We have excellent news to share: Rural Studio is working with a consortium to demonstrate the viability of applying a cluster-design sanitary sewer to a rural area, including retrofitting local homes that have problematic septic systems. This work has the potential to improve the health of rural communities.
Fifty percent of Black Belt residents use on-site septic systems, and it’s estimated that 90% of these systems are failing or don’t work as they should. The reason for this startling number is that soils with high clay content hold wastewater on the ground surface, creating contaminated pools or soggy areas in yards. Soil that’s good for catfish ponds is terrible for on-site wastewater treatment. Engineered mound systems that work in these soils can cost up to $20,000—too expensive for most people. Both problems demand new ways of thinking about rural wastewater management.
As a member of the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management, Rural Studio is partnering with engineers from the University of South Alabama, University of Alabama, and the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn to help solve this public health crisis. Rural Studio will be the demonstration site for a rural wastewater cluster system paid for by the American Rescue Act Plan, USDA, and Columbia World Projects. The technology behind the pilot project is tried and true, there are many successful examples in Alabama. The innovation is to use these effluent-only sewers in a rural, retro-fit setting. A cluster system takes only the waste liquids from a household or business and treats it to a high-level of purification.
Phases 1 of the Rural Wastewater Demonstration Project will serve Rural Studio’s campus, Red Barn, Newbern Library, and the businesses on the west side of Alabama Highway 61. The demonstration will be open to the public so our neighbors can come see and smell the treatment center. Rural Studio’s long-term goal is to bring other community members onto the new sanitary sewer. If these cluster systems are fully used across the Black Belt, another 25% of residents could have access to a managed and affordable sanitary sewer system. Rural Studio is excited to work with our partners to offer new solutions for rural wastewater management in the Black Belt.
The ground has already been broken, and we hope to have the system functioning in the next few months.
As the weather grows cooler and the days shorten, Rural Studio Farm is preparing for the cold wet winter when most of the field operation will rest as cover crops replace food crops. It has been a busy year of growing and expanding what we do.
In the spring, we hosted our 2nd Annual Spring Farm Dinner along with friends and consultants Brad Hart and Johanna Gilligan. It was a beautiful outdoor evening of sharing an excellent meal—prepared by Brad using farm produce—with our neighbors and friends.
Now that Patriece’s Home has been completed, Laurel Holloway has left Hale County and her two-year role as assistant farm manager. While we are sorry to see Laurel go, she has been replaced by Jake Buell from Austin, Texas, who is part of the team designing and building the 18×18 House. Jake has joined Ambar Ashraf (Rural Studio Bathhouse), and now they are scheming to bring chickens back to Rural Studio Farm. We also welcomed our Project Horseshoe Farm volunteer fellow, Jenna, to the team.
We introduced two new crops to our regular rotation: strawberries and microgreens. Over the course of the summer, we produced around 200 pounds of fresh delicious strawberries—so good that many berries were eaten in the field. The microgreens are our first hydroponically produced crop, and they have been a welcome addition to the salad bar.
During the summer, Rural Studio Farm hosted kids who were participating in Project Horseshoe Farm’s Summer Youth Program. The students had fun picking cherry tomatoes, digging up potatoes, and pulling cabbages.
Looking ahead to 2024, we are planning on introducing ginger, turmeric, and Jerusalem artichokes to the Farm. We are also changing some of our accessory flower and herb growing spaces to specifically support pollinators, as well as developing a sensory garden which will be filled with plants of varied textures, colors, aromas, and growth habits. Finally, we are planning on reintroducing both honeybees and chickens back to Rural Studio Farm. It’s going to be a great year!
