Treating wastewater and improving health in West Alabama

Phase 1 Ribbon Cutting of Newbern’s new sanitary sewer system located at Rural Studio headquarters

The Alabama Black Belt region has long struggled with a lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is necessary for both the safety of wildlife and the health of residents. Only half of Black Belt residents have access to a clean and effective municipal sanitary sewer system. The other half are expected to treat waste on their own property.

Rural Studio is part of a large collaboration aiming to address this challenge through an alternative wastewater treatment system. We celebrated the completion of Phase 1 of this new sanitary sewer system at a Newbern Community Fish Fry & Ribbon Cutting on Tuesday, June 4th, 2024.

Community Fish Fry Dinner provided by the University of Alabama

The event welcomed nearly 150 neighbors and friends to learn more about the project and what’s next for the broader Newbern community. On hand to greet and educate the community was the whole research team, consisting of six university and not-for-profit organizations: University of Alabama, University of South Alabama (USA), University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, Columbia University, Black Belt Community Foundation, and Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater.

The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium devised solutions to address wastewater needs throughout the Black Belt, and Rural Studio is hosting the demonstration of one such solution. Called a “cluster” system, this treatment unit will initially connect clusters of 50 or so homes within a five-mile radius of the Studio. The homes will share one water treatment unit, which is specially designed for the Black Belt soil. It uses two-inch pipes (instead of larger sewer pipes found in septic systems), so it can withstand the challenges of the clay soil.

For many rural residents nationally, septic systems provide the necessary wastewater treatment, but this method is not an effective solution in the Black Belt. These systems average $10,000-$30,000, making them exorbitantly expensive for lower income residents. Even more prohibitive is the Black Belt’s soil condition: the area’s soil is made of clay, which often leads to backups in septic tanks. It is estimated that roughly half of rural residents in Black Belt counties have failing septic systems or are simply dumping wastewater directly on to their land, leading to raw sewage in and around homes. The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium, comprised of volunteer experts from industry, government, and academia, was formed in 2018 to directly address the rural wastewater challenge. As part of this consortium, Rural Studio is leading the way in wastewater treatment for Hale County.

Wastewater treatment unit shown at the 2024 Pig Roast (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The Rural Studio wastewater project is a prototype for future projects, leveraging funds from several state and federal agencies, including the American Rescue Plan Act, commonly known as the Biden infrastructure bill, the USDA, and Columbia World Projects. These agencies are collaborating to build a plan for increasing the number of Black Belt residents with access to proper wastewater treatment from 50% to 75%. Initially, the wastewater project will be limited to the Rural Studio community, before expanding into community homes. This first phase will provide a proof of concept for local rural residents and show that such a system is both effective and non-invasive.

Associate Professor Emily McGlohn, who spearheads Rural Studio’s wastewater project, stresses the importance of this acceptance: “We know that for a community project to be successful, especially one being presented to the community from an outside group, you really need to let people see it and understand it. So, phase one will just serve us. It’ll be open to the public, and it will let our local community, our local government, individuals and anybody else to come understand the system.”

Along with its hosting role for this first treatment system, Rural Studio, particularly McGlohn, acts as the connective tissue between the government agencies, the Consortium, the collaborating universities, and—most importantly—the residents of Hale County. “I am the community advocate. I communicate with our neighbors to make sure they know what’s going on, with the engineer, with the other faculty team with USA and Alabama, and with the contractor.”

Over its 30 years, Rural Studio’s mission has expanded to promote community wellness in its rural community, and the wastewater project is an outgrowth of that work. Clean sanitation improves the health and well-being of our West Alabama neighbors in an area that has been under-resourced for generations. McGlohn emphasizes the Studio’s vital role in this important work: “It’s truly a public health crisis that the Black Belt counties find themselves in. And there are so few solutions. That’s why we’re here to help.”

Presenting… Your New Leftovers!

Summer has begun, and we’re getting ready to begin our tenure as official “leftovers” here on the Fabrication Pavilion team.

Pig Roasted

At the end of April, Pig Roast was the main event. Our team had a great time attending alumni lectures, seeing all the projects in progress, attending the Rosie’s Home ribbon cutting (two members of our team worked on the project in third year), and presenting our design to all of our visitors. The night ended with a bang of Samuel Mockbee’s famous “whiffle dust” and a graduation ceremony under the stars, with roasts of graduates and delicious catfish all around.

