Andrew Freear and Rusty Smith, Rural Studio: The Challenges of Sustainable Rural Living

The architects and educators speak about their design and teaching work in rural Alabama.

September 13, 2022

Current Work is a lecture series featuring leading figures in the worlds of architecture, urbanism, design, and art.

In this transcript of their 2022 Current Work lectureAndrew Freear and Rusty Smith describe the history and ethos of Rural Studio, which has produced more than 200 houses and civic, recreation, and healthcare facilities around Hale County, Alabama.

The lecture was introduced by Rosalie Genevro, executive director of The Architectural League of New York, and followed by a conversation and Q&A moderated by Julie Eizenberg, founding principal of the Santa Monica–based firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture.

Koning Eizenberg has been recognized, most recently, by the Australia Institute of Architects Gold Medal and an Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for work focused primarily, in the firm’s words, on the “design of housing and neighborhood places that strengthen community.”

*

Rosalie Genevro: (3:12) The Rural Studio story began in 1993, when architect Sam Mockbee and his friend DK Ruth created the new design–build program affiliated with Auburn University. The new program was in Newbern, Alabama, where architecture students would live for a period of time to help provide desperately needed housing and learn by making.

The more recent era of Rural Studio began in late 2001, when Andrew Freear assumed leadership at the program after Sam Mockbee’s way-too-early death. Andrew had only moved to Newbern about a year before, after teaching for a year at Auburn. His path to get there was not a straight line. It went from Leicester Polytechnic and the Polytechnic of Central London, where he studied architecture, through a year of working in SOM in Chicago, and then to the Architectural Association in London, then back to Chicago to work and teach. He heard a lecture by Sam Mockbee at the Graham Foundation—lectures can change your life. And that was that.

During the Freear years, Rural Studio’s work has expanded into partnerships with a wide variety of local institutions and groups. And the built work includes civic buildings and parks, structures and buildings for health care, as well as housing. I think we’ll hear tonight how each project is studied and informs the next to build not just useful and beautiful specific buildings, but a methodology and an ethos that is both profoundly place-based and has myriad lessons for other places.

Rusty Smith’s path to Rural Studio, where he is associate director, didn’t take all those twists and turns. In fact, it started with his design education at Auburn University, followed by a master of fine arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with work for several architecture firms threaded in between, and always teaching at Auburn. Rusty now leads the studio’s Front Porch Initiative, which has extrapolated and honed lessons learned in the studio’s work to address broader systemic and structural questions around housing affordability, energy efficiency, material selection, and construction technology.

Simply put, Andrew Freear and Rusty Smith are extremely important leaders in thinking about the rural landscape and rural habitation, and about the meaning and making of housing in general.

Following their presentation tonight, they’ll be joined by another formidable thinker about, and creator of, affordable housing and inspiring places: Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architects of Los Angeles. Julie and her partner, Hank Koning, have been going to Rural Studio to participate in reviews, talk about completed projects, and generally hang out for about 20 years. Julie will talk with Andrew and Rusty about their work, and then we’ll moderate questions from the audience. Please use the Q&A function on your Zoom screen to ask your questions.

So, Andrew and Rusty, over to you.

Andrew Freear: (6:26) Thank you. Thank you for the introduction, Rosalie. It’s really an honor to be here. I hope everybody can hear me. Thank you so much to the League, and to Rosalie. I think yours is one of the greatest organizations of its kind in the world, not just because she gave me a fancy medal, and also to Anne, and The Cooper Union for hosting this, and this opportunity. To Julie for the bravery in moderating this silliness.

I have to say I’m a little bit nervous. I’m honored and I’m humbled to speak on behalf of hundreds of students and amazingly committed faculty and staff, donors, consultants, visiting critics, the university and college, and of course, most importantly, the folks of Hale County, where we’ve made our home. They’ve taken us in and accepted us, warts and all. So I’m really honored and humbled to be here. It really does take a village, or in this case a county.

We come to you today from Newbern, a town of 178 people in West Alabama. To give you all a quick geography lesson, we’re at the southwest tail of the Appalachian Mountain range, situated in the region known as the Black Belt, named originally for its beautiful, fertile black soil. We’re in the heart of the Civil Rights triangle of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, and we live with that history every day. We live, and our program is based, three hours west of the Auburn University campus.

A quick shout out for the rural. There is a common misconception that rural is broken or dying. But the rural population has actually remained relatively stable for the last 110 years, at about 60 million people, which is about the size of Italy.

