Hale County Alabama is representative of many rural areas of our nation. The county’s population has fallen by fifty percent over the last century, and continues to decline. The tenth poorest county in Alabama has a median family income under $30,000; almost 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet Hale County has something no comparable place can claim: Auburn Rural Studio.
Since 1993, third year architecture students from Auburn University spend one semester living, designing, and building in Hale County; the other semester in Rome or Istanbul. Although they may enjoy their European experience, they revel in grappling with design at its most fundamental level.
“Students don’t come here to change the community. They come to become part of the community.” That is certainly true for Natalie Butts-Ball, who came to Newbern ten years ago as a student, stayed on as an intern, left for a stint in a New Orleans architecture firm, and then returned to Rural Studio with her husband. They are raising their family in a place with a satisfying pace. “In an isolated place, you’re always busy but not too stressed.”
Auburn Rural Studio problems are too modest to even register among the design challenges students encounter in most architecture schools. Instead of designing a community center, school, museum, or entire neighborhood as I presumptuously did in school, students at Auburn Rural Studio tackle simple projects in great depth.
The 20K project began in 2005: design and build a house that can be built on virtually any site for $20,000, materials and labor. To date, twenty different prototypes have been deigned, seventeen built. This year’s fifth year capstone students are designing iteration 21. Several students will remain beyond graduation to build the house that will, most likely, replace one local family’s trailer. The level of concern they invest in an 800 square foot, two-bedroom house that’s inexpensive to build, cheap to operate, handicapped adaptable, and functional, is impressive.
20K houses have evolved from trailer-proportioned tiny houses to high-concept volumes of questionable functionality to livable places that embody satisfying architecture. Carly, one of the students, said, “When you build a tiny house you radicalize the way people have to live. People don’t want that.”
“There are other design-build programs, but we are the largest in terms of scale and number of projects.” In addition to the 20K project, another group of students is renovating a former medical office / town hall in Faunsdale as a community center. Meanwhile, this semester’s third year students just completed framing a house for a local resident. They will install the roof joists before semester’s end, then fly off to Europe. In February, students returning from Rome will complete the finish work. After studying the Pantheon and the Coliseum, they will try their hand at siding.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Funny to think how your answer changes over time. I thought one way as a student. Now, as a parent, my thoughts are different. And our politics are so divisive. Post election, there’s a lot of wounds to be healed on both sides; it doesn’t seem to be going away.
“I hope we spend the future taking care of each other and the world we live in.”