Rural Studio Blog

In Memory of Andrea Dean

Headshot of Andrea Dean

We are late getting this out because it has been tough to write and to find the appropriate words. Perhaps there are none.

On September 20, 2021, we lost our great friend and supporter Andrea Oppenheimer Dean. It’s fair to say that Andrea, with architectural photographer Timothy Hursley, brought Rural Studio and Hale County to the world. She gave Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth the platform to start to challenge academia and the profession, initially with a feature in Architectural Record and then later with the three Rural Studio books.

I had the privilege of providing information for the first two books and then collaborating with Andrea and Tim on the third, Rural Studio at Twenty. To work with Andrea was a delight: She was professional, thoughtful, rigorous, and thorough—all laced with a gentle, slightly naughty sense of humor. She carefully crafted the prose in the book, happy to let the words play a supportive narrative to Hursley’s beautiful images, to let the photographs tell the story. As an astute editor, she skillfully shaped the bullet points I gave her into something legible and then insisted the writing use my voice. We thought it hilarious that this highly articulate, feisty, sharp, big-in-heart but small-in-stature lady should want to impersonate this lanky, gruff, occasionally foul-mouthed Yorkshire lump. As you can imagine, she cleaned up my words up a lot!

Andrea never sought the limelight, though she certainly was worthy of it. Her humility was counterbalanced by strength and fierceness. She was a well of kindness, understanding, and generosity.

It was one of life’s joys and honors to work with Andrea and spend time with her. The world of architecture and Rural Studio have lost a passionate, consistent supporter and advocate.

I have lost a beautiful friend whom I loved dearly.

— Andrew Freear

Read more about Andrea Dean’s life here from her obituary.

The 3rd-Years meet their client!

After several weeks of studying post-frame construction and the Studio’s 20K Product Line homes, the 3rd-year team finally met their client! We were thrilled to meet Rosie and her husband, Frankie, who have graciously agreed to work with our 3rd-year students.

The first step now is to develop a thorough site analysis of Rosie’s site. The students spent several hours on site measuring and determining the layout of the existing structures, topography changes, and tree placements.

Hybrid of the External vs. Internal Expansion

In studio, the post-frame construction studies continued, and a decision was made to explore a hybrid of external and internal expansion. Laura and Peter created drawings to test how much room was needed for living comfortably while also having room to expand underneath the pole barn.

Once the site plan was ready, Laura and Peter also explored how their hybrid studies could fit on the site.

First Wood Shop Project Complete

Woodshop class is in full effect; the 3rd-Years completed their cutting boards. The students were tasked with designing their own cutting boards, using pieces of walnut and maple. After several rounds of cutting and laminating, they finished sanding and added layers of wood finish.

This project gave them a better understanding of the tools they will use for the rest of the semester.

Now that the cutting boards are complete, they have started design work on new shelf carts and a table for the Newbern Library.

History Class with Dick Hudgens

For history class, Dick Hudgens has been taking the 3rd-Years on field trips to historically significant buildings around West Alabama. After visiting Magnolia Grove last week, Dick took the students to another historic site in Greensboro, the Glencairn.

This Greek Revival building was constructed in the early 19th century and is a part of the National Register of Historic Places. After touring the interior, Dick had Laura and Peter sketch the front elevation and floor plans of the building.

Same Mounds, New Faces

Hello world, the Moundville Archaeological Park Pavilion project is back on with a few new faces!

Team members in front of presentation

Located along the Black Warrior River, the Moundville Archaeological Park is a Native American Heritage site that preserves 29 earthen mounds from over 800 years ago, that at its peak was one of America’s largest settlements north of Mexico. While the park currently operates as an active archaeological site, it remains open to the public for community gatherings and activities.