Our home of Hale County is considered to be consistently impoverished, a USDA designation which means that 20 percent or more of residents of a given county have lived persistently in poverty for 30 years or more. In many of these counties, when you look at populations, subsets, of these residents like children, the elderly, and people of color, these poverty rates can jump to well above 60 and 70 percent. Nationally, of the 380 or so persistently impoverished counties in the US, over 85 percent of these are rural. While these counties are culturally, geographically, and geologically very distinct from one another, they’re all historically landscapes of extraction, where material resources like oil, coal, iron, minerals, and, in our case, cotton, have been taken out of the ground, through uncompensated human labor, with no resources put back. Shockingly, in our neighboring Perry County, where Coretta Scott King was born, the childhood poverty rate is above 70 percent.

On top of that, this is a screenshot showing details of my expensive single-source satellite internet service, which most folks around here can’t afford. And it proudly states that my service is 1,141 percent slower than the national average. I ask you, how can we aspire to an equal, connected society if 60 million rural Americans can’t connect to it? These are vibrant places to live. The greatest desire is to have access to resources that you all have in cities.

Rural Studio is an undergraduate program at the School of Architecture, and we’ve been here in Hale County for 28 years. We’ve become a neighbor, and through that have built some trust. And we’re seen as a resource.

We have three groups of students, third-year and fifth-year students and a small cohort of graduate students. All the work that you’ll see in Hale County tonight is designed and built by folks aged between the ages of 18 and 23. All built off soft money. There’s no state money funding this; it’s all built off soft money and gifts.

Our program is a design–build program where we’ve decided to learn by doing and learn together in teams. Our design studio’s in downtown Newbern, next to two of the fragile institutions: the Mercantile and post office. Our design studio, the Red Barn, is a great example of environmental understanding: In winter you put your clothes on, and in summer you take your clothes off.

Faculty, staff, and students work together on projects. We’re all part of the team. You have to love the work. It’s deliberately based in the heart of downtown to engage local folks in community activities and not be an ivory tower. We have an annual Halloween review where we all dress up and talk about serious architecture projects, in this case dressed as toilets. Point being we take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The work is supported by incredible professional consultants and a revolving door of visiting critics, famous ones like Pritzker award-winner Glenn Murcutt and rock stars like Julie Eizenberg and a grumpy fellow, Hank.

The other two fragile institutions in downtown are the post office and Newbern Mercantile. The post office has been reduced to four inconvenient hours a day, probably to hasten its closure, and the Mercantile is the nearest place to buy gasoline and Colt 45 for 10 miles. GB Woods, who owned the store for 39 years and 10 months, retired, and we thought the place would die. But thankfully, a young couple bought it and rejuvenated the place with an excellent and popular lunchtime menu.

It’s a fragile landscape. We live in Tornado Alley. Making a living is tough. Many folks commute 40 to 100 miles to work in service-sector jobs. Others work the land. Farmers diversify in beef or crops like soybean. And we’re also one of the largest producers of catfish in the United States. The Black Belt soil that gave the name of the place its name has been depleted and eroded. What is left is expansive clay, which, while terrible to build on, is great for catfish ponds: you supersaturate the soil with water and it self-seals.

Historically, it’s a place of great financial and cultural wealth, from houses to farm vernacular, of course often funded through dubious circumstances. There’s lots to learn from these wooden buildings in environmental practice and durability.

Our work is in a 25-mile radius across four counties. We started under the social services radar in forgotten communities, building single-family charity homes. They were often quite idiosyncratic. The first one, of course, is our best. The straw-bale house for Shepard and Alberta Bryant has a great southern porch and wagon-wheel extrusions for the extended family to sleep over. A house made of papercrete walls for Christine and her family. A carpet house of 70,000 hand-stacked carpet tiles for Lucy Harris and her family has a tornado shelter as well. And a number of homes like Rose Lee’s with scavenged and recycled materials and hand-milled timber from local woodlands.

At the end of the 1990s we started to be asked to do small community projects, pavilions, and chapels. This one was made of Chevrolet Caprice windows, sitting on a frame atop a rammed-earth base and supported with locally built glulam beams. Another one was the Yancy Tire Chapel, where we used 900 tires, filled them with rammed earth, covered them with pink concrete, and topped it with a structure and roof from an old barn.

These projects started to roll into larger one-off community projects where we were recycling buildings that normally would have been demolished. The collective memory of buildings is very important in a rural place. This was an old school had been damaged by arson and we turned it into new teaching resource center for the county. And leftover space at Hale County Hospital was turned into a lush garden. Two abandoned storefronts in Akron became a senior center. The storefront in Greensboro became a new headquarters for a local not-for-profit. Here, a historic primitive Black Baptist church could not be saved. We reused 75 percent of materials from the original building for the new structure and interior.

