Many architecture students enter their university programs seeking to change the skylines of the world with the next generation of iconic buildings. Others work to ensure that every human being is simply able to inhabit a dignified dwelling. The students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in west-central Alabama fall squarely into the latter group. Here, in the town of Newbern—population 186 at last count—a spirited architectural experiment has unfolded over the past two decades, running contrary to the profit-oriented stream of the profession and enabling one of the most disadvantaged populations in the country to achieve that perennial American dream: owning their own home.
Eclectic and decidedly DIY, Rural Studio has earned itself a reputation for showing up to help wherever it is needed—building private residences, parks, community centers, churches, greenhouses, and bathhouses over the years—while always being mindful that its participants and instructors will inevitably be perceived as outsiders. Its 20K House project has become its flagship program, encapsulating the ethics of community service, rigorous design development, and architecture-as-activism that have defined the studio since its inception. The challenge proposed by the 20K House project is to design homes that are so affordable that a person on government assistance could qualify for a mortgage to buy one. A $20,000 mortgage equates to payments of $100 per month—comparable to the cost of financing a low-end mobile home. The budget must cover materials, labor, and contractor profit, injecting a powerful pairing of austerity and creativity into the design process.
Rural Studio has historically limited its work to a 25-mile radius of Newbern, in Hale County, an area littered with dilapidated trailers and the social, political, and economic maladies they represent. Here, one in four residents qualifies for welfare programs. Founded in 1993 by native Mississippian Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and his Auburn colleague D.K. Ruth to defuse the entrenched poverty trap in the area through socially responsive design—and as a real world architecture boot camp for students—the region has been a fertile landscape for the studio’s work.
But as Rural Studio enters its third decade, it does so with an evolutionary wrinkle in its original mission. “We realized that there was an opportunity to help a broader audience,” says Andrew Freear, the studio’s current director (Mockbee and Ruth passed away in 2001 and 2009, respectively). Freear has catalyzed a transition from building one “charity” home with students each year to developing a product line based on the 20K concept. He and his team are currently in the pre-launch phase, working out the kinks of a version of the 20K house that could be built by any contractor anywhere that an affordable and architecturally sound housing type could be of use. Hale County may be one of the poorest census tracts in the nation, but it’s certainly not the only place lacking an alternative to mobile homes, and Freear believes that scaling up the idea has the potential to fulfill a sorely vacant niche in the national housing market. “We may or may not be the only folks out there that could do this, but there’s almost a kind of moral responsibility to do it,” Freear says. “If we’re not going to, who is?”
Driving into Newbern on County Road 61 past the pine plantations, cattle farms, catfish ponds, and abandoned fields—some half-covered in kudzu, others long ago claimed as unofficial graveyards for defunct agricultural equipment—there’s a feeling of entering a place forgotten by progress. It is an invisible realm in many respects, far off the interstate and barely making a blip on the radar of our increasingly urban-oriented society. The town, in the heart of what used to be known as Alabama’s Black Belt—so called because of the dark, rich soil that supported cotton’s 100-year reign in the agricultural economy—consists of a handful of tin-roofed antebellum homes with white picket fences and close-cropped crabgrass turf, churches clad in whitewashed wood siding, and a few modern, but modest, ranch homes.
A half dozen weary, patched-up structures comprise downtown Newbern, their boarded-over front doors set back only inches from the county right-of-way. Just one of them, Newbern General Mercantile, shows any sign of life. Here, you can buy gas, a catfish sandwich, cigarettes, and sundry household items. Next door is the post office, now open only four hours a day, yet its flag is always raised.
Across the street from the post office are two civic structures that will stop passersby in their tracks. The volunteer fire station looks like a modernist hybrid of a greenhouse and an art gallery, and Newbern’s town hall looks like a ranger station that would be more at home in the Adirondacks. The largest building in downtown Newbern, however, looks right at home in the rural Alabama landscape, clad in a patchwork of rust-red tin with a sagging second-floor porch, but despite appearances, it is ground zero for the design happening here.
Inside, sweating in the August heat, a new crop of Auburn students hover around drafting tables, plotting the future of affordable housing and ecological design. The ramshackle structure, known as the Red Barn, serves as the workshop where Rural Studio’s built projects (150 plus to date) are worked out on the drawing board before students are armed with nail guns and concrete mixers to go build them. “They’re getting an incredible education, but at the end of the day, it’s beaten into them to be humble,” Freear says. “They’re in a position of tremendous privilege in a place that doesn’t have money.”
