the ground to carry trusses supporting a large clear-span roof. What can often be found underneath is a slab on grade or merely a dirt floor. These structures can be seen all over Hale County, usually serving as manufacturing buildings, churches, or simply just for storage. Well, that’s where our challenge comes in, dear reader – to make this building type function well as a home.
Because this technique minimizes the use of materials, it can cover swaths of space previously unachievable by past 20K homes for the same price. By having the home begin as an enclosure for a single person or couple, we can dedicate the rest of our resources to providing the largest roof and slab possible, sheltering and providing a sturdy base for future expansion. This is ideal as oftentimes additions compromise the original home’s structure as multiple roof and foundation systems are tied together.
By having the structure of the home completely separated from the pole barn, the owner doesn’t have to learn how to add onto a less conventional post frame home and the overarching roof can remain untouched, maintaining its integrity. The pole barn can then take the brunt of the weather that would typically age a home and can protect new connections if the house grows.
Having two independent structures also preserves the quick and easy nature of the pole barn, allowing all of the components to be purchased off-the-shelf from a manufacturer without having to fuss too much with modifying it to have residential details and tolerances. This is important to us as we want this home to be as accessible to buy and simple to build as possible.
This ability to put up a roof fast also gives us a dry place under which to work without weather delays or breaks (remember: “healthy body, healthy mind”), as well as covering potential expansions by the owner so there’s no need to rush.
In our scheme, the approximately 500-square-foot home is covered by a 1,900-square-foot, 5-bay pole barn. The difference in size results in a luxury of outdoor space, where at the start it can serve as a large porch – the primary social space in rural communities. The home is broken up into two volumes arranged into a dogtrot scheme – one with all the rooms necessary to make a viable home and the other left blank to be used as the owner sees fit.
This not only starts to define outdoor rooms, but also implies infilling between the volumes as the first move of expansion. Additionally, the monopitch shape of the home’s roof gives clues towards expansion, hinting that one can march the same roof pitch between the volumes and come off the high side of the home to infill the front. This extra initial height in the home also provides opportunities for a loft space, which can serve as storage or a sleeping space and help with ventilation.
If you’ve made it to the end of this long but passionate discourse about our explorations, I commend you. But for now I must leave you, as my four underlings are returning to site with greater frequency to prepare the area for construction, but with an alarming lack of extra scratches. Something must be done about this.
Yep! We’ve been here the whole semester! It’s time, dear reader, to spill the beans on our comings and goings, our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures, and our project. Come on in, make yourself comfortable. Pour a hot cup of tea, listen to our story. The tale of Rev. Walker’s Home project team is only the beginning.
Our journey, as 5th-year Rural Studio students, begins in Hale County, in August. The county is a sparsely populated, tapering rectangle in West-central Alabama. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains find their end in the northeast corner of the county. The densely forested rolling hills of the northeast quickly give way to the astonishingly flat plains known as the “Black Belt.” This area is named for the rich soil that is optimal for cultivation. Greensboro is the centrally located county seat populated by 2,291 residents. Ten miles south of Greensboro on Alabama Highway 61 is Newbern, home to Rural Studio headquarters. In Newbern, the beloved Red Barn, can be found. Red Barn, the workspace where the us Rural Studio students put pens to paper. We spend a lot of time in Red Barn, and its leaky windows and visibly tilted walls endear us to it.
The beginning of each semester at Rural Studio is marked by “neck-downs.” Neck-downs defines a time dedicated to maintenance of studio grounds, small projects, and the assistance of teams whose projects are in the construction phase. This Fall, neck-downs included repairing facilities at Perry Lakes Park in neighboring Perry County, assisting the Horseshoe Hub Courtyard team on their site, and taking care of odds-and-ends on Morrissette Campus. Typically, neck-downs lasts one week. This year, it was extended and incorporated into our studio schedule. Some of the work is ongoing and gives us moments throughout the week to put away the pencil and pull out the shovel. “healthy bodies, healthy minds” our captain, Andrew Freear, likes to say.
Simultaneously with the site-work around the area, our entire 5th-year student cadre worked to further the exploration into post-frame structures and formulate a thesis. The idea, first proposed by the 2020-2021 outreach master’s team, uses a post-frame structure to reduce construction cost and timeline. Our charge is to take the system and the efforts of the outreach team and expand on it in two didactic ways. We started by touring past projects around the county, exploring ancient barn structures, and documenting local building trends.
Taking note of the trend in the area to expand one’s home as means and needs allow, the 5th-year thesis project’s has developed into two expansion approaches. One strategy is a home underneath a large roof, provided by a post-frame structure, on an expansive foundation that will enable an owner to quickly add enclosure without compromising structure. This is Rev. Walker’s Home strategy. The other is a home that encourages interior expansion and customization by bringing the post frame structure into the envelope of the home. This is the Myers’ Home strategy.
Our team is designing and will be building Rev. Walker’s Home. This team was chosen in an age-old ritual, of which here I will not tell. We like to think of ourselves as hardworking, strong-willed, opinionated individuals who can even be considered fun. I am, of course, the leader of this motley crew. My name is Taterhead the Cat. I enjoy drooling on unexpecting scratch-givers and surveying my land, which Rev. Walker’s Home will occupy. I am a skilled delegator. My leadership style is strict yet fair, and I expect only the best work from my team.
Here’s the rest of them: Becca, George, Paul and Addie. Becca has a three-legged cat named Rocko and is the maker of the fantastic yellow hats seen above. George is just a dude with no distinct personality traits. (Editor’s note: This is an unfair representation of George, a very impassioned individual.) Paul likes to spend his time collecting objects from the ground. He likes sheds. Addie has a dog named Pat. She drives the biggest truck in Hale County.
It will not be an easy path to walk with this lot. Their refusals of scratch-giving will be met with reprimand. But rest easy, dear reader, for I am at the helm and will guide the ship to clear waters. My hope for this journal is to provide a clear account of our journey to the edge and back, and to bring you along with us.