Around 2004, 2005, we had solid university support. We realized we were here to stay, and asked the question, “What can we do in this context with a longer-term view? And what should we do?” So we started to support local institutions’ long-term ambitions in health and welfare, democracy, and education.

In downtown Newbern, we supported three new institutions. We worked with this organization, the first public building in Newbern for 110 years. A new organization and building was needed because the response time to house fires from local fire departments was very slow. Houses were burning. It started raising insurance rates, even making insurance inaccessible. If you hit people in the pocket, you get action. We got grants for the fire trucks, and the prerequisite of the building was to make sure the fire trucks did not freeze, because they carry water to the fire.

Then we worked with the mayor on a new town hall on the same piece of property, creating a new civic center for Newbern. Town Hall didn’t have a permanent home. Built out of eight-inch by eight-inch solid cypress logs, the building has a weight and gravitas, with no thin layers. You can see the thickness of the wall at the openings. Doors hang on the inside to enter and windows are mounted on the outside to prevent them from being crushed when the walls naturally shrink in height. The council chambers sits right on Main Street so folks can see when democracy is in action.

The final piece in downtown Newbern was a conversion of a bank abandoned in the 1930s. I was dogged by these lovely ladies till we finally took the project and converted it to a new public library with a big reading room, nooks for children’s study, a garden room for the reading group, and a courtyard made of bricks from the old bank vault. It has brought broadband internet to Newbern, and some fantastic new programs to the community.

Perry Lakes Park helped us realize we could take on much larger projects in small pieces. Here we established a strategic plan for 900 acres of Perry County’s only outdoor recreational space. We started with a pavilion. Then these folks designed three restrooms, the most remarkable pooping experiences in the United States of America: A tall toilet, a mound toilet, and a long toilet. This is a view from sitting in the tall toilet. This is the long toilet. This is where you can sit and talk to a tree. This is the mound toilet. This is where out of the horizontal sod you can sit and take potshots at deer as they run through the fire lane.

The park needed a bridge to access the eastern oxbow lakes. We built three triangular section trusses. The center section is supported by the outer sections. Sketches taken to shop drawings. The trusses were fabricated in a nearby parking lot, then they were put on a trailer axle, and then run down to the site, literally. CraneWorks donated a crane for the day that dropped the outer two trusses into place. And thankfully, the last central section fit into place. The structure made the roof and was covered and protected. You can also fish there.

The bridge takes you to the best part of the park, where the community wanted a 100-foot birding tower to get above the tree canopy. After trying to imagine how to build so high out of wood, a visiting critic suggested getting a decommissioned fire tower. Within one week, the students had got one donated.

For me that was an “Oh, shit!” moment. As an instructor, could we allow them to work so high in the air? Our answer was to get them certified as tower erectors and deconstructors. They trained on the structure and bravely took it down, piece by piece. They then took it all to be regalvanized and rebuilt it in Perry Lakes Park on UNINTELLIGIBLE. So today this is where it sits, complete with accessible boardwalk over the ecotone and spectacular views at the top across Cypress and Tupelo swamps.

At Lions Park, we took on a disheveled 40-acre public park in Greensboro in ten phases over ten years. An extraordinarily committed and ambitious Lions Park committee proposed an alternative development model using an adaptable strategic plan that we could implement incrementally. This meant we didn’t have to have all the answers or all the dollars all at once at the beginning.

We started with the infrastructure, gates, and drainage, ground surfaces, and services. And then the main park tenant, six ball fields. We built backstops and bleachers, restrooms flushed with water captured off the only building on this site, toilets built of tilt-up concrete, a concession stand that opens and closes like a mouth. And 3,000 barrels with 18,000 welds produced a remarkable adventure playground where the kids literally go nuts.

A skatepark that we never envisaged at the beginning of the strategic plan. Five years in, Tony Hawk offered $30,000 to plan a skatepark. We actually built the whole thing for $30,000.

Similarly, we improvised when the local scouts needed a new home and were able to build it in the park and use thinnings from the forest to ballast the beautiful truss roof.

