Excavation Sensation

Hale’s frozen over! Since then, it has melted, soaked, dried, and soaked again. Classic Hale County. But Myers’ Home team broke ground in the fury of it! You may have heard it here first, folks.

Putting a shovel to the ground takes a lot of prep. First they got the dirt on site conditions. This involved first surveying the area. Though not before saying hello some new, sorry moo, neighbors.

Survey the scene…

To begin, both Myers’ Home and Rev. Walker’s Home teams went to Steve Long’s Survey School at Newbern’s own Morrisette Campus to learn the site level basics.

All learned to set the transit to read site elevations on the story pole — the measuring stick. On site, they will draw a grid to measure points and build a topography map. This team went with 80’ by 90’ at 10’ increments for their site grid.

Recording the first corner of the measured grid on site

A well-informed student home-builder tests their soil strength with the pocket penetrometer. Riley and Judith dug four holes on Myers’ Home site at intervals around the footprint. They then took density measurements at descending points spaced 6” apart. The penetrometer is plunged into the wall of the soil and a reading is taken in tons per sq. ft.

Riley digging a 32″ hole for the pocket penetrometer

The team recorded bearing capacity and observed conditions of the site. This informed a plan for excavation and soil replacement. To make this home stable, they’re building an island of engineered soiled. This raft will be a solid bed of engineered dirt, reliable red soil with a definitive bearing capacity.

After speaking with Joe Farrugia, Rural Studio’s consulting engineer extraordinaire, a plan was in place for site excavation and refilling.

Batter up, batter boards!

The team had to place batter boards though before site excavation. At first glance, batter boards are unassuming scrap pieces. The builders level these to near-perfect tolerance around the site. They hold squared strings marking each edge of the footprint of the building.

With the guidance and helping hands of batter board guru, Steve Long, Judith and Madeline set boards for the excavation crew arriving the very next day!

Can you dig it?

The following morning, the local excavating team made their appearance at sunrise. They removed over 2′ of dirt from the area marked by batter boards. Eight (eight!) truckloads of strong engineered soil then arrived, placed in 6″ lifts in the hole. This new dirt was smoothed to ideal home-building elevation (well above the water table) and left to settle as another wave of rain rolled in.

Ready for the next window of sun, this team will be tamping the new soil, trenching for plumbing and electrical, and preparing for THE SLAB.

Another Stud in the Wall

As promised, the big reveal.

Following the holiday season, Myers’ Home team returned to Newbern. After the annual Spring semester Neckdown week, the students took a look back at the projects’ goals and methods. What is Myers’ Home Project achieving through design and how can it be brought to life?

Generational Flexibility

Above all, Myers’ Home design aims to serve a family over generations by providing means of expansion within a protected shell. The team is also prioritizing material efficiency, buildability, and affordability as they evaluate how to build.

Originally, Myers’ Home implemented a post-frame structural system to create the protective shell essential to generational flexibility. The post-frame method is a simple structure – poles embedded in the ground or a footing with trusses and a simple roof system spanning between. However, the team needed to change aspects of the structural system for it to become sturdy enough for a longlasting, enclosed home.

Personalized Post-Frame

To achieve the desired decade-spanning design, the team customized the poles, trusses, and roofing. The poles were set in above-ground brackets rather than driven into the soil, bolstering longevity. The trusses had become inherently more complex with the addition of an attic. And, the roof system was designed in layers for thermal comfort and durability.

Subsequently, the team diagramed the whole process of construction to understand efficiency and method. As seen above, the team mapped out each step and considered the building timeline implications. As the team reflected on the more complex system and the steps to build, they reached a new conclusion. Post-frame is a fabulous typology, however, it isn’t what Myers’ Home needs.

A New Structure Ahead

But it’s not all over, in fact, it’s just begun! The four students made a quick turn, forget whiplash, and are on their way to Stud Framing City.

Discussing new detailing in Red Barn

Most importantly, the new method is, for the enclosed attic home, quicker than the original post-frame system to build. Scrapping the footings and columns, the home sits on a simple turndown slab allowing the stud walls to be quickly erected on top. Furthermore, and in line with the previous concept of the flexible model home, the only interior walls are for the home’s core.

Also, a quick maneuver with the trusses is underway! The new truss has the same pitch but the entire porch segment is sliced off, creating a heal. A heel? That’s right, and they aren’t talking about feet.

The new and improved attic truss system

Free Porch

Without the rafters or posts to dictate its volume, the porch can boldly go where no porch has gone before. In short, the porch is now free from the overall structure of the home. Now, there is no part of the integral structure which breaks the enclosed protective shell. The porch is no longer a weak point for the generational home. This is more in line with the intentions and goals of the design.

The Zip System shell wraps and shelters the home’s interior

The team is certainly enthusiastic about the new porch design challenge. The porch could touch the house lightly, tie in with a separate system, or stand entirely independent of the home structure. With all these options, the team is narrowing their infinity to perhaps a universe or two.

To inform the porch, the house must begin to speak a language. But what part speaks? Some might say it’s the details that do all the talking. The team dove into drawing details to determine which voice should be heard loudest and followed.

