Daniel Splaingard is currently an architect at Farr Associates in Chicago and recently completed a three-year Rose Fellowship at Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. This essay was adapted from a PechaKucha presentation given January 2014.

My story starts with a Toro lawnmower. In Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a Toro lawnmower could make an entrepreneurial young man into a businessman. My brother sold me his share of D+D Lawncare for $20. Fast-forward a few years, and as an undeclared freshman at the University of Missouri scanning the course catalogue, I stumbled onto Intro to Landscape Design and thought maybe I could break into new markets, expand the business. The course was really “Design 101,” and the teacher emphasized craftsmanship—a term I’d never heard. For my final project I made a hand-cut pantone reproduction of Chuck Close’s self-portrait, and the satisfaction I felt exceeded any previous accomplishment.

Being in school was, for me, a default setting, and I decided to take some time off to explore a while. I dropped out, moved in with my brother in Oxford, Mississippi, and began looking for work. I didn’t find any at first, so I began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. At Habitat, I met Macel, a woman of small stature but grand presence who generously introduced me to the world of construction. In the immortal words of M. Ward, “The hardest thing in the world to do is to find somebody who believes in you,” and Macel gave me a shot. I discovered the joy of building and decided to study architecture. Auburn University was the closest school to accept me, so I made the move to Alabama. After a sleepless summer of X-Acto blade scars, lettering exercises, and heavy overuse of the Rhino Loft Tool, I heard rumors of a program called the Rural Studio. There you got to build things and live in the country. I signed up.

Things started off on a good foot. No formal syllabus, no threats about attendance. Our “teacher,” Jay Sanders, talked about going on a journey together, learning how to think and draw and build a home for a guy named Music Man, whose trailer had burned down. The learning was immersive: lectures, dinners, costumes, strange visitors, and lots of hanging out around bonfires. It was part summer camp, part study abroad, and part Peace Corps. We all took the same classes, though we hardly thought of them as classes—they were just parts of our day. There was a high value placed on sketchbooks, on drawing as a way to learn and communicate. For me, my sketchbook became a way of engaging with the world.

A hand-drawn map by the author shows the geographic reach of Auburn University’s Rural Studio program in Hale County, AL.

A hand-drawn map by the author shows the geographic reach of Auburn University’s Rural Studio program in Hale County, AL.

We quickly realized that if 15 of us were going to build one house, it was going to take a lot of compromise. None of us knew what we were doing. Step by step, we learned what we needed to know. Pine versus cedar versus treated wood. Creosote, vapor barriers, pier foundations, sonotubes, bobcats, and backhoes. We pooled ideas and picked them apart. Often I’d stay late to sweep up and hang out with Music Man. He shared what little he had, and we’d jam out on the boom box. He still is one of the most fun and grateful people I’ve ever met. A few years ago, I visited him shortly after a tornado had passed directly over his new house. He said he’d lain praying in the doorway and came out unscathed. Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Music Man was a miracle man.

A few years later, after some time in Mexico, I was invited to return to the Rural Studio as a thesis student. While looking for housing, a local woman offered me a shotgun house next to hers in return for a small rent that supported her Safe House Black History Museum. My new address was 518 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. I realized I knew next to nothing about Dr. King. As she shared her stories of working for civil rights, I started to read about the movement, and then about Gandhi, about the synergies in nonviolent revolutions, and I started to see more acutely the lines that continue to divide our communities.

And then, in a small way, we got to do something about it. The Lions Park project represented a real homegrown attempt to bridge a community. In a town of 2,000 that still bears distinct lines of who lives where, the 40-acre Lions Park was the people’s park, a mixing bowl. With a $100,000 grant from the Major League Baseball Players Fund and a loyal committee of leaders that brought long-term vision to our boatloads of ideas and energy, we leveraged every resource we could. We tested design ideas and hired local catfish-pond builders to grade the dense clay. We built sculptural backstops prototyped on the pipe-bender at the muffler shop down the road. By the end, some called it beautiful while others opined that it “looked like it got hit by a tornado.” I learned you can’t please everyone.

After Lions Park, I became part of the Rural Studio staff. I got to work with the next generation of students and also had more free time to experiment with songwriting, tanning leather, recycling my own aluminum, making shoes, running for public office, and baking bread. A fox got the hide and I lost the election by a wide margin, but the bread was delicious and I’m still singing. The work that began at Lions Park continues eight years later and includes a skate park, exercise trails, a concessions stand, and the wildest playground you’ve ever seen.

The other day I was watching BBC Earth, and they were talking about places deep in the ocean where the water is just warm enough for plants to survive, and then the plankton can grow, and then fish, and in the middle of nowhere there is this incredible biodiversity. These places come and go, but they are incredibly rich communities. I believe that the Rural Studio is such a place. If you haven’t been there, I think you should go, and if you do, take your sketchbook because the world needs more of that kind of mojo.