rural studio

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!

Formwork makes the Dreamwork


This week, the 3rd-years worked on creating detail drawings of Ophelia’s Home’s foundation. Being able to see the foundations in person while drawing them is an amazing, unique opportunity. It has quickly given the students an understanding of how crawl-space foundations work. Each student selected a unique piece of the foundation to draw. These drawings will eventually be added onto to create 7 complete section cuts. The drawings show details through the foundation piers, vents, below significant areas, and the front porch. All the drawings were organized onto one construction document sheet, which is a new and very important skill for the 3rd-years to have learned.

Horseshoe Courtyard

This week, the 3rd-years’ continued work at Horseshoe Courtyard consisted of cleaning more bricks. They also began building and setting up wooden formwork for the incoming concrete! Students worked to hammer in stakes, cut wood boards, and drill formwork into place. They are extremely excited (some may say overly excited) about the concrete pour.

Perry Lakes Park

After a few weeks of working in Hale County, half of the 3rd year students ventured out to Perry Lakes Park to help with maintenance and repair. This included working with 5th-year students and graduate students to clear large debris from pathways and replace aging timber boards on the elevated walkways and the Birding Tower. Perry Lakes Park is currently closed to the public until it is rejuvenated. However, once the Rural Studio Students are finished, the park will be open for bird enthusiasts, outdoor lovers, and adventurers alike. 

Panel Making

This week the Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Team got to use the largest skill saw they’ve ever seen and we’ll tell you why!

In the technical workshop Sal last week, the team decided to narrow the number of materials they will test throughout the experimental cycle from four to two. The lucky two will be concrete and softwood! Concrete is often used as a thermal mass material while softwood is not which will make comparing the data collected from the separate experiments all the more interesting. The Optimal Tuning Theory calls for the thermal mass to be externally insulated which allows the thermal mass material to be much thinner than a typical thermal mass. Therefore, the concrete and wood need to be panelized.

The thermal properties of wood act most efficiently as a thermal mass when the cross grain is exposed to the air. This means that panelizing the softwood is more like creating giant cutting boards. To practice this process the team used 8″ x 8″ Cypress timbers and their matching 16″ diameter skill saw leftover from the Newbern Town Hall project. The team learned that 6″ x 6″ timbers would be ideal for their project, that way they can cut the cross-grain pieces in one cut with their 16″ skill saw without having to rip down the timber.

The concrete panels are far more straightforward, build a mold, pour the concrete, let it cure. However, the team has to think about how the panels would be attached to a larger structure. To solve this they cast PVC into the panel which will allow it to be screwed into a structure.

Voila! We have much refining to do of the panel making process, but the first two turned out well. We also have here a rendering of the habitable structural with the separate concrete and wood panel rooms. Our next step is to apply what we learned working with these materials to designing and building our first experiment. Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Team out.

Spring Week 13

Touring a home in Mississippi

On Monday we had an all day field trip to Columbus, MS. The first home, Riverview, is a Greek revival home built in 1847 with an impressive cupola that has stained glass to match where the light comes in during the different seasons, such as red, blue, green, and purple.  The floor plan, typical to Greek Revivals, is symmetrical.  

Some of the homes in Columbus were open for pilgrimage and were reenacting the original owners and how they lived.  We walked through the home and got a double dose of history and architectural information.  Temple Heights (the 2nd house we toured) was built in 1837, and combined Federal and Greek Revival features.  It has a wonderful garden and porch area, contrary to most Greek Revivals the home is slightly asymmetrical.

Waverly (the 3rd home) was completed in 1852 as a Greek Revival structure.  It is most unique for its enormous octagonal cupola, which everything in the home is oriented.  The plantation was originally a self-sustaining community with gardens, livestock, and orchards.  It even had its own mill.

Putting in insulation
View from above putting in insulation
View from below putting in insulation

We finished putting panels up on the back wall and then moved onto the north facade.

Our final chairs were due on Friday so as soon as we got off site and ate, we hit the shop.  Everyone was hard at work, cutting, sanding, steam-bending, and etc.  

Putting in plumbing line

The MEP team went on a hunt to find the existing plumbing line. They then got down and dirty in the mud and dug trench to attach the newly installed plumbing.  

The sheet rock finally finished, was sanded and wiped down. We began to prime and paint the walls.

Adding walls
Running the bulldozer

We finalized our porch design by going through a few more mockups.  We decided to add stairs to the south facade and a ramp that cuts into the porch.  We also discussed some landscape options and ways to integrate the spaces between Ree’s home and her sister’s neighboring home.  

Spring Week 11

This week we visited Marion, Al to see Kenworthy Hall also known as Carlisle Hall.  It was built around 1860 and is one of the most well preserved asymmetrical Italian Villa style homes by Robert Upjohn.  It is the only surviving Italian Villa by Robert Upjohn that was designed for the southern climate and culture.  The house has a massive brick structure and a tower that is four stories high.  We first walked around the exterior of the home in order to get a sense of the plan and then proceeded to walk through the interior.  Our professor had us sketch the floor plan of this large home’s asymmetrical plan.

The dry wall got dropped off and set up for installation. 

Putting up the walls of Ree's Home

The MEP team finished all the wiring and plumbing lines so the rest of the insulation could go in the walls and the sheetrocking could ensue.  

Putting up the walls
Placing cinderblocks
Working on the walls

The siding team began putting flashing around the edges of the home.  Flashing is a barrier that keeps water from going places it does not belong.  It is put on the bottom edge near the foundation, on the corners, around doors, and along the underside of the roof where the truss meets the top of the  wall. They also worked on putting up the rigid insulation, the barrier that goes on the house after the housewrap and before the metal siding.  It typically sits on the drip edge or the flashing at the bottom of the wall. To test how all the layers of the wall would go on together we mocked up a corner of a wall.