We’ve also supported extraordinary local figures like Theresa Burroughs, who hid Dr. King from the Ku Klux Klan one fateful night two weeks before he was assassinated. She established a museum in the early ’90s highlighting that night and celebrating foot soldiers of the rural Civil Rights movement. The building on the left was her family home that hid King. The one on the right was donated by the community. We renovated the two buildings and were asked to make a self-guided exhibit as the founders of the museum began to age. We tore off the back, extended one of the houses to make an exhibition space for traveling exhibitions, to encourage folks to return to the museum, and connected the two buildings so they could have one entrance and be run by one person. We exposed the gorgeous original interior finishes, made a community room, a main gallery with self-guided didactic panels. And seen here is the temporary exhibition space. And the ribbon-cutting with Theresa and the foot soldiers was an incredibly moving occasion.

And cheers to the police chief in Greensboro, who ramrodded through a new Boys & Girls Club to protect kids with new after-school programs. These four built a building out of OSB and sticks half the length of a football field. Simultaneously, they helped the community raise $160,000 in materials donations to help kids not get in trouble after school.

And so to today, an ongoing Rural Studio project: We established our own Rural Studio farm as a response to the food desert we found ourselves in. People drive ten miles to the Pig for prepackaged processed food. The industrialization of food and farming has changed the face of our small communities. They’ve become suburban.

This is a McDonald’s Happy Meal that we kept for three years at the Rural Studio. After three years, it looked the same, smelled the same, and nothing wanted to eat it.

So all this clearly has huge health and wellness consequences. We critiqued our own lifestyle and decided to act. We established a strategic plan for all our properties and designed a farm plan for the main campus. Now I’m proud to say that today, every student at Rural Studio works in the farm, seeding, planting, harvesting, and ultimately eating together. A cultural act with a desire to help the students become more educated consumers of food. We’re now row-cropping and produced 6,000 pounds of vegetables last year. We built a greenhouse to extend the growing season, and you’ll recognize I used two barrels from Lions Park playground. The biggest immediate impact was Greensboro asked us to design and build a place for local farmers to sell their vegetables. We designed and built these farms stands, which are moved slowly down the road, as you can see from my high-tech video here, down in Hale County, thereby creating a local food market.

So to finish this section, back to housing. In 2004, we started to question the idea of just of doing just one-off single-family homes. It felt as if we had the opportunity, and even moral responsibility, to try to establish a body of knowledge and prototypes to contribute to the need for rural housing and make them affordable. When I arrived in Hale County in the late ’90s, there was still mud floors and shacks. A few years later, rural housing had started to become trailer homes. And we asked ourselves if we could come up with a more sustainable alternative.

We suggested $20,000, because in 2004, we felt that people on the smallest of incomes could afford $100 a month towards rent. If you put that towards a mortgage, it equated to $20,000 on a 30-year note. 20K became the Rural Studio nickname for the project. It also proposed a local economy of designing and building homes built in the community by the community for the community. So money and jobs stay local. Conceptual impact could be substantial.

Houses ended up being very vernacular in typology. Not for design reasons, but simply driven by material efficiency. First was Dave’s Home, a shotgun. All houses had porches, high ceilings, and good cross-ventilation. How to make good design out of very little? Max’s was a modified dogtrot, entering in the center. Day and night spaces were separated by the kitchen. Here’s Max sitting in his kitchen. Joanne’s tested the premise that a square perimeter instead of a rectangular perimeter gave you the greatest square footage. It proved correct, and the plan is extremely efficient. Here’s the view from Joanne’s living room 10 to 12 years in. We had looked at one and two bedrooms.

Then we actually got stuck as architects and academics. We were going around in circles and only getting anecdotal local feedback. Fannie Mae came in search of model homes for their mortgages, and we couldn’t quite believe that they were looking for help from an undergraduate architecture program in West Alabama. So to our absolute delight, we got external sponsorship, and the thing has taken off, which Rusty will tell you about right now.

Rusty Smith: (27:25) Sorry about that. Hi, everyone. And like Andrew said, really, we thank you all for being here.

So, as you’ve heard Andrew talk about so far, Rural Studio has always been a housing- and food-first organization, which really means that before we can begin to address the broader issues faced in our low-wealth communities, we must first make sure that everyone is decently housed and adequately fed. As Andrew has also shared all together, as shown in this image, Rural Studio students have designed and built well over 200 projects for our community, including more than just houses.

But why do we do that if we truly believe in this housing-first approach? Well, remember that fire station that Andrew just showed you a moment ago? While working to develop affordable housing prototypes, the students came to realize that one of the significant barriers to affordable homeownership in our community was the lack of adequate fire protection. Why was that a problem? Well, because houses were burning down at an inordinate rate. And why was that a problem? Well, that meant you couldn’t afford homeowners insurance. And why was that a problem? Well, if you can’t get homeowners insurance, you can’t secure a mortgage. And of course, as you all know, 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.