On June 1st, 2023, Habitat for Humanity Greenville (HFHGC) dedicated their seventh home at Heritage Hills development in the neighborhood of Nicholtown. The Heritage Hills Development is a former Hope VI subdivision of which the City of Greenville did not complete development. HFHGC plans to build 29 homes over the next couple of years to strengthen this historically African American neighborhood southeast of downtown Greenville. This is the first of six Rural Studio prototype homes to be completed in the neighborhood, with the other five expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
HFHGC has historically offered three- and four-bedroom homes but recognized that four adjacent parcels could be subdivided to accommodate five smaller prototypes. In planning conversations, Rural Studio offered several two-bedroom prototypes, of which HFHGC selected Sylvia’s two-bedroom, two-bath model (2/2). The design is well-suited to the narrow sites (with parking at the rear) because the back porch, which can be screened, serves as an informal entry. This prototype has expanded the affiliate’s client base; for the first time, two single individuals have qualified to purchase homes through the affiliate. The accessibility of the prototype will also allow an owner with limited mobility to age in place.
As the Sylvia 2/2 House prototype was new to the affiliate, HFHGC elected to proceed with one house before moving forward with all six; this process allowed the procurement and construction teams to learn the nuances of a new prototype. Construction of the first house allowed the teams to adjust wall alignments, insulation material, and window and door types in subsequent iterations. Because the high-efficiency mechanical system differs from the typical conventional systems specified for the affiliate’s larger houses, this prototype prompted the affiliate to seek out a new mechanical contractor with more competitive pricing.
HFHGC has adapted the drawing sets to reflect their palette of finishes and standard details, which will streamline production for their volunteers and incorporate the finish offerings typically offered to their partner families. Because the affiliate typically builds to ENERGY STAR, beyond-code aspects of rigorous air sealing and high-efficiency equipment are familiar.
Site work and infrastructure were funded through grants and a capital campaign, Building New Communities One Neighborhood at a Time, that raised approximately $2M. Two-thirds of the construction budget for each individual home is sponsored by organizations or through fundraising, with grants and profits from ReStore sales covering the remaining third. The mortgage portfolio also brings in funding through a combination of mortgages currently serviced and those sold to other lenders after origination. HFHGC received funds for this first home from their build partner, BMW Group Manufacturing, based out of Spartanburg, SC. Rural Studio will continue to work with HFHGC to explore their interest in third-party lending.
Energy Efficient Homes
HFHGC is pursuing ENERGY STAR, Indoor airPLUS, and WaterSense certifications; they have a longstanding relationship with a third-party evaluator to ensure construction meets the standards. Financial incentives do not exist to justify pursuit of FORTIFIED. HFHGC has applied learning from Rural Studo’s technical assistance to their three- and four-bedroom home designs, yielding better air tightness results and lower HERS scores. Based on the research Rural Studio shared regarding the energy savings possible with hybrid heat pump water heaters, HFHGC has committed to installing them in all future houses and has modified their standard specifications accordingly.
Homeowners for the first five homes have been selected and are working to complete their 250 sweat equity hours. HFHGC is working with single homeowners for the first time, the addition of a smaller two-bedroom house to the Heritage Hills neighborhood has proved ideal. The prototype is also designed with accessibility in mind and can accommodate the limited mobility of one of these buyers. Since the sites are configured to offer parking at the back, a ramp will be added to the back porch.
Last time we saw the 18×18 House team, they were putting shovels into the ground for the first time. Three months later, the project has leveled up!
The team first got their formwork ready for the concrete pour. This started with them digging their turndowns and trenches and then pulling strings, setting up formwork, and setting the plumbing pipes and electrical conduit.
The next step was putting down gravel, vapor barrier, and rebar. Then came the day everybody had been waiting for—the concrete pour! The team watched as Meagan cried tears of happiness when the slab was finally in place.
Once the slab was set, it was time to get to work. The team ordered and organized on-site to help them work as efficiently as possible.
Before the walls went up, the team laid down, some the termite flashing and sill gaskets to reduce air infiltration between the slab and the pressure-treated base plates.
After just two days, the exterior walls of the first floor were up and braced, then the team began to build and tilt up the interior walls from inside the house—a task that required lots of careful maneuvering due to its size.