This year, fifth-year thesis students are designing the 17th incarnation of the 20K house for a local family, one of only a few two-bedroom models the studio has attempted. “In the early days, Rural Studio was known to make some pretty idiosyncratic architecture,” says Natalie Butts from the studio’s administrative headquarters a half-mile down the road, where she wears several hats managing communications and the 20K House project. One early prototype had both a tin roof and tin exterior. The materials were cheap, but the clients complained they felt like they were living in a barn. Other early structures repurposed square showroom carpet tiles or bales of cardboard rerouted from the regional recycling center for walls—both had excellent insulation value but lacked any form of wall-covering to mask their ungainly appearance. “We’ve become better listeners,” Butts says. Just as the students mature in their time at Rural Studio, so has the program in its 20 years grown to occupy a more comfortable position in the community.
To complement the mix of unconventional eco-modernist styles developed in the Mockbee era, local antebellum homes also provide design inspiration, a point that Freear is quick to instill in students that arrive ready to reinvent the wheel. “The students crawl underneath them and look at how they’re built,” Freear says. “Why have they been there for 150 years? Why were they comfortable to live in pre-air-conditioning?”
The late 19th and early 20th century vernacular styles of the Deep South—such as the dogtrot house, with a screened-in breezeway bisecting its midsection, and the shotgun house, with its own remarkably simple approach to cross-ventilation—have also been primary study subjects in developing new modes of architecture to address the age-old challenge of building inexpensive, yet comfortable, homes that respond to both the culture and landscape of the region. “All we did in looking at the 20K House is say, ‘How can we do that at a smaller scale?” Freear says. “How can we take those lessons?’”
Team members behind a 20K House look beyond construction costs to ensure that the home is also affordable to live in and easy to maintain. Repairing a carpet tile wall, for example, could be daunting for homeowners compared to a structure that is made from conventional materials available at the nearest hardware store. And while environmental ethics are integral to the studio’s purpose, Butts emphasizes that their brand of sustainability comes with a lowercase ‘s’. “We look at what worked when there weren’t modern HVAC systems in homes,” Butts says. “It’s sort of like operating a ship; you have to maneuver to open a window and get the right breeze.”
Understandably, Southerners have welcomed the age of air-conditioning with open arms, living in a place where near-100-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures and near-100-percent humidity are ubiquitous from May to September. The relief provided by artificially cooled air, however, spelled the end of vernacular approaches to passive cooling. Rural Studio is unabashedly seeking to change this. Most of the thousands of design hours involved in each 20K House are aimed at finessing the taut lines between human comfort and energy efficiency, constructability, aesthetics, and affordability. Freear forces iteration after iteration to weigh the pros and cons of every possible design alternative, vetting each idea by the observations made on visits to previous 20K homes.
“We watch how people live in them,” Freear says. “Where do they put stuff? Did they put the refrigerator where we expected them to? Did they put the dining room table near the window so it bounces light into the space? We spend hours figuring out where to put the great American refrigerator so that big-ass refrigerator can bounce light into a kitchen off its face. Those things are ugly so you’ve got to try and do something with them that’s positive.”
So, after all its attempts to upcycle locally available materials, incorporate sustainably manufactured products, and co-opt alternative building techniques from other contexts—such as straw bale and rammed earth—most of the studio’s design decisions for energy efficiency and resource conservation in its 20K homes trickle back to the basics: 2-by-6 studs to allow for extra insulation; steep, pitched roofs with extended overhangs to block the summer sun; screened-in porches to cool the air before it enters the home; and high ceilings with double-hung windows to let hot air rise out of the living space. Students analyze optimal nail patterns to build roomier structures with fewer materials and diagram the construction sequence to account for every 2-by-4 measured and every cut made, reducing the time—and thus the cost—of labor required to build each house.
These details might be considered immaterial in most architecture programs, but they teach skills that are invaluable in the profession, no matter the context. From pouring the foundation to framing walls and finishing the interior, students build every inch of what they design, giving an immediate and implacable response to the feasibility of their ideas. By the end of the design-build process, students are masters of the art of value engineering—not the dumbing-down that too often occurs between an architect’s inspiration and what is actually built, but more as a Tai Chi of doing better with less.
In commercializing the 20K House, Freear sees potential for the program as an economic engine. Despite a desperate need for housing among the rural poor, the flow of capital is often too weak for conventional home-financing tools to work. Yet there are usually willing hands with basic construction skills, so Freear theorizes that a 20K House “product line” could enable a modest construction boom in the region, resulting in sturdy, dignified homes for some and employment opportunities for others. He acknowledges, however, that the process still needs refinement in order to be feasible within the context of the local labor pool and inexpensive, locally available materials. “If you try to replicate these things on a large scale in a factory, you defeat the object of a site-built house where the money goes back into the local economy,” Freear says. “And the pride of seeing a home come out of the ground.”