It’s in this way that Rural Studio works across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the deeply systemic issues facing our rural communities, and then by bringing together stakeholder partners across all areas of influence, who, through collaboration, can begin to address these challenges and trust.

These issues are deeply systemic. And this may look like a natural disaster, but I can assure you it’s not. This is simply springtime in Forkland, Alabama. Now of course, this is representative of a slow-motion, multigenerational public health disaster of our own making. And to recognize that how folks live today in America is actually the intentional outcome of longstanding and intersectional injustice will never 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.

So as Andrew shared, part of our ongoing research on the ground at Rural Studio is to better understand the barriers to equitable housing access in our community, and Rural Studio’s students have designed and built numerous affordable housing prototypes over the years. The following are just a few of the critical lessons we’ve learned along the way. First and foremost, it’s essential that housing be designed to be durable, buildable, weatherproof, and secure. But this is just a minimum of requirements. We also believe that successful housing designs should be aspirational as well. Housing should directly express a sense of presence and dignity for the homeowner. It should intentionally foster a sense of community engagement in its design. And housing should actively contribute to the health and well-being of those that live in the homes, as well as those that build the homes. And it should provide opportunities to both age in place with dignity, as well as shelter in place and safety. And finally, even though our houses are intended for local people and built with local materials and with local labor and know-how, above all else, they must be well crafted.

So now we’ll take just a few minutes to give you a brief introduction to Rural Studio’s housing affordability technical assistance program that we do call the Front Porch Initiative. This initiative seeks to extend the impact of our applied research relative to housing access and affordability. As such, we offer housing products and technical assistance to external housing providers currently working to deliver homes in their own, often under-resourced communities. In our own service area, as Andrew has shared, Rural Studio works in a sort of a mutual-aid model, where our students design, build, and ultimately provide houses to homeowners that under no circumstance could provide a home for themselves via more traditional means. In return acting as real-life clients, the homeowners play an invaluable role in our students’ architectural education. And from this, the Front Porch Initiative simply takes the knowledge and products we have developed through this work in West Alabama. We share it with housing providers outside our own service area so they in turn can provide the same energy-efficient, resilient, and healthy homes to their clients of need, and through their own procurement models.

We currently have five product-line houses, each named after the first client to own each of the prototypical homes. Each of the one- and two-bedroom homes are small, but they’re not tiny. They are designed to be as efficient and durable as they can be, meet all conventional code and lending requirements, be titled as real property, and lived in normally. Here we have Dave’s House, MacArthur’s House, Joanne’s House, Sylvia’s House, and Buster’s House.

In the Front Porch Initiative technical assistance program, we share our knowledge on what to build relative to codes, universal design standards, lending insurance requirements, and the like. And we also share our know-how, or we show what to build, through a comprehensive set of construction documents and specifications for each of the houses.

We’re currently working with a network of field test partners throughout the Southeast. And here’s one of the early examples of homes built in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.

Through these partnerships, we have learned a number of things. First, it’s not only important to show what to build—we now know we have to show how to build it, and even more importantly, why it’s built that way. So we’re all familiar with the IKEA model: We’re provided with a catalogue of materials, a funny little tool, and a really clear and comprehensive set of step-by-step instructions through which we can all become relatively competent furniture builders. With our builder partners, we provide the same kind of instructional documents for the house. We know every single detail about how the house is assembled, and we know every single thing about the construction sequence. From this, we’re able to provide a set of instructional documents that walk them step by step through both the hows and whys of the construction of each home. And our work understanding why we build a home in a certain way is key to addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. And while it’s certainly important to ask, what does a house cost to build?, it’s perhaps more useful to consider what a house actually affords? In other words, what impact might we have on affordability if we could begin to consider the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation?

And more directly, we found that our homeowners are not primarily challenged because they can’t afford their mortgage. Instead, they’re more often at risk of losing their home because of one or more the four following circumstances. First, they may have an unexpected energy bill. In our part of the world, our homeowners may have an energy bill of $35 to $45 a month in April and May and an energy bill of $350 to $400 in January and February. The second thing that happens is they may have an unexpected maintenance or repair bill. We live in an area of highly volatile climactic activity. Maintenance and repair due to storm-related events and the long-term displacement it often causes plays a significant role in the financial security of our homeowners. Third, our homeowners might have an unexpected healthcare event in their lives—and of course, that’s become particularly exacerbated during the pandemic. And the fourth area of influence on our homeowners’ financial well-being is that our homeowners rely predominantly on part-time work, shift work, and seasonal work to make ends meet, and additionally live in complex kinship networks in which everything is shared, from housing, transportation, and income to food, eldercare, and childcare. Any disruption in these community networks can be disastrous for generations of a family.