They moved some scaffolding to the site and set it up around the house as to prepare to move upward.
Now the team is working on framing the second floor and building the stair. The joists have already been installed, and the team is gluing and nailing down the subfloor.
With the second floor platform installed, the team got a great view of the sunset down the hill, and they can’t wait to see that view from the very top. Stay tuned to see what the 18×18 House team does next!
Since dividing into our studio teams, the 3rd-year class of Fall 2023 has hit the ground running. We’re working hard every day to accomplish our goal of completing Rosie’s Home. These days, each site team is working on different tasks to advance the current design challenges and move construction forward.
Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing
The Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing team, known on site as “MEP,” is in the midst of electrical and plumbing systems installation. Luke and Cayden are focused on plumbing design and have installed the ventilation system. They are learning the ins-and-outs of supply lines, drains, and where they all go! While the two plumbers have been hard at work, Jack and Casey are wiring up the house. After many iterations of circuit diagrams and lighting critiques with electric expert Mason, Judith, and Thomas Paterson of Lux Populi lighting design, wires are being run and light fixtures chosen.
Cabinets and Carpentry
In the meantime, Caitlin, Shannon, and Biz were off to a speedy start framing the interior walls of the house earlier this semester. Since finishing the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom walls, they are working with Steve and Judith in the Woodshop on the cabinets that were designed and built in past semesters’ Woodshop classes. The team hopes to imminently install these in Rosie’s beautiful new kitchen!
The cabinetry project for Rosie’s Home is part of an initiative to utilize healthier material alternatives in the prototype home design. These cabinets are constructed with zero-formaldehyde plywood, solid maple, and will use a low-to-zero VOC finish. On site, the home’s insulation strategy uses Havelock Wool (from sheep!), Hempitecture HempWool, and ROCKWOOL. All of these materials have reduced amounts of harmful particulates and binding agents compared to typical fiberglass or spray-in foam insulation.
Back on site, Emma J., Emma A., Kylie, and Tanner are working to turn this house into a home through thoughtful choices of interior finishes. The team is building on-site mock-ups of the interior wall and ceiling materials in which they tested finish options. In all this, they are keeping in mind the lessons learned from “The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building.” Rosie’s interior will likely be paneled in tongue-in-groove cypress planks, finished in a to-be-determined shade, along the more utilized corridor of the home for durability and visual connection to the porch exterior.
On the outside, Kati, McAllister, Hannah, and Bailey are tackling many jobs to make sure the exterior of the home is sealed tight. They have worked at great heights to cut and install skylights, the first in awhile for the Studio—oh, the things you can do with a second roof! They have also cut to size and installed nearly all the exterior metal cladding. Preparations have since begun for installation of exterior wood cladding on the porch wall. The material change on the front porch offers a change in scale and softer material on the most protected, and most occupied, wall of the exterior.
Knock on Wood
Our journey in Woodshop Class this semester began with a fantastic introduction as we delved into the world of cutting boards. With two pieces of maple and one of walnut, we set out to test our new woodworking skills and flex our creativity. The initial cutting board project served as a practice run for all the tools in the shop, allowing us to gain confidence and skill in using these essential tools before diving into the main project of the semester.
After conquering the cutting board challenge, we embarked on an even more exciting journey—crafting iconic chairs. We are divided into five teams, each taking on the task of remaking a famous architectural chair from scratch. This year’s lineup is all classics from the Rural Studio Woodshop chair history books. Which is your favorite!?
