housing

It really DOES take a village: a systems-based approach to housing access and affordability

Forkland, AL (Photo by Joe Weisbord)

Today’s housing affordability crisis is a slow-motion, multi-generational, public health disaster of our own making. And until we recognize that how folks live today in America is actually the intentional outcome of long-standing intersectional injustice, we never will be able to truly provide equitable, sustainable, healthy, and durable housing access to those in our country that need it most but can afford it the least.

Rural Studio has always been a “Housing and Food First” organization, which means that before we can begin working with our neighbors to address the broader issues faced in our low-wealth community, we must first work together to make sure everyone is decently housed and adequately fed. That said, Rural Studio students have designed and built well over 200 projects for our community, including a lot more than just houses. So why is that if we truly believe in the “housing and food first” approach?

Well, think about the Newbern Firehouse, for example.

Newbern Firehouse (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

While working on developing affordable house prototypes, our students came to realize that one of the significant barriers to affordable homeownership in our community was the lack of adequate fire protection.

“But why is that a problem?” they asked.

Well, because houses were burning down at an inordinate rate.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, that meant that you couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, you can’t secure a mortgage. And of course, as we have come to find, if you can’t secure a mortgage, no amount of work that we might do as architects by “designing the house this way or building it that way” would ever solve this problem; housing access and affordability simply aren’t brick and mortar problems. It is in this way that Rural Studio works with across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the deeply systemic issues faced in our rural communities, and then by bringing together key stakeholder partners across all areas of influence who through collaboration can begin to address these challenges.

Together with our partners, we embrace the idea that the best way to learn how to do something is by actually doing it. Rural Studio is action-oriented, and we get things done.

We have also found that when faced with difficult problems, it is always best to tackle them together. So Rural Studio is extraordinarily team oriented as well. Combining our belief in the importance of action with our penchant for partnerships, Rural Studio acts not just as a research “Think Tank,” but also as a sort of “Do-Tank” as well.

In the coming weeks we will be sharing more about not only what we have learned relative to increasing equitable access to high-performance, healthy housing, but also what we are doing about it as well.

Workshop Season in Newbern

The fall semester is here, which means we have twelve new 5th-year students in Hale County.

We’re excited to share the three new 5th-year projects on the boards: Emergency housing built for a local nonprofit, C.H.O.I.C.E.; a new home exploring attic trusses; and the continuation of the Moundville Archaeological Park Community Pavilion.

As always, the semester kicked off with a week of “Neckdown” projects before leading us into the workshop season and project selection! Starting with a visit from Birmingham’s own, architect, John Forney, we did a deep dive on adaptability by studying the Myers’ Home. Anderson Inge, from the Anderson Inge Building Workshop in London, kept up the momentum when we worked in groups to explore the many possibilities that Moundville’s existing structure might offer: each group developed cladding strategies for the existing trusses using design strategies like framed openings and provocative material scale.

Chicagoan Dan Wheeler, of Wheeler Kearns Architects, led us through a warm and breezy morning of sketching exercises, including a foray into portraiture that taught us we should stick to our day jobs! Cheryl Noel and Ravi Ricker, from Wrap Architecture in Chicago, IL, visited next to pivot us back to all things code. They encouraged us to be mindful of code throughout our design process so that it doesn’t come back to bite us down the road. We also used their visit to demystify stair dimensions, a crucial component of one of our project options. Rounding out the workshops was a visit from Jake LaBarre from Neighborhood Design Build Studio and BuildingWork and Kim Clements and Joe Schneider from JAS Design Build in Seattle, WA, the perfect trio to help us diagram our way through our potential projects.

We ended this workshop season with the daunting, exciting, and mysterious challenge of team selection. After six weeks of workshops and a long night of discussion, we are happy to announce Rural Studio’s three newest teams!

Meet the new 5th-year teams

Emergency shelter in partnership with C.H.O.I.C.E.: AC Priest (Saltillo, MS), Davis Benfer (Jacksonville, FL), Hailey Osborne (Ashburn, VA), Yi Xuan (Raymond) Teo (Singapore)

Moundville Community Pavilion: Brenton Smith (Dothan, AL), Caitlyn Biffle (Rogersville, AL), Jackie Rosborough (IL), Collin Brown (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)

Client home: Adam Davis (Spanish Fort, AL), Daniel Burton (Prattville, AL), Lauren Lovell (Hoover, AL), Laurel Holloway (Huntsville, AL)

Stay tuned to the project blogs to learn more about each project this year!

Pole Barn Research and Review

Hello from the 2020 20K Team!

Based on our design development thus far, we have decided to incorporate a pole barn structure into our 20K Home design this year. In order to learn more about these type of structures and who is already building them in our community, we set off to do more research.

Typically, pole barns in this area are constructed using treated 6×6 wood posts and trusses composed of metal tubes, with either wood or metal purlins. We started talking with local contractors and manufacturers to get a better sense of pricing, construction options, details, and construction timeline.

After talking with Allen (one of the local pole barn contractors) he invited us to shadow him as he put up a 40′ x 120′ pole barn with his crew. On the first day the team installed all of the posts and cast the footings. We also helped them as they prepared for truss installation by establishing a datum to measure from.

On the second day: the team chopped the tops off the posts to level them, bolted the two halves of the truss together, and then raised them up atop the posts. It was helpful for us to observe the process and ask questions of the guys who do this every day. They’ve been an invaluable resource in helping us understand the possibilities and limitations of pole barn construction.

In conjunction with our research, we are continuing to design. We’re focusing on the “L” scheme with porches on two adjacent sides. We’re now diving further into the sectional implications of putting a small house under a big roof. We’re investigating different facade and insulation strategies and diving further into the details.

Devin & Charlie displaying their drawings and truss sample at last Friday’s review

The Plugin House

Wondering why there is a little house sitting under the fabrication pavilion at Morrisette House?

It all goes back to the Loeb Fellowship two years ago when our fearless leader, Andrew Freear, met another Loeb fellow, James Shen, from People’s Architecture Office (PAO). James and his team at PAO have developed the Plugin House, “an easily assembled house made from prefabricated parts. It is a design proposition–suggesting new building technology that considers financial, social, and environmental concerns.” Learn more about the Plugin House here.

So why is the Plugin House is in Newbern, AL? The idea is for PAO to join Rural Studio in exploring ways of reducing housing cost through design innovation. During “neckdown” week, Rural Studio students assembled the Plugin House in only five hours! Now living at Morrisette House, it’s a working prototype that allows PAO to experiment with prefabricated technologies and high speed manual construction. This first exercise is meant to be the beginning of a continuing conversation that will include the dismantling of the Plugin House to be reassembled as an improved version in a different location at the Studio early next year. Before moving to Newbern, this Plugin House was built as a demonstration unit at Harvard University and at Boston City Hall.

Thanks to James and his crew at PAO for this opportunity to learn and work together!

Check out more images of the construction and learn about the project here.