Heavily forested Alabama is rich in timber. Rural Studio shifted thinking in the mid-2000s, focusing on the interconnectedness of economies and sustainability, particularly building with locally available, renewable materials such as timber. As part of this, we have been exploring how various timber systems could create local jobs and use local resources, feeding money back into the local economy.
At the residential scale, we started with Rose Lee’s first home, and our emphasis became stick frame construction, but being creative within that constraint. The shift emphasized wood as a resource that is flexible and forgiving, and democratic in the sense that these materials are available at home improvement stores and homes built this way are easily modified by homeowners. The learning curve for working with wood is much shorter than steel or masonry, where familiarity over time and practice are important. Long-existing antebellum homes provided insight into how to build with wood for long-term resilience.
Rural Studio then shifted wood research to stretching the boundaries with larger public structures. The biggest initial display of this commitment to wood exploration was at the Newbern Firehouse, where we celebrated wood in a very bold and public statement as a material of the place, raising the question, Why would you build with anything else in this place? This project was followed by the Perry Lakes Covered Bridge, and the lamella projects at Hale County Animal Shelter and Akron Boys & Girls Club. These large projects encourage us and our community to believe that timber can be used for long span structures without the need to build with steel; in building this way, we circumvent the embodied energy consequences that come with using steel. Later work explored how to use thinnings—the lower-value trees removed to improve a timber stand—in the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest and elsewhere. Most recently the Studio has moved into mass timber solid walls of wood (Newbern Town Hall), which then led to researching breathing walls. The Breathing Wall Mass Timber Research Project examines how walls that while serving as structure and insulation as well as finish, also acts as heat exchangers, capturing the heat that is lost through the wall in air that is being drawn back into the building through small, strategically placed apertures in that same wall.
Wood research will continue. Past and current projects were inspired by outside provocateurs and consultants, engineers, project partners, and the challenges at hand, such as keeping construction money as local as possible. As new challenges, technologies, and insights emerge, so will new paths for wood research. Today that research is on breathing walls, but always check back—new wood research is ever on the horizon because we live in a forest.