bathhouse feature

Wood Research Projects

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.

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Morissette House and the organic farm

Rural Studio Farm Projects

Rural Studio is a complex combination of architectural, social, and environmental responsibilities, including designing and building, place and community, creativity and experimentation, culture and education, and service and citizenship. Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in the Rural Studio Farm. When we designed the “Farm,” as it is known, we imagined a holistic system in which eating, building, and living are intended as parallel activities, signaling an intentional shift toward creating a more sustainable food ecosystem and culture. We wanted to challenge ourselves to imagine living off of the land while creatively using it as a precious resource.

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In part, this transformation addresses the Studio’s need for nutritious food that is often unavailable in Hale County’s isolated and economically depressed rural community. Most locally available produce does not originate in the region or in small-scale food systems, and the transportation of food imparts a significant financial and ecological cost. Food quality is poor, and most of it is kept fresh using preservatives and chemicals.

Beyond the practical need to feed our students, faculty, and staff, the Farm’s mission recognizes social and economic challenges in rural communities. Highly processed, starch- and sugar-intensive food contributes to a high risk of obesity. Such chronic health conditions are yet another tragic form of poverty, leading to lower life expectancy and higher health care costs. Moreover, industrially produced food has contributed to the disappearance of southern cuisine, with its emphasis on locally grown produce. Southern cuisine is an important part of southern identity—a reflection of the South’s climate and soil. We believe that those agricultural qualities can be put to use responsibly; we re-envision rural communities as productive rather than as passive “bedroom communities” that are in service to more productive urban areas.

The Farm also places emphasis on the food culture of the Studio and the community we inhabit. By growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating food produced on site, the Studio is able to make better use of its land while testing a local food sourcing system for rural living. Commodities that we are unable to produce, like meat and eggs, are bought from other farmers in our community, giving them support and keeping the supply chain as local as possible.

The Farm’s infrastructure has also served as an educational tool in the students’ design education, as students designed and constructed most elements through multiphase projects. Several of these projects—the passive solar greenhouse, seed house, and water collection system—were cohesively designed as a laboratory to explore passive architecture strategies. Other infrastructure elements, like the storehouse and the kitchen, support the storage and processing of harvested commodities.

Food production on the Farm has become an important cultural element of Rural Studio, with every student assisting in the daily growth and harvesting processes. Students learn to be critical consumers and begin to understand the social, cultural, and environmental implications of sustainable agriculture. 

Everyone’s efforts are then celebrated by eating the harvested food together.

Rural Studio is located in Newbern, Alabama, part of the narrow crescent of land called the Black Belt prairie. The region was so named because of its rich black topsoil that first attracted prospective farmers in the early 1800s. Newbern developed into a cotton economy fueled by slave labor, and because of the unsustainable agricultural practices employed by that model, most of the area’s topsoil has washed away over the years. As a result, the majority of the region’s agriculture today is restricted to certain cash crops that can tolerate the poor soil and that can be grown by farmers wealthy enough to afford the necessary heavy farm machinery. The often overlooked intergenerational legacy of slave agriculture has also had severe social and economic consequences in the Black Belt, as Newbern today is a food desert where access to local high-quality food is limited and obesity and chronic health conditions are commonplace. In response to this, the primary goal for the Farm is to sustainably produce fresh, local organic food by and for our students and staff.

The Farm’s management philosophy is more about farming the soil than the vegetable crops—good healthy soil produces good healthy vegetables. No pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are ever used on the farm, and much of the work is done by hand. All of the production area is no-till, and cover crops are used to build soil and maintain a healthy soil ecosystem. The aim is to have something growing in the beds at all times, which means we can circulate through multiple crops throughout the year. We produce about 25 main crops, ranging from salad greens to watermelons to garlic, from fresh culinary herbs to blackberries. Some crops, like lettuces and tomatoes, are commodities that not everyone has had success growing in our humid subtropical climate. Though small in scale, this intensive model is highly productive, making good use of Rural Studio land while promoting good earth stewardship.

The Farm also enhances students’ design education because they are confronted with the realities of what it means to live in a rural community. Every student at Rural Studio rotates through a work schedule so that they are involved in every aspect of vegetable crop production, from seed-starting to harvesting to washing and processing the crops. The students’ shared work on the Farm fosters a sense of community, and the we celebrate the harvested food at shared meals with all the staff and students.

Read our Rural Studio Farm blog.

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Joanne standing on the porch of her 20K house

20K Projects

Since 1993, we have run a university program that is deeply embedded in its community. This embeddedness has allowed us the opportunity to address some of the many challenges facing rural communities. When Rural Studio first started the 20K research in 2004, we were eager to make our housing work more relevant to the needs of West Alabama as well as the Southeast and possibly the entire country. We wanted to address the critical need for housing that is affordable. We also believed the end product of this work should reflect the mission of Rural Studio—that all people deserve dignified, beautiful design—but also that it should also bring economic value to residents in the form of jobs, equity building homes, and more resilient economies.

