Rural Studio Blog

Raising the Roof in Nashville

Between the Ryman Auditorium, the honky-tonks of Broadway, and the world-famous recording studios of Music Row, “Raising the Roof” in Nashville is a long-time tradition. On the Front Porch team’s most recent trip to Music City, U.S.A. we found our partner Affordable Housing Resources raising a different kind of roof and were delighted to see all four houses topped out and just beginning the installation of windows and doors. But for Rural Studio the idea of “raising the roof” carries yet another meaning. Providing more than just physical shelter, “raising the roof” embodies the idea that providing increased access to beautiful, well designed and affordable housing serves to expand opportunity to those in our community that need it most. Working to eliminating the structural and systemic barriers to homeownership, together with our partners the Front Porch Initiative is dedicated to “raising the roof” by providing equitable pathways to homeownership and the financial wellbeing and security that homeownership provides.

aerial view of project site
Construction progress at AHR site

Watch Freear receive the President’s Medal from The Architectural League of New York

This summer Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear was awarded the 2020 President’s Medal from The Architectural League of New York. Traditionally, the award is given at a special black-tie gala at The Metropolitan Club in New York City. This year due to COVID-19, the event was held online and included remarks by Marlon Blackwell, Rosalie Genevro, Paul Lewis, and Billie Tsien, as well as tributes by many friends of Rural Studio from around the country.

Recent recipients of the President’s Medal include:
Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation
Christiana Figueres, Global climate change leader, 2010-2016 Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims
Michael R. Bloomberg, 2002-2013 mayor of New York City
Henry N. Cobb, Architect and founding partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Richard Serra, Artist
Renzo Piano, Architect and founder of Renzo Piano Building Workshop

From’s website:

The President’s Medal is The Architectural League’s highest honor and is bestowed, at the discretion of the League’s President and Board of Directors, to recognize extraordinary achievements in architecture, urbanism, art, design, and the environment.

On June 1, 2020, Architectural League President Paul Lewis presented the 2020 President’s Medal to Andrew Freear, director of Rural Studio, Auburn University’s off-campus design-build program located in Newbern, Alabama. The League honored Andrew Freear as an educator whose deeply considered, widely influential model of architectural pedagogy has enriched and intensified the training of more than 1,000 students, helping them develop as “citizen architects” prepared to use design as a tool for social good.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing guidelines in effect through the spring of 2020, the League hosted its medal ceremony in a live online program. Following a video presentation recognizing Rural Studio’s many achievements and featuring tributes from alumni, collaborators, and supporters, Freear was joined in conversation by Billie Tsien, founding partner of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, and Marlon Blackwell, Professor and Chair of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas.

In his presentation of the Medal, Paul Lewis read the following citation:

Through his almost two decades of leadership at Auburn University’s Rural Studio, Andrew Freear has created a complex and challenging understanding of what architecture can be and can do. Rural Studio engages some of the most difficult questions in our society—systemic racism, poverty, the degradation of the rural landscape—and shows how architecture can be an instrument of care, bringing together science, technology, craft, and art to support and give form to our common humanity. Andrew Freear challenges students to contribute to a better society, by creating truly exceptional buildings and places in deep collaboration with the diverse local community. Through its civic projects, new approaches to housing, restorative food systems, and materials research, Rural Studio has become an exemplary model of architectural education. It defines through its work what every architect, and every citizen, must embrace: the ethical responsibility for the social, political, and environmental consequences of their actions in the world.

In his remarks, Andrew Freear said:

I like to be a champion for the local….Rural challenges are as interesting as urban challenges, and I think that these challenges deserve everyone’s attention. I hope that the rural isn’t just seen as an extraction landscape, but as a place of opportunity and potential like we’ve seen it….I do hope that the underlying message of the award is heard: that place really does matter and that everyone, both rich and poor, deserves the benefit of good, dignified, equitable design, whether they can afford it or not.

The Return of Students to the RS Farm

Students are back on the farm! With masks in place, all 3rd-year, 5th-year, and graduate students have started their early morning rotations on farm duty.

We have been busy harvesting some of the remaining summer crops, like tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, watermelon, okra, and black-eyed peas. The peas were grown both as a cover crop and a food crop, which meant that they covered most space in the field.

Once their yields began to drop off, the crop residue needed to be cycled out to add organic matter to the field and to make room for future crops. Traditionally, this is done by tilling the crops under the soil, but because we are no-till, Eric mulched the crops with a flail mower and then covered the areas with a tarp to break down all the organic matter left behind. The root masses were left in the ground to break down naturally, opening the soil for water and aeration, as well as adding a large quantity of organic matter.

A student picks peas into her bucket

Meanwhile, the team has been starting seeds and transplanting seedlings into the field that are fall and winter crops: baby mixed brassica greens, lettuce, collards, kale, beets, turnips, broccoli, rutabagas, and mustard greens.

Finally, students have been direct-seeding out several other crops like hakurei (salad) turnips, radishes, and carrots.

Citing, Siting, and Siding; All exciting!