So in addition to managing the upfront costs of construction of the home, it’s even more important and impactful to understand how the actual performance of the home and the four key areas of energy efficiency; durability and resilience; health and wellbeing; and the strengthening of community networks all contribute in profound ways to financial and economic security.

So working with our builder partners and homeowners, the Front Porch Initiative provides the information, knowledge, and know-how around each of these instrumental areas to help them make informed decisions regarding both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of building performance, all of which allows a clear decision tree that considers both the cost and value of action, as well as the hidden cost of inaction.

And here you see five variations of Joanne’s Home built in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. One of the important aspects of this iterative research is our ability to build multiple versions of each of the homes in various climactic conditions and with different performance objectives, as necessitated by our housing partner’s particular circumstance. Taken together, these homes become sort of test-and-learn laboratories. And this iterative process of evaluating both the cost and value of building performance criteria lends itself to highly customizable processes and yields a wide variety of housing options and variations. So each house we build offers the opportunity to study different issues of efficiency, resilience, wellness, and community-building.

One of our most important research question focuses on finding the balance point between the front-end construction cost of improved performance and the back-end performance consequences in each of these areas. Working with our housing partners, we use our homes to explore the pluses and the minuses of different building standards and their delivery.

In this case, for example, we used these two houses to better understand the intersection between energy efficiency and resilience. The houses are built right next door to each other in the same orientation, and they’re both versions of Buster’s House. Both houses were built to the FORTIFIED Gold resilience standard. But while the house on the right was constructed to the Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready standard, the house on the left was built to the more rigorous Passive House standard.

With these houses, we’ve refined a multistep process to ensure the houses as designed meet their performance targets during construction, to help our builder partners determine the performance standards, financial performance, and house variations that best suit their particular homeowners’ needs. We first worked to develop detailed comparative energy models have multiple options and scenarios, and while the house is under construction, we test it at various points along the way. To ensure that the house is meeting or exceeding the expectations predicted by the computational models and project completion, we work closely with third-party evaluators to certify the performance of each house. And then we perform ongoing post-occupancy energy monitoring, which allows us to track energy consumption and evaluate it relative to the predicted energy use. As we collect and analyze this data, we can both construct better and better predictive models as well as help our housing partners make better and better decisions about both the upfront costs of construction, as well as the collateral total costs of homeownership.

So as an academic institution, the method and mission of Rural Studio involves the activities of teaching, research, and outreach. This provides us with a unique opportunity to engage with partners across local, regional, and national scales. The relationship between Rural Studio and our external partners is one of reciprocal knowledge-building and information sharing. The job, the object of the house, is a vessel not only to understand how the design of the home can affect its performance, but also to explore how the procurement of that home affects land tenure and use, zoning, lending, insurance and more.

The alliances developed between the Front Porch Initiative and our regional housing partners and our housing policy stakeholders are very strategic. These relationships are based on both application and implementation. And through this variety of partnerships, we examine the universal and the particular: which opportunities and challenges are relatable across varying geographies and which elements are specific per location, community, and context. So we’re currently partnering with housing providers located throughout the southeastern United States.

Thanks to our research sponsors, there’s not a charge to partners for our services. But we do ask them to communicate and share information with us through the home development process. Our goal is to continue to refine our products and communication tools such that we can offer this research to a wider and wider network of housing partners as we continue to work on into the future.

So I’ll finish up today by sharing a little bit of progress and learning with three of our housing partners. First, Affordable Housing Resources in Nashville, Tennessee; second, with Eastern Eight CDC in Johnson City, Tennessee; and lastly, with Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity in Marianna, Florida.

In Nashville we have four recently completed one-bedroom homes with Eddie Latimer, who’s the CEO of Affordable Housing Resources. These homes utilize a detached duplex zoning, which allowed us to build four homes with four separate real property homeowners on just two small, narrow urban lots. The homes are arranged in such a way as to provide front yards, off-street parking, and shared common courtyard space, as you see here. In this project, we worked from the beginning to the end with the contractor, Barbara Harper, who is the owner of Honeybee Builders, on all the technical aspects.