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As a Studio, we wanted to be more relevant: Rural Studio is a resource that can be an instigator of housing product development. In the Studio’s history, we had built beautiful one-off, often idiosyncratic homes that were for one family and one family only. That approach seemed a missed opportunity. With so many potential clients—community members and friends who needed shelter—we were already building a house every year. Why not, instead of “reinventing the wheel” every year with one-off houses, challenge ourselves to build on the body of knowledge gained cumulatively with each new home?

Our initial goal was to design a market-rate model home that could be built by a contractor for $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and profit). We arrived at the original $20,000 sum as a target 30-year mortgage ticket because it reflected what a person on social security or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families could comfortably afford to pay each month after other living expenses, which amounted to about $100 per month. It would be the 20K Home (our internal nickname): a house for everybody and everyone.

We have discovered that although we can predict the cost of materials, other factors can change drastically: labor, utility installation, and application for building permission by region, as well as local municipality, community, and even neighborhood values can change drastically. In short, in the long-term, the $20,000 target cost was untenable. Even so, the “20K” nickname, never intended to be a formal label, stuck. Students still aim to keep construction costs as low as possible, but the research shifted to focus on the total cost of homeownership, striking a balance between the initial purchasing cost of the house and the post-occupancy costs of operations and maintenance. Each year, students design and construct a 20K Home that is given to a local resident who needs it. This iterative process really does allow us, with each version, to learn from the last and to build a body of knowledge.

We will continue to develop beautiful, affordable, equity building, energy-efficient homes for our community. Eventually, we will give the public access to the Front Porch Initiative Product Line Homes as well. We hope to cultivate an industry of homebuilding that spurs economic development in rural areas. These goals are being met by the Front Porch Initiative, which is a faculty-driven extension of the 20K Project. Its mission is to develop a scalable, sustainable, and resilient process for delivering homes in underserved rural communities. The Initiative aims to address systemic issues underlying housing affordability and the inventory crisis by replacing existing homes that are substandard with beautiful homes that are safe, secure, healthy, and energy-efficient. Learn more about the Front Porch Initiative.

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Front view of the Perry Lakes Park Bridge

Perry Lakes Park Projects

Perry Lakes Park is part of a 600-acre nature preserve in a swampy bottomland hardwood forest along the Cahaba River. The park, originally constructed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is the only publicly owned recreation space in Perry County, but had been closed for two decades.

In the early 2000s, a group of local leaders—Perry County Judge of Probate Donald Cook, Judson College biology professor Thomas Wilson, Ed Daniels (Mayor of Marion), Albert Turner, and Jonny Flowers (Perry County commissioners)—along with representatives from Alabama Power and the Fisheries and Wildlife Commission applied for and received an RC&D grant to reopen the park. The group approached Rural Studio for help because they wanted a project that could bring attention to the park and its extraordinary natural landscape. Rural Studio eventually designed and built four projects in the Park: a pavilion, restrooms, a covered bridge, and a birding tower. The four-year, four-phase adventure was the first large-scale landscape project for Rural Studio. The phasing allowed gradual development with limited funds with each student team reflecting on and addressing the strategic plan and a single phase of design and construction in each year.

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Entry gate to Lion's Park

Lions Park Projects

Lions Park is a 40-acre park in Greensboro, Alabama, that is jointly owned by Hale County, the City of Greensboro, and the Greensboro Lions Club. The park has always been an actively used resource in the city; however, the local community realized that the park’s configuration was not functioning to its fullest potential. But they did recognize it as an unrequited opportunity and resource. So in 2000, the park’s owners and users established their representative group, the so-called Lions Park Committee, which in turn contacted Rural Studio about undertaking a visioning process. At that time the Studio had no practical experience of multi-phased, large-scale landscape projects, but in 2001 the Perry Lakes Park four-phase landscape project changed the game. So when in 2005 the committee came back to Rural Studio with the desire to creating a new vision for the Park, the challenge was gratefully accepted.

In 2006 the first team established the way for student teams to work on the project. They worked with the community to address an overall strategic plan vision for the Park, and then they tackled one piece of that plan. They started with the main tenant of the Park, the Greensboro Baseball Association, and its ball fields. The plan would help define the geometry and layout of the whole Park for future projects. That first year, five 5th-year students began the design and construction of “Grand Central,” a social hub surrounded by the home plates of the baseball fields that creates a gathering place for parents to socialize while their children play in the surrounding six baseball fields.

Future phases of student teams work tackled building infrastructure, such as a concessions stand, restrooms, and a playground; landscaping; and creating exercise stations, a skatepark, a soccer field, and a Scout Hut. Today the Park’s management, and ownership, has been handed over to the City of Greensboro who, with the help and contacts of Rural Studio, established a Parks & Recreations Board.

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