Exciting news, the Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project Team have published their Chimney Experiment data onto an online data repository! The team has uploaded data to the Craig Research Group Dataverse through Salmaan Craig at McGill University. Great thanks to the team’s collaborators at McGill, without which this would not be possible.

online data repository interface

The team will continually update and upload data as new data is gathered and past data is analyzed. From there, anyone can download and review the raw and analyzed data for both the concrete and pine experiments. This data is a citable source for any publication investigating the passive cooling strategy. There is also an experiment guide available to download which details the design of the experiments. Using this guide others can replicate or improve upon the experimental setup. This process is great practice for the team as they start writing a scientific paper about their experiments for a peer-reviewed journal. Now for some good ole design talk!

The TMBVRP team decided the experiment is best served as a free-standing structure although they loved utilizing the SuperShed as a super roof and a superstructure. The experiment needs a little extra room to breathe and ventilate than the Supershed can provide. The question remains, where do you place a giant occupiable cooling chimney so it sticks out just enough? Not quite a sore thumb, but definitely not a wallflower.

Along with possible sites for the pods, the team is investigating the use of berms. Why berms? The cooling patio will likely be an excavated area so cool air from the chimneys will sink and collect. This space needs some sort of semi-enclosure to help trap the cool air. Therefore the excavated dirt can create berms, trapping the cool air while providing shade and seating. The berms can also divert water so the cool air pool does not become a catfish pond. The team is analyzing sites in proximity to other pods and Supershed while giving each location a fitting suburb names. Right now they are considering two design schemes: Two Trees and East End.

Two Trees would address the “other side of the street” created by the Supershed and the row of original pods. This site is most appealing due to the natural shade provided by the, you guessed it, two trees. Thanks to team collaborator and Auburn professor, David Kennedy, for introducing the team to shading and solar radiation software. This software, through Rhino, will show exactly how much solar blocking the trees provide. While the trees are a bonus, the water is not. Water from all of Morrisette Campus drains right through Two Trees. This is also why the team has steered away from a site at the west end, the lowest point on campus. At this location, the team also thinks the pods compete with the Supershed in a strange manner. For these reasons, the team decided to take a look at the East End. East End could serve as a continuation or cap to the Supershed. However, there is no hiding from the sun in this location. Thankfully it is more beneficial to the experiment that the pods receive equal solar exposure rather than partial but inconsistent exposure. The team will continue to evaluate both sites.

The team is currently exploring high albedo, ventilated cladding systems. Albedo refers to the amount of energy that is reflected by a surface. A high albedo means the surface reflects most of the solar radiation that hits it and absorbs the rest. A shading or reflective cladding system, when coupled with the use of SIPs, will allow for the interior system to work unaffected by exterior solar heat gain. Metal cladding is an easy way to reflect radiation. A light-colored timber rainscreen can also reflect heat and shade the structure behind it. The team is exploring both options.

The Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project Team is also getting into the structure needed to support the pods, 8′ above ground. To start the team looked at a local precedent: silos. In Hale county, silos for holding catfish and cattle feed are aplenty. They can support up to 30 tons with a light-weight steel structure. Steel manual in hand, the team has been investigating how they could apply a similar structure to lift the pods. This allows for an open space beneath for the cooling patio. Next, the team will investigate the possible benefits of using a wood structure.

The team will keep pushing their citing, siting, and siding ventures forward while living it up in Hale County. They’ve been utilizing the great outdoors for grilling and being grilled in reviews. Livia sometimes misses out on the fun as she is dedicated to the landscaping at Morrisette. For more research graduate student shenanigans make sure you stay tuned!

It’s Been Grate

A lot has been happening here on the ground with the Breathing Wall Mass Timber Research Project team. The team said goodbye to Anna Halepaska a few weeks ago as she made her way to McGill University to pursue her PhD in architecture under Salmaan Craig, a main collaborator on this two-year research project. Huge congratulations to her and her future in research! 

Fergie and Preston are here at Rural Studio finishing up the construction of the breathing wall mass timber test buildings. The roof is nearly complete! The majority of the roof metal has been screwed down to the purlins and the two teammates are finishing up the south end this week. The south side acts as a hip roof for water drainage while the north side is an open, angled gable end. 

Last week the team (with the help of a few of our new 5th-years on campus!) poured concrete footings and set the posts for the metal grate walkway. Once the angles were welded to the post, the walkway was put in place. Borrowing a few details from the Perry Lakes projects, the stairs were welded in place to complete the full walkway. Next up, doors! 

Yet again, the team used an older Rural Studio project, Newbern Town Hall, as a precedent for the door detail. The steel angle frame is attached to the exterior wall only at the top while the side clips keep the door frame flush but are not fastened directly to the frame. Wood expands and contracts over time so this detail gives the door an opportunity to expand and contract with the wood, riding up and down the exterior wall along the clips. This also minimizes thermal bridging around the opening. Keep an eye out for the final door install! 

The to-do list is getting shorter by the day. The team will be installing the doors and running the electrical next week to wrap up the construction of both test buildings. Stay tuned for an update on the team’s research paper and the peer review process! 

Getting used to the heat,

The not-always-sweaty massive breathers 

Soundtrack: Closing Time | Semisonic