Since day one, the Rural Studio methodology has been driven by project-based student research. The projects are rigorous because of the laser-like focused time the students are afforded on projects while at Rural Studio.
In the mid-2000s, permanent university funding assured the longevity of Rural Studio. The Rural Studio faculty and staff realized that we were here to stay, but such permanence also includes a responsibility to be a voice for neglected rural design issues. The focus became long-term planning and solutions: we started to question what we should do rather than what we can do.
Students are temporary residents of Hale County, spending somewhere between four months and two-and-a-half years working on projects. Student life is transient and episodic; the longer-term dots have to be joined by the faculty and staff who are here permanently. So, we ask students to leave the place just a little bit better than they found it and to think about the long-term impacts of their projects. As a result, students’ explorations have become the catalyst for several large-scale projects at Rural Studio. Two examples are the 20K Project and the Rural Studio Farm. These projects question how we live, build, produce food, and consume energy in rural communities, while tackling the big issues facing these regions and investigating what it means to create sustainable rural communities.
We ask students to leave the place just a little bit better than they found it and to think about the long-term impact of their projects.
Throughout its history, Rural Studio has always been small enough, independent enough, and nimble enough to respond to both local and global contemporary challenges. When the Studio started, the global challenge was recycling/reusing; we reframed it from object recycling to individual-building recycling/reusing. We recognized that residents of rural areas value the slow pace of change, and we honor the collective memory embodied by their buildings. Today we are hurtling toward a climate crisis, and in rural areas, the future is up for grabs. Changing weather patterns make agriculture an unpredictable industry, manufacturing jobs are leaving, and most of the educated work force is now located in urban areas. The big picture of Rural Studio research is not just creating one-off structures or examining how to make Hale County meet contemporary challenges. We serve as a catalyst for change in the urban-rural dynamic.
Most dialogue in the media—and among many policy makers—focuses on the high cost of housing in urban areas, dismissing or ignoring the needs of rural communities. The biased conversation sees the need to sustain the urban at the cost of rural communities. Rural Studio believes that such conversations should be about the symbiotic relationship between the urban and the rural. Rural Studio is an important voice in these discussions because of its roots in Hale County and its history of sustainable, hopefully positive change in rural communities. We are at the forefront of an emerging discussion about how these places will exist in the future, and through our research, we are determined to be agents for critical dialogue and positive change toward a sustainable and ethical future.
Front Porch Initiative
The 20K Project is an ongoing student-led, iterative research program at Rural Studio to develop beautiful, affordable, well-designed, and energy-efficient homes. This research has led to the launch of the Front Porch Initiative, which is a faculty-driven expansion of the 20K Project. Its goal is to develop a scalable, sustainable, and resilient process for delivering these homes in under-resourced rural communities. The Initiative aims to address systemic issues underlying the housing affordability and inventory crisis by replacing the existing stock of substandard residences with beautiful homes that are safe, secure, healthy, and energy-efficient.
Rural Studio is collaborating with an array of national and federal organizations, such as Fannie Mae and USDA, to investigate a holistic approach to housing affordability. Our collaboration addresses the systemic issues and financial impact of energy performance, resilience, health outcomes, and local workforce development.
Rural Studio Farm
The Rural Studio Farm began in 2010 on our campus at Morrisette House; the objective is to live more responsibly in our rural setting by understanding and using the land and facilities to best effect. We believe that with thoughtful design, we can use these resources to increase our own food and energy production, thereby decreasing our reliance on outside food and energy. This process also requires a holistic approach, one that cultivates the land, optimizes local agriculture, and leverages Rural Studio’s resources. We view the Rural Studio Farm not as as a single working machine—but as a network of co-dependent systems.
The Rural Studio Farm has already led to smaller offshoot faculty/staff-led research initiatives based on the interest generated by the Farm. The Greensboro Farmers Market mobile stall and alternative versions for Jones Valley Teaching Farm are classic examples of a student-led initiative that takes on a life of its own through faculty/staff efforts. These projects have added benefits. They facilitate the weekly delivery of fresh food to underserved communities that can purchase seasonal organic food with food stamps. At the same time, they give local farmers the opportunity to build a network and to bring additional income to their families during the summer months.