Beginning to define the porch’s language

And that’s where they are now, up in Red Barn drawing details, details, details. 1:1, markers-on-the-floor, shred-‘em-‘til-they’re-right details. They’ve run all around Newbern looking at past projects and local precedents for inspiration. Research in your own backyard!

So keep an eye out, these four can’t wait to show you their corners.

Up We Go!

Hey! The gang’s all here, welcome back.

Myers' Home team at a mockup
from left: Riley Boles, Madeline Ray, Robbin Reese, Judith Seaman

A dignified home is not a luxury. For the past 27 years, Rural Studio has been refining an architectural approach to affordability and durability in housing of the rural South. The Myers’ Home team is working to make that home last for generations and changes to fit the family within. This is being pursued through interiorized expansion, capacity for multiple bedroom types, and varying states of material finish.

A cycle of generations through the home

Can a dignified home be built to be serve a client, their children, even grandchildren, through inheritance? Myers’ Home team has been taking a look at how homes expand in rural contexts like Hale County, and there’s quite a tendency to grow. Homes spread to fill the property with additions built as a family is able. The team looked to local precedent like Jim Walter Homes, a regional kit home similar to Sears Roebuck homes, that acted as a shell. The unfinished interior can be designed and changed by the owner, fitting their needs.

Both 2020-2021 5th-Year student project teams are exploring comprehensive solutions to the issues that arise from ad-hoc expansions. Rather than attaching new structure to a starter home, often a kit-type or mobile home, the team wants to know how expansions might be contained in the shell of the one, original structure. Dubbed the shell expansion method, Myers’ Home team is designing a protective home that can change within the boundaries of the original structure to accommodate varying family demographics and needs over generations. One of the most exciting developments for the studio thus far though has been, *drumroll*, the attic truss. That’s right folks, a two-story home. Want more space for the same footprint? Go up!

The attic truss system and resultant second floor space

But how to begin? The four Myer’s Home teammates determined what conditions were imperative to the home’s function. In terms of a flexible generational home, spaces that can host a variety of activity and establish thresholds of social and private space through the home.

To reach the attic a stair was needed, this created a limited framework to operate within. It needed to align with the trusses above to meet building code for enough head height above the landing. Centering the stair gave easiest access to both sides of the attic for the most flexible room solutions and was the most accessible location through changes to the surrounding rooms.

The home has thresholds that shift between social and private space

With these in mind, plans were drawn up, tested and re-tested. Quick mockups of different furniture layouts in the Red Barn determined appropriate sizes of rooms depending on Fair Housing Act (FHA) standards and varying furniture sizes.

Early plan sketches before refining stair placement

The porch has also been a source of great debate. More mockups were constructed to test options seen in past Rural Studio projects as well as the context of the rural South. After getting a feel for the options, the team moved towards Stress Test in November with some decisions to make and plenty to discuss!

The teams’ weeks were interspersed with reviews with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Julie Eizenberg, Marlon Blackwell, and our own Auburn faculty. Through these critiques we came to two leading contenders for the plan and section. Both are post frame homes roughly 900 square feet with a 10/12 pitch roof. Both homes also contained a clear bedroom, and a “room without a name,” one that could begin with or without a dividing wall. It could serve, alongside the attic, as the first step in interiorized expansion for shifting family needs.

Two of the final plan options as 1 or 2 bedroom options following Stress Test, their last stand

The plans made it through Stress Test nearly whole, yahoo! But the review following brought to light holes in the plan and a whole new approach. With Marlon Blackwell, Jake LaBarre, Emily Taylor, and Emily McGlohn, the team came to the conclusion that both options were just too darn prescriptive! For true flexibility there has to be more than one flexible space, the team ought to make the whole house shift-able! Back to the drawing board they go, to find the flex.

The most constraining part of the previous plans were the walls. So how can the prescription be replaced with prediction? Ding ding, optional walls! How else? Group the utilities in a core! Take a look at just how that all works together…

Myers’ Home is fairly small scale, clocking in around 900 square feet inside with a 6 foot porch. The short interior width of 24 feet allows that amazing attic truss to span with no load-bearing interior walls. By moving electrical, plumbing, and mechanical to the bathroom, stair, and exterior walls, the team can treat the interior walls as transient. Imagine the possibilities! The home can be built as a 1:1 model of sorts, exterior and core block. Rooms can be defined by inserting walls after experiencing the “shell” space, as builder or client.

Two 2-bedroom plan options for the latest home iteration

The team’s been defining these optional spaces as “rooms without names,” space that can change purpose and space should the family need it. More free space though is the attic. Able to hold 2 more bedrooms up to FHA standards, it also slings plumbing hookups to the attic space as a vertical extension of the core below.

The attic space being filled and used over time

The 1:1 model method, the protected shell and core, and the house-length porch all amount to something wonderful. With the flexible plan, the home can begin with one, two, the, or no defined bedrooms. Our clients needs two to begin, walls can be placed in whichever of the options work best for their lifestyle. They may want a larger living area to one side of the home. They may prefer the entire bar spanning the porch remain social. They might enjoy both bedrooms catching the sunrise on the east side. This house can accommodate.