There are many examples of low-cost modular homes, but not for as little as $20,000, and they’re often made in far-off factories with synthetic materials sourced from around the globe; little wealth is transferred locally with these or with trailers. Plus, industry claims concerning the safety of either housing type during tornado season—as well as everyday safety in light of the off-gassing from interior components—are considered by most to be more than a little dubious.
Yet there is another, deeper fault in the concept of trailers as homes. As assets, they have more in common with cars than they do with houses. Their worth depreciates over time, eventually leaving their owners with a dinosaur that costs hundreds of dollars to haul to the junkyard, rather than the lifetime of equity embodied in a real home, which becomes an asset that outlives its owner and is passed on to the next generation. Permanent houses, if cared for, typically appreciate in value over time, providing the proverbial bootstrap to the beneficiaries of the 20K program. “Several of the homes that we’ve built for $20,000 were immediately valued for $50,000,” Freear says.
Of the studio’s plan to productize the 20K House, Freear says, “We’re talking with some nonprofit housing advocates and different community groups about trying it. Groups for the disabled, for battered women, for AIDS patients—they need this kind of housing, housing that looks like a home.” The question now is how to make the transition from a student-based project to a commercially viable one. As one point of departure, Landon Bone Baker Architects, named Firm of the Year in 2014 by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has been reviewing the plans for three of the top 20K designs to provide feedback on their market-worthiness and to create industry-standard design documents.
Although the labor costs needed to construct each home are estimated with conservative caution, Freear is concerned that contractors will be stymied by some of the less conventional features, driving up labor costs as they scratch their heads over the unfamiliar plans and fail to get the homes up in the three-week time period that has become the studio’s standard criteria for meeting the 20K budget. To serve as a test run before releasing the plans to other contractors, Seattle-based JAS Design Build will soon head to Newbern to build one of the three prototypes at a site just down the road from the Rural Studio headquarters alongside the two that students have already built. These will then serve as floor models for prospective buyers and builders to tour before choosing a plan.
“We want to make sure that the folks that really need them have access,” Butts says, “though frankly, these houses are for everyone.” The studio’s hope is that the efficiency, affordability, and unique design of the 20K homes will appeal not just to charitable organizations, but to those wanting to build a lakeside retreat or a backyard mother-in-law suite.
One remaining challenge, however, is to make sure that the 20K House concept holds water with financial institutions. The homes may cost only $20,000, but if financing is not available, they will still be out of reach for those that need them most. “Very few banks are interested in giving people a $20,000 mortgage, especially those whose credit ratings are so poor,” Freear says. “It costs them the same amount to write a mortgage for $20,000 as for $100,000. It’s not really our area of expertise, but down the road, that’s what we need to look at.”
Bobby Calhoun, Sylvia Coats, Michele Bolden, Idella and Jessie Haywood. There is a mix of pride and empathy in Freear’s voice as he lists the names of some of the recent recipients of the 20K homes and tells the stories of their hardship. He speaks kindly of Leah Avery, who recently took over running the general store from G.B. Woods, who ran it for the last 39 years, keeping the town’s main venue for social interaction alive. Then there’s Gwen Melton, the mail carrier who knows everyone in Hale County. Freear says Melton has come to him often over the years with the names of people she knows are disabled or struggling in some way, local residents who could use a lift in their lives. Many are living alone, with little opportunity to do more than survive. “The poverty that I found down here almost looked like the ghettoes of Soweto, with people living on dirt floors,” Freear says.
Every time a match for the 20K program is identified, bright-eyed students pour in to talk to the future homeowner about his or her needs and then, usually within a few months, return to build it. A dozen years after his death, these students continue to realize the dream of Sambo Mockbee, the studio’s enigmatic, outspoken founder, who insisted that “everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”
Mockbee, a fifth-generation southerner, was a rare individual whom his peers remember as equally comfortable hamming it up with a local catfish farmer as discussing contemporary design theory over wine and cheese at an art opening in SoHo. Freear, on the other hand, is British, and his wife, Elena Barthel, also an instructor in the program, is Italian. It seems like a strange meeting of worlds on the surface: Europeans in the Deep South pushing contemporary design along the red-clay roads of Alabama. But in his second decade of living and working in Hale County, Freear is becoming a local, one of the pillars among the 186. He serves on Newbern’s volunteer fire brigade and is a fixture at community events. His story, like that of Rural Studio, shows how time, gentle persistence, and hard work can take the trendy ideas of “local and sustainable” and help create an equitable place that people of all backgrounds can be proud to call home.