The home performance is just one example of how we worked with Barbara. We utilized that initial blower door test in the project not as a test of performance, as we usually would, but rather simply as a tool to help her quantitatively understand the importance of doing things right, and to communicate with her subcontractors early in the construction process of what doing things right really means. By engaging the contractor directly with the energy consultant and HERS rater and evaluating building performance in several key moments during construction, we’re able to just about meet 2018 energy code expectations, following, utilizing 2012 energy code requirements for construction.

And this was an important learning opportunity for everyone involved, as the impact of doing things right, or otherwise focusing on construction means and methods, and not just on the utilization of advanced materials and assemblies. This is key to increasing building performance without increasing construction cost.

So earlier this summer, we also broke ground on the first of what we hope will be many houses with Sherry Trent at Eastern Aid CDC in Johnson City, Tennessee. For us, this is also an innovative and exciting partnership, as Eastern Eight is utilizing a HUD Community Development Block Grant to develop a series of demonstration model homes that will allow the community to see in real life what a well-designed small and efficient home might have to offer. Eastern Eight is currently building the first model home based on the Sylvia’s House product line offering, and while Eastern Eight doesn’t currently have plans for one- and two-bedroom homes, Sherry believes this model home will attract more interested residents to pursue small unit offerings.

And here you see an aerial view of the house under construction in the middle. Utilizing what we refer to as a two-bar scheme, Sylvia’s House fits well on a narrow infill lot that might otherwise be unbuildable under contemporary zoning, lot size, and setback requirements. And as you can see here, even on a tight lot, Sylvia’s House fits well within the existing neighborhood fabric and still offers generous space between the neighbors, along with great views and easy access to both the front and back yards.

Finally, in Marianna, Florida, we’re continuing this type of technical assistance and learning and have four infill houses under construction with Carmen Smith, who’s the executive director of Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity. Like many nonprofit housing providers, Chipola Habitat had held many nonconforming parcels in their portfolio for years. These lots don’t meet minimum lot width and lot area requirements. While homeownership has long been a tool for wealth building, in historically Black areas of town, where land parcels are often smaller, exclusionary zoning has worked successfully to devalue these individual small lots and stifled new development. However, due to their longstanding relationship with the City, Chipola Habitat was able to secure a zoning variance for development. This project demonstrates how such lots can be successfully utilized without the necessity of rezoning or combining of lots.

And after Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle in 2018, coastal areas recovered fairly quickly. But further inland, where Marianna is located, recovery has provided proven to be more challenging. Three years on, blue tarps still cover roofs of underinsured and uninsured properties. Michael damaged 70 to 75 percent of all the residential structures in Marianna, which further depleted an already scarce housing inventory. Since the hurricane, Chipola Habitat has rehoused 20 families and assisted 50 more with recovery efforts.

Prompted by a significant demand for construction jobs and the recognition that many recovery crews were nonlocal, the state of Florida recently began to aggressively fund much-needed construction workforce development programs, and in the fall of 2020, Chipola College launched a Building Construction Technology program aimed at providing advanced training to students and preparing them for employment in their in the construction industry. And this timing really could not have been better. Like Habitat affiliates all over the country, the pandemic had interrupted the volunteer base for Chipola Habitat. And as a new program, Chipola College had limited funding for construction materials. And this collaboration students provided much-needed onsite labor for Chipola Habitat. And in turn, they reap the benefits of hands-on experience and service learning while logging fieldwork hours, which counts towards their construction certifications.

In addition to getting clock-hour coursework in the field instead of the lab, Chipola College students are also gaining experience in the means and methods of constructing energy-efficient, resilient, high-performance homes, all while serving their community and increasing housing inventory. But beyond providing recovery from the last hurricane, more importantly, an educated local workforce is key to the community’s disaster-preparedness plan. The workforce will be in place when the next weather event occurs. And building more resilient construction now can reduce risk of future damage. In this way, this partnership seeks to foster resilient communities by increasing equitable and affordable access to housing, which leads to greater community stability.

So this project is, of course, really important to us, because we’ve been able to bring together a partnership between the community’s need for affordable, efficient, and resilient housing, along with the workforce to provide it.

But as we said in the beginning, these issues are extraordinarily complex, and they are systemic. So it needs to be noted that all of these projects actually require a wide variety of partnerships operating together across a whole system of housing procurement.

And to really finish up, I’ll leave you with this. In every challenge, there lies opportunity—these opportunities are often just really well hidden. But we do find these opportunities in each and every individual project that we work on. And we find these opportunities in each and every place that we work. And we find these opportunities at each and every partnership. And ultimately, working together in partnership in a partnership network of one, we become better and better and better prepared to see these opportunities that are hidden all around us.