We graduated!

The next weekend, the team made the trip to Auburn for the university’s graduation ceremony. It was a wonderful day surrounded by friends and family.

What’s the Scope?

After a lot of reflection and unforeseen circumstances, the scope of the Fabrication Pavilion project has changed. From now on, primarily we will be focusing on a prototype weather screen, a presentation and tool storage core, and the replacement of the existing roof.

Weather to Screen

Since we returned from graduation, we have been refining the design of these elements, beginning with the weather screen. We have been testing out different heights visually against the existing columns, and hammering out the details of how this new system will interact with the existing structure. With the redefined scope, we will be constructing a screen on the eastern side of the pavilion to test its effectiveness long-term, and the faculty will be installing the screen at the western side after the roof is replaced.

A Storage Core

Further, the mock-up that we built for Pig Roast was an overall success. It served well as a pinup space for both the Fabrication Pavilion and CLT Core House teams. We have been refining this design to serve as a storage area for woodworking and metalworking tools and cleaning supplies, utility access, and a presentation space.

The concept is for the presentation space to appear as a continuous plane the eastern shear wall. The closet doors will be concealed to maintain this as a clean surface for pinups. The utilities will be concealed in the space between its southern wall, while the tools can be safely locked inside. Finally, this core will provide electrical outlets for building and PowerPoints. We have also been exploring lighting solutions for nighttime presentations.

See you again soon for our next update!

Starting the Summer at the 18×18 House

The 18×18 House team has been BUSY! The end of the spring semester came fast, bringing a big ol’ Pig Roast celebration with it. Dozens of family members, friends, and alumni crowded around the house to see what this project is all about. We had a great time sharing the work, and figured out just how many guests can fit onto two parking spaces…

Post-Roast Tasks: Roofing

After the fun of Pig Roast, the “18s” hit the ground (or the scaffolding?) running to get the roof installed. Without a watertight roof, the team couldn’t install insulation or drywall, so it was the priority. The first step was laying rigid insulation over the roof sheathing, then attaching purlins across the top. These purlins will be what the metal panels are screwed into later.

Then all the corners and edges got metal flashing installed on them. The whole roof was outlined in metal profiles to keep water OUT!

The team laid the metal roof panels across the length of the house, attaching them one by one. The back side of the roof was the easy part, but then it was time for the dormer…

Before installing the metal on the front, the team had to install the roof and the siding panels on the dormer. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a way to reach the dormer walls later. Meagan and Jake did some tricky flashing work from the scaffolding to install everything over the purlins and insulation. And then, a finished dormer emerged!

The rest of the panels went on smoothly after that. And isn’t it pretty? After it was finally done, Meagan took a break.

Insulation Nation

But no time to stop! As soon as the roof was finished, it was time to insulate. The 18s stuffed the house full of hemp wool and mineral wool batts. And then some more mineral wool. And then some more… Let’s just say there was plenty to do. Meagan had to take another break.

Closing in the Walls

The last step before drywall can be installed was to hang cement board in the bathroom. Cement board is a water-resistant substitute for drywall in showers and other wet areas of a house. The team will be tiling the walls of the shower later on, and this will provide a sturdy base for it. Julie and Meagan measured each panel, scored them with a utility knife, and broke them along the scored edges. Then Meagan took a break, again.

And drywall was delivered to the house this month! We watched as the sheets were lifted into the house through upstairs windows. It all fit inside just fine, and the house is once again crowded with materials. All that’s left now is to hang it up!

We aren’t the only ones eager to see what will come next at the 18×18 House. Watch out to see what happens as summer goes on!

Kitten in doorway

Here Comes the Leftovers

Students walk across the street

Since the team’s last blog post, a lot has happened. All of April was spent preparing for Pig Roast and the Executive Reviews that followed. The team focused on refining our thesis to fit our goals. We tried to bring the level of detail of the whole house up to as high a standard as possible. There always seems to be another layer of detail to dive into as we learn more about the project.

One to one detail drawing of whole house section.

These big upcoming reviews naturally meant that we needed to spend more time on how the house feels, inside and out. We are having a good time zooming out of detail land and drawing through how the elevations may look and what kind of interior finishes we want. We have some general criteria for making these decisions, but we are approaching a time when seeing how these things look in real life is becoming ever more important.