An interactive study model with movable walls and furniture.

The team then met with the client, Mr. and Mrs. Myers, and presented an interactive model to show how easily walls can be added shifted. They analyzed the site and began to consider the soil, the trees, and first steps towards getting their hammers swinging and boots in the mud.

Zooming with Joe Farrugia to discuss structural systems

Following these turns of events, the realities of detailing and structure began falling into place. After Thanksgiving the team put the pedal to the metal and jumped into attic truss engineering with Joe Farrugia. With Joe, they are learning the physics and engineering process of a manufactured truss to design their own for production. This involves testing limits of different grades of Southern Pine and various dimensions of lumber. What fun, thanks, Enercalc! They’ve also worked on roof assemblies with Paul Stoller of AtelierTen in Sydney, Australia, and some active systems planning.

Outdoor pinup at the fabrication pavilion with Andrew and Steve

All of these conversations kept on going over the holidays to keep the wheels turning into the New Year. As 2021 tumbled in and work ramped up in Newbern, a review of projects was in order to gauge next steps in design. In retrospect the team synthesized old and new observations of the home and made some exciting new conclusions. Stay tuned for a structural surprise!

In Hale County

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.

Field with cows in Hale County
A common sight in Hale County

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.

Rev. Walker’s Project Team hard at work in Red Barn

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.

Becca enjoys Michelle’s Home

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.

Diagram of Reverend Walkers Home
Reverend Walker’s Home

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.

The Site Cat being scratched by student
Team Leader: Taterhead the Cat Purrveyor of Wisdom

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.

Pictures of the four student team

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.

Until next time – Taterhead.

The Power of Post Frame

The 2020-2021 5th-year students are ready for their introduction! They may have been off the radar so far this semester, but they are working the days away. The 2020-2021 Rural Studio thesis program began with eight students and several weeks of “neck down” work, the kind that uses everything but your head! This meant performing maintenance at Morrisette Campus and the Red Barn, lending a hand at Horseshoe Courtyard, and rebuilding park structures at Perry Lakes Park.

Thanks to the pandemic precautions being taken by all Rural Studio members, the 5th-year project teams are able to work face-to-masked face this semester. They’ve been working on site, in studio, and on the farm safely and gratefully. Presentations and critiques are all al fresco, but the work is just as hard, coffee as strong, and spirits as high.

While completing the “neck down” site work, the 5th-year students began their thesis research. Their thesis projects are to design and build two homes using a post frame structural system. This post frame strategy was first introduced to the studio by last year’s Master’s Outreach Team in their 2020 20K Home. The teams will be building for the clients of Reggie’s Home project team and the 2020 20K project team, both projects which were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team of eight is studying how to take full advantage of the pole barn frame. With several thesis research presentations on deck, the team began the routine of site work by day and studio by night. As the pros say, “healthy body, healthy mind!”

The post frame structural system kit of parts

Meet the post frame structural system, sometimes known as a pole barn. It’s a kit of parts purchased as a complete package from one manufacturer or multiple suppliers. In both cases, the post frame system is made up of columns, trusses, roofing material, and often a concrete slab. The order of construction allows the roof to go up first. This is the opposite of traditional stick frame construction, how many past Rural Studio residential projects are built. In stick framing, exterior and interior framed walls are raised prior to installing trusses and roof metal. In this case, inclement weather means a losing a valuable day building on site if the roof has not been constructed yet.

Post frame gives the team the ability to raise the roof first, the initial structure being trusses and roofing material on columns over a now-covered slab. Exterior and interior walls as well as cladding and utilities come after the roof. This means come spring and all its rain, build days can go on through what would normally be weather delays. The 5th-years were able to visit one of these structures mid-build in a visit to one not too far from their home base.

But post frame is not all that’s on the mind. The group of eight has been researching, documenting, and analyzing homes in the area, including 20K Homes. They are studying how 20K Homes have expanded and adapted over time. This led to two approaches responding to rural expansion coupled with a post frame structure. One is a home under a separate roof, expanding outward beneath it, explored in Rev. Walker’s Home. The other is a home focused on interiorized expansion within the envelope of the post frame system, what will be Myer’s Home.

John Forney from Birmingham and Mike Newman out of Chicago were the first outside voices to weigh in this semester. Their feedback on the first public explanation of project goals helped them shape their arguments in the time after. Since then they’ve been developing the “why?” of the post frame structure and the “how” of our two expansion strategies. The former is that due to the speed of initial post frame construction, labor costs reduce the budget by 10% overall. The latter is in constant progress.

Following these reviews, teams and projects were chosen in traditional, mystic Rural Studio Fashion. With a full review schedule this fall of familiar faces including Julie Eizenberg, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, Marlon Blackwell, Jake LaBarre, and a November Stress Test date, the teams jumped in headfirst.

Individual polaroids of students on the Myers' Home team

Here they go, Myers’ Home team: Riley Boles, Madeline Ray, Robbin Reese, and Judith Seaman. They will be exploring the post frame home through interiorized, upward expansion. You will get to know the new kids on the block as they journey to a new frontier—the attic!