In 2018, the archaeological park approached Rural Studio about the need for an outdoor gathering space located in their campgrounds. The previous student team designed and began construction of the new pavilion but, due to the global pandemic, Auburn University had to halt construction and the project was put on hold until this fall. The new team of 5th-year students includes Brenton Smith (Dothan, AL), Caitlyn Biffle (Rogersville, AL), Collin Brown (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada), and Jackie Rosborough (Deerfield, IL). 

Individual polaroid photos of team

Collaborating with Anderson Inge

The first step in the project was to begin researching the previous team’s design and evaluate the structure’s current condition after being exposed to the elements for over a year. To get a more accurate representation of the structure, the Studio worked with Assistant Professor Danielle Wilkens from the Georgia Institute of Technology, perform a LiDAR scan. Together they created an exact 3D model of the current pavilion’s structure. We also met with structural engineer Anderson Inge from Anderson Inge Building Workshop via Zoom, who provided some general observations from his visit and answered questions from the team. From the LiDAR scan and Anderson’s notes and suggestions, an accurate physical model was also made to act as a tool in the design process.

Charretting with Emily Knox and David Hill

Professors David Hill and Emily Knox of Auburn University’s Landscape Architecture program led a workshop with the team that focused on the potential of utilizing the landscape in the design. This first meeting focused mainly on using groundcover and shrub layers of vegetation to define space, paths, and views in and around the site.

A Discussion with Hank and Julie

We also had a visit from Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architects, who led us in a design charrette to highlight the possibility of rethinking the pavilion’s cladding. By building the model and working through some first design iterations, we left with more clarity in our understanding of the current structure and the potentials for the design moving forward.

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.

Workshop Season in Newbern

The fall semester is here, which means we have twelve new 5th-year students in Hale County.

We’re excited to share the three new 5th-year projects on the boards: Emergency housing built for a local nonprofit, C.H.O.I.C.E.; a new home exploring attic trusses; and the continuation of the Moundville Archaeological Park Community Pavilion.

As always, the semester kicked off with a week of “Neckdown” projects before leading us into the workshop season and project selection! Starting with a visit from Birmingham’s own, architect, John Forney, we did a deep dive on adaptability by studying the Myers’ Home. Anderson Inge, from the Anderson Inge Building Workshop in London, kept up the momentum when we worked in groups to explore the many possibilities that Moundville’s existing structure might offer: each group developed cladding strategies for the existing trusses using design strategies like framed openings and provocative material scale.

Chicagoan Dan Wheeler, of Wheeler Kearns Architects, led us through a warm and breezy morning of sketching exercises, including a foray into portraiture that taught us we should stick to our day jobs! Cheryl Noel and Ravi Ricker, from Wrap Architecture in Chicago, IL, visited next to pivot us back to all things code. They encouraged us to be mindful of code throughout our design process so that it doesn’t come back to bite us down the road. We also used their visit to demystify stair dimensions, a crucial component of one of our project options. Rounding out the workshops was a visit from Jake LaBarre from Neighborhood Design Build Studio and BuildingWork and Kim Clements and Joe Schneider from JAS Design Build in Seattle, WA, the perfect trio to help us diagram our way through our potential projects.

We ended this workshop season with the daunting, exciting, and mysterious challenge of team selection. After six weeks of workshops and a long night of discussion, we are happy to announce Rural Studio’s three newest teams!

Meet the new 5th-year teams

Emergency shelter in partnership with C.H.O.I.C.E.: AC Priest (Saltillo, MS), Davis Benfer (Jacksonville, FL), Hailey Osborne (Ashburn, VA), Yi Xuan (Raymond) Teo (Singapore)

Moundville Community Pavilion: Brenton Smith (Dothan, AL), Caitlyn Biffle (Rogersville, AL), Jackie Rosborough (IL), Collin Brown (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)

Client home: Adam Davis (Spanish Fort, AL), Daniel Burton (Prattville, AL), Lauren Lovell (Hoover, AL), Laurel Holloway (Huntsville, AL)

Stay tuned to the project blogs to learn more about each project this year!