We also finally have a site! Due to the nature of our project being non-site-specific, it made sense to spend a certain amount of time designing the house without the bias of knowing where our version would go. We are excited to dive deeper into the site, analyzing every inch. Our site is fairly flat undeveloped land, surrounded by trees. Also, it is located right off the road in downtown Newbern. With the downtown projects so close by, we have a high bar to live up to!

Model of house photoshopped onto site photo

We still have to explore through drawings, models, and research before we can try building. Even so, a mock-up is on the horizon. While the finishes are important, the most critical parts of the building process are what need to be tested with this mock-up. The processes of building, moving, installing, and protecting these cores throughout that duration is the real focus of our thesis, along with how all of that process will impact the house.

Pig Roast!

Enough about the preparations. We had a great Pig Roast Weekend! Both 5th-year teams worked hard, and we all felt our presentations went well. It was a beautiful day, and the wind blew our drawings away only once—nice! We tried to have some fun and act out our building process. A little improv went a long way. In the end, it was great to celebrate with friends and family, and the event at Chantilly was unforgettable.

Did someone say leftovers?!

After all that fun, we had to go to Auburn for the much less fun but equally (in some ways) important Graduation. So that’s it. We are adults now who have all the answers to everything. There is nothing we are unprepared for in the real world because now we have a degree. All jokes aside, it has been a pleasure to spend our final school year at Rural Studio. We are so thankful for our time at Auburn and beyond excited to start our time as leftovers to continue the hard work.

Students pose together at graduation

30th Anniversary Pig Roast

Rural Studio 30th Anniversary Pig Roast Fireworks (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Auburn University Rural Studio celebrated its 30th anniversary on Friday and Saturday, April 26-27th at the 2024 Pig Roast, the annual event that highlights the year’s work and our home, West Alabama. The “Roast” in Pig Roast refers not only to how the pork at the final meal is prepared but also to the roasting and toasting of our graduating 5th-year architecture students. The event has grown into a two-day experience that features distinguished alumni speakers, stellar foods from local eateries, tours of and updates on Rural Studio projects and initiatives, live music, fireworks, and a shower of confetti (“Whiffle Dust”). It pulls together members of the Hale County community, faculty and staff, students and their families, program alumni, visiting architects, and university representatives. Often the Studio has a project opening to throw into the mix as well.

Pig Roast is its own experience, one that can’t be captured in a program or recap of activities, though you can read that below. You must dive in to fully understand. Imagine a day and a half with almost no cell phones in sight. With people shaking hands and hugging, deeply engaging in conversation. With everyone giving students their rapt attention and marveling at what these young people have designed and accomplished in such a short time. Picture a project ribbon cutting with a client couple who are so moved that the husband breaks out in a Gospel song, and visitors so moved that, in all their diversity, they hush, punctuating the rhythm with claps as his voice floats over the yard with the smell of the wild grasses. Close your eyes to see clusters of children running free on the grassy hill of an amphitheater, a few collecting confetti and proudly presenting it to parents who are sitting on blankets and letting music fill their souls.

30 years?!

100+ Rural Studio alumni in attendance for the Pig Roast 30th Anniversary weekend! (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

This year’s Pig Roast was an extra-big deal. Thirty years ago, Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth ran with the then-radical vision of putting down roots in a little rural community, hours away from their university to teach students the value of rural, to teach them that place matters and that good design is for everyone, to cultivate what Mockbee called “citizen architects.” Their commitment laid the course for Andrew Freear’s directorship, which began in 2002, and for the Studio’s educational success. Over three decades, the program has educated more than 1250 students at our humble Hale County campus. This year, the celebration included over four hundred people, with alumni coming from as far as England. Families of both founders joined, too.

First Night: Alumni and Dinner!

Alumni Lectures begin in Horseshoe Courtyard (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The first night’s festivities started in Greensboro with a spread catered locally by Mo Kitchen of The Stable and Sarah Cole of Abadir’s. Every part of dinner and dessert tantalized, but Sarah Cole’s dukkah roasted carrots left the crowd scrambling for seconds and thirds. Dukkah is an Egyptian dish of spiced nuts and seeds, and the lemon tahini sauce and chili oil drizzle had everyone talking. Other dishes, too, used fresh-grown foods from Rural Studio Farm. Alumnus Alex Henderson played guitar in the Horseshoe Courtyard, a space designed and transformed by Studio students between 2018 and 2021. Alex Therrien, who was also one of the speakers, DJed the event after the alumni presentations.