And just to say it one more time—and I’ll read this directly, because it’s really important: The challenges of equitable and affordable access will not be addressed through bricks and mortar alone. These are complex, systems-based problems. And until we recognize that current conditions are actually an intentional outcome of policies and programs, we’ll never be able to truly address these challenges. As designers, the built environment is our tool for making these invisible systems visible. It’s this platform upon which we our partners and our communities can all work together to imagine alternative potential futures. So thank you.

And now to finish up, Andrew is going to return us back to Hale County, where he’ll give us a little peek at the most current, hot-off-the-press work going on on the ground in West Alabama.

So Andrew, bring us home.

Freear: (48:30) Thank you, Rusty. So back on the ground in Hale County, we continue our mission to more broadly support health and wellness. We recently completed these supportive housing units for Horseshoe Farm, a local mental health care provider. This is Rural Studio’s first foray into multiunit housing. The units are for women in the community that have found themselves homeless due to mental illness or disability. This is a long-term but not permanent housing for singles, with the goal of helping them to learn, or relearn, how to live in their own home.

For the same organization, at their headquarters, we renovated this semi-abandoned space into a shaded multipurpose outdoor garden room that has allowed the organization to run public programs even during the pandemic. The palette is straightforward: a simple galvanized steel frame structure that holds recycled plastic rope, encouraging Carolina and confederate jasmine to make vertical screen enclosures, adding a lower ceiling of crape myrtles for summer shade. The surfaces are a black slate and recycled brick from the original building.

Based on our own observations and the Front Porch feedback loop, we’ve also started to actively critique and remake our own housing models, concerned that they didn’t offer enough adaptability or flexibility for long-term living. Rural housing is not like urban housing, where you buy a home to sell in the process of wealth creation. Here, folks may spend a lifetime in these homes and likely become multi-generational. So how can they adapt, expand, and be flexible? We observed local examples like Miss Patrick’s. Her home started out 70 years ago as a single room, expanded and adapted over the years. The problems arise when adding additional roofs and foundations that will inevitably move independently and become weak points. These weak points can lead to leaks and ultimately catastrophic failure. So at Reggie’s Home, we challenged ourselves to give the homeowner a big infrastructural roof and slab. And when the when time and finances are right, he could expand into it. It starts out with a small studio unit, but the roof could accommodate up to five bedrooms. So we built the infrastructure of a big slab and a post-frame roof, or what is locally called a pole barn. And Reggie got a small studio unit and a storage space underneath it. The units don’t touch the roof or the columns to protect the infrastructure and hopefully send a message to the homeowner about how to expand in the future. But Reggie loves outdoor living and the luxury of the big covered space. I actually doubt he will build anytime soon.

We also began to look at internal adaptability and flexibility at the whole house level. In the Myers multigenerational family home, we let everything be up for grabs around a fixed core of bathroom and kitchen. The ground floor could be three bedrooms or zero bedrooms. Two front doors also offer the possibility of a granny annex. Using an attic truss, the homeowner gets an extra 400 square feet of real estate for the cost of a staircase. The attic, similar to a Sears Roebuck kit house, is left unfinished, but can offer two more bedrooms. Externally, this house is a tightly detailed zipped protected saltbox. No eaves, so as not to expose the structure. We’ve also got a little tired of dealing with fussy soffit details and the associated mildew that soffits seem to encourage. The porch is additive and self-supporting so as not to undermine the main house structure. Internally, removable walls are indicated by painted plywood, and the core is robustly clad in painted yellow pine.

To finish, I’m going to show you our most recent research. We had grown really frustrated at the number of layers we were starting to install on our houses, all with unknown sources, and each solving a single problem. The mantra seemed to be, “Just add another layer,” or “Go around the house yet again.” And that seemed to be driven by big business, and perhaps our own guilt that somehow we weren’t doing quite enough. We like the term cluster duct or layer cake. Anyway, long story short, we bumped into three brilliant minds: Salmaan Craig, Keil Moe, and David Kennedy, all who were frustrated at the layer cake. So we decided that McGill University and Auburn Rural Studio should play together. Kiel wanted us to look more closely at the embodied energy and carbon footprints in our projects. David bought expertise in mass timber, and Sal, with a background in building physics and biomimetics, suggested a bunch of tabletop model material ventilation experiments that he wanted to scale up. We thought there’d be an ideal dialogue and science-based counterpoint to our current practices and how we were building in the studio. We hooked the research into the new Rural Studio two-year grad program, and to partner with McGill also meant the experiments could