Frei Edigio Chair by Lina Bo Bardi
Kati Warner, Mcallister Tucker, and Cayden Davis
Luke Bradberry, Bailey Kennedy, and Kylie Kendall
Zig Zag Chair by Gerrit Rietveld
Emma Avery, Shannon Brennan, and Biz Helms
Standard Chair No. 4 by Jean Prouvé
Jack Felder, Tanner Wallace, and Casey Dillard
Stool No. 60 by Alvar Aalto
Caitlin Ranheim, Emma Johnson, and Hannah Weiland
We’re currently wrapping up the mock-up phase, crafting preliminary versions of each chair design. This essential step allows us to address any issues, refine techniques, and fine-tune details before we embark on the final build. It’s a thrilling time as we embrace challenges and ensure our final chairs stay true to their iconic counterparts. Stay tuned for the final products!
On the Road for History
Our history adventure kicks off with a tour of Greek Revival and Federal homes from primarily the 19th century. These historic gems surround us in the Black Belt, offering a glimpse into the past. Guided by professor Dick Hudgens, we explore these homes, examining and documenting their intricate period details and architectural spatial qualities. Sites we have toured so far are…
Glencairn – Greensboro, AL
Magnolia Grove – Greensboro, AL
Bluff Hall & Lyons Hall – Demopolis, AL
Folsom Farm – Marion, AL
Thornhill – Boligee, AL
Gaineswood Hall – Demopolis, AL
But this class is more than just sightseeing, Hudgens challenges us to create quick sketches of these homes, encouraging us to learn by doing. We sketch elevations, plans, details, and sections, making us appreciate and question the architecture in a more hands-on and critical way.
Homework assignments are far from typical. We practice our art and observation skills through small watercolor paintings of landscapes and architectural details. This isn’t just about honing our artistic abilities but connecting with the artistry of the past.
As the semester progresses, our skills culminate in a final, large-scale, watercolor painting. This time, not of historic homes but everyday objects like a carton of eggs or a garden hose in the grass. We’re tasked with turning these items into captivating art, all of this with natural pigments we’ve collected and made throughout the semester!
We’ve just soaked and stapled our large-scale paper for the final project, and our classroom buzzes with excitement. Every student pours their artistic soul into this project, inspired by the historic beauty of Newbern, Alabama.
Good Eats and Birthday Celebrations
Time is moving fast here in Newbern, we’re past mid-semester already! In recent news, Rural Studio’s beloved Chef Catherine has returned! Since then Cat’s cooking has been nothing short of impeccable, in our humble opinion. Some of the 3rd-year’s favorite meals include vegetable soup, BBQ pork, and chicken-fried steak. Her return also means an updated salad bar including bacon bits, hummus, and fresh garden lettuce! You can certainly say the 3rd-year class is excited to have Catherine back.
Our class has also celebrated some very important birthdays in the last couple of weeks. We partied for our clients’—Rosie and Frankie’s—birthdays in style. Rosie’s party included a delicious confetti cake with chocolate frosting after a mini review of the house. For his birthday, Frankie hosted a potluck BBQ with the entire studio for his birthday. The 3rd-year students brought Milo’s sweet tea, burger fixings, wacky chips, bacon green beans, ramen slaw, and Kylie’s Famous Corn Dip. Frankie cooked the burgers, Conecuh sausage, and catfish. Judith brought sweet potato pie, Frankie’s favorite dessert!
All in all the 3rd-years have been living the life here at Rural Studio.
Before we go, get to know us a little more! Here are the studio’s favorite meals that Chef Cat has cooked for us!
Biz Helms: BBQ sandwich
Caitlin Ranheim: Beef tips over rice
Casey Dillard: BBQ pork
Cayden Davis: Spaghetti
Emma Avery: Spaghetti
Emma Johnson: Chicken-fried steak
Hannah Weiland: Vegetable soup
Jack Felder: Mac & cheese and steamed okra
Kati Warner: Vegetable soup
Kylie Kendall: Lasagna
Luke Bradberry: BBQ pork
McAllister Tucker: Vegetable soup
Shannon Brennan: Blackened chicken and candied yams
Tanner Wallace: Squash casserole
We’ll get back to work! Check in soon to hear about our Halloween Review and see our costumes! Until then, thank you for reading!