Alumni speakers represented many phases of Rural Studio’s development, starting with two who attended during the Mockbee/Ruth years.

Here’s the complete list:

  • Ruard Veltman ’95, Charlotte, NC
  • Steve Durden ’95, Nashville, TN
  • Jacquelyn (Jacqui) Overbey Hart ’98, Birmingham, AL
  • Trent (Trinity) Davis ’01, Mobile, AL
  • Abby Davis ’04, Mobile, AL
  • Hana Loftus ’05, Colchester, England
  • Brittany Foley ’09, Birmingham, AL
  • Candace Rimes ’10, Atlanta, GA
  • Stephen Kesel ’12, St. Louis, MO
  • Thomas Johnston ’14, Seattle, WA
  • Callie Kesel ’15, St. Louis, MO
  • Alex Therrien ’15, Los Angeles, CA
  • Anna Halepaska ’19, Montreal, Canada

They’ve taken a variety of paths, but each has been on an exciting adventure. In true Rural Studio fashion, alumni were earnest and self-effacing. In 13 PechaKucha-style talks, alumni reflected on their individual journeys, capturing the joyful spirit of chasing heartfelt ideals and passions.

Second day: Project tours and such

Day two highlighted work by students, faculty, and staff before turning to dinner, honors, and entertainment. It began in Newbern with a breakfast of fresh cinnamon rolls from local Wayside Bakery at Rural Studio’s Great Hall, a long, open-sided gathering space. Attendees likely doubled Newbern’s population. The group carpooled north to the first project stop, following Andrew Freear’s classic tropical blue 1966 Ford F-100 truck sporting two flags on the back: the American flag and Auburn’s flag. The Hale County Sheriff’s Office helped the long line cross AL-69. Drivers heading south respectfully pulled over, likely thinking they were watching a funeral procession. Far from it, though! Over the course of the day, this large crew learned about, toured, and celebrated five student projects: the 18×18 House, Rural Studio Bathhouse, the Fabrication Pavilion, CLT Core House, and Rosie and Frankie’s Home. The last project included a ribbon cutting, with a yellow ribbon almost the length of the home and a bow the size of a barrel top. And, of course, it included Frankie breaking out into the Gospel song “Jesus Will Never Say No,” pouring out his joy with a resonant voice. While these student accomplishments filled our hearts, we were also nourished by a taco-and-sides lunch featuring an awesome salad by Abadir’s, made with produce from Rural Studio Farm.

Visitors also learned from Emily McGlohn about the Rural Wastewater Demonstration Project that is testing a solution for the Black Belt’s wastewater crisis, as well as from Mackenzie Stagg and Betsy Farrell Garcia about the Front Porch Initiative, which is bringing Rural Studio designs and technical assistance to 24 housing provider partners in ­­­­12 states. Directly after lunch, Eric Ball introduced guests to the ins and outs of the Farm, starting in the greenhouse. Steve Long then presented student work from the 3rd-Year Woodshop Class, a course in which students use hand tools to craft three classic designs of chairs, in the process learning the properties of wood and the techniques for craftsmanship. Next, Dick Hudgens showcased student work from the 3rd-Year History Class, where students tour historical homes and buildings that have stood the test of time and become intimately familiar with their form and function as they produce sketches and a final Beaux Arts watercolor of an assigned building.

Woodshop Class presentation by Instructor Steve Long (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Pomp and circumstance

Parade to the Bodark Amphitheatre in Newbern (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The ceremonial part began in the late afternoon with a parade back to Chantilly House, just north of the main campus’s Morrisette House on AL-61, Newbern’s main street. The return to Chantilly was its own procession. The wee woo of the fire engine announced the parade’s arrival at least a quarter mile before local friend Bobby Scott pulled his truck onto the grass towing his black smoker. Students helped serve roasted pork and fried catfish, and still folks had their cell phones tucked away. People mingled and ate while Rural Studio alumnus Hana Loftus played her fiddle with Chip Spencer and friends from Marion Junction, AL. Bluegrass, y’all!

Whiffle Dust Welcome (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Everyone knew to turn their attention to the front of the Bodark Amphitheatre when they were showered with confetti during the traditional Whiffle Dust Welcome. The honors were many and the program substantial. Emcees Andrew Freear and Emily McGlohn kept everyone engaged with humor, sass, and an unwaveringly high level of energy. Samuel Mockbee’s wife Jackie and D.K. Ruth’s wife Linda were in attendance with their families for this special occasion. Andrew and Emily brought them up on the stage, as well as the Walthall family, longtime supporters of the Studio. The Walthall family recently donated the Red Barn Studio to Rural Studio, and we plan to name the main space after their father, Robert Walthall, Sr.

