March 26, 2009

Think You Can Build a Hip, Modern, Functional and Fabulous House with $20K? The Rural Studio Can, and Does, in Some of Alabama’s Poorest Counties.

This is the sort of minimalist, modern entryway I expect to see featured in Dwell Magazine, usually attached to a home owned by a bohemian-hipster graphic designer couple in Marin County, California or in the suburbs of Seattle. But this subtle piece of design work actually finds its home in rural Alabama, where it is part of a home that cost roughly $20,000 to build (including all materials and labor), and is now owned by a low-income resident who qualified for a federally-funded loan. The home is a product of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—a community outreach program fueled by a collection of talented and experimental architecture students.

Central to the Rural Studio’s mission is the creation of social and design solutions from within the communities that most need them, rather than a top-down, outside-in approach. Students live in the neighborhoods where their projects are located, getting to know the neighbors and thereby discovering needs that they may otherwise have overlooked. In addition to aesthetics, the Studio also prioritizes energy efficiency and durability, saving future owners from excessive maintenance and utility bills. Teams of 3-5 students—a combo of grads, undergrads and apprentices—work on a number of public projects throughout the year, while one team remains devoted to improving and expanding the ever-evolving $20K project. The result: a collection of sophisticated, functional public and private spaces serving some of rural Alabama’s poorest counties.

The Rural Studio was founded in 1991 by Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, along with his friend and Auburn University professor D.K .Ruth. Mockbee was guided by the conviction that “Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor … not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul,” and saw no reason for low-income and public housing projects to be strictly utilitarian in design, devoid of personality.

Today, the studio is run by Andrew Freear, who is making sure to keep the department’s ethics and aesthetics alive. “I love and respect greatly the fact that Sambo thought going to school was not only about yourself, but about making the world a better place,” he has said. “It sounds a bit romantic, but if architects cannot make the world a better place, there are not many people who are better positioned to do that.”

Video tour of Humane Society Animal Shelter designed by the Rural Studio:

Video tour of a 32K duplex (upgraded version of the 20K house):

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