Auburn University Provost Vini Nathan was in attendance. Interim Dean Karen Rogers of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction spoke, and she honored Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth by announcing that each had been posthumously awarded emeritus status.

“Leftover” student Jake Buell received the Samuel Mockbee Book Award, a new award sponsored by Wanda Dye, our friend and former student of Mockbee, to honor a recent graduate with a passion for art and architecture. One copy of the art book, selected by Wanda, was gifted to Jake and another copy was gifted to the Newbern Library.

Dick Hudgens brought his singular experience to the microphone. As the only current Studio faculty member who has been there since the beginning, he spoke on the sense of place that the Studio cultivates and the “local identity” that students learn to appreciate so they can “solv[e] problems in a thoughtful and beautiful way.” A kindred spirit to Rural Studio, the extraordinary Roy Decker of Duvall Decker Architects in Jackson, MS, who gave the valediction speech, said “What is special about the Rural Studio is that it is a place with integrity searching for a better tomorrow.”

The group celebrated Brenda Wilkerson (who retires this summer after 22 years) and Catherine Tabb who retired this spring, as well as alumnus and instructor Judith Seaman, who is moving on to her next adventure after four years here.

The eight 5th-year students—the graduates—smiled, laughed, and mugged for the audience as Steve Long and John Marusich took turns roasting each one. First up was the Fabrication Pavilion team: Marcelo Aldrete, Anna Leach, Tatum DeBardeleben, and Laura Forrest. Then came the CLT Core House team: Connor Warren, Sarah Recht, Peter Harping, and Paris Copeland. Paris’s accomplishments were recognized outside of Rural Studio, and Andrew had the pleasure of announcing these awards: the BTES Edward Allen Student Award, the ARIA (Interior Architecture) Book Award, and the Meyer Davis Portfolio Prize Honorable Mention.

Just as Whiffle Dust (the confetti shower) ushered in the stage ceremonies, fireworks closed them out. The fireworks started with an intensity seen in the finale of grand shows. The audience tilted their heads back, immersed in the light, crackle, and booms. The folk-rock band Small Trucks (alumnus Dan Splaingard and Joseph Gorman) opened the evening entertainment, performing a series of originals and covers. Headliner Alvin Youngblood Hart then took the stage, wowing the crowd with his selection of blues songs. One audience member described his performance as transcendent, as music that carries you away.

Campaigns for the future, near and far

Rural Studio raised money for three different projects during the 2024 Pig Roast. Third-year students sold coaster sets stamped with the 30th anniversary logo; the coasters were made of the same Marmoleum that they installed in Rosie and Frankie’s home. (Marmoleum is a more healthful alternative to traditional linoleum.) Each purchase supported buying Rosie and Frankie a stove, and the team sold out, meeting their goal. Also, students staffed merchandise tables at events to raise money for the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students (NOMAS). People lined up to buy apparel, totes, pins, sketchbooks, and posters, for starters, netting about $6,000 for NOMAS. And finally, Andrew Freear announced Rural Studio’s 30th Anniversary Endowment Campaign. With 14 slots filled, the Studio hopes to reach a total of 30 donors/groups pledging $30,000 each over the next five years ($6,000 per year) to ensure a solid future—a solid next 30 years—for its architectural education program. There’s still room to be one of the 30!

Thank you to our Pig Roast Sponsors!

We want to give a very special thank you to our Pig Roast sponsors: Alabama Power; Poole & Company; Seay, Seay & Litchfield Architects; AERCON; Bill Mackey Real Estate; Clary’s Country Market; Faunsdale Cafe; Greensboro Pie; Hale County Hospital; Patrick Braxton & family; Reynolds Electric & Refrigeration; Seale Holmes Ryan, LLC; The Partridge Berry; Blue Shadows B&B; NAPA Auto Parts; Peoples Bank; Sweetbriar Tea & Coffee; Dozier Hardware; Michael Harrow Realty; Holmestead Company; Stillwater Machine; The Smelley family; The Stable; Citizens Bank; A1 Fitness; City Furniture; and Wood Fruitticher.

War Eagle, y’all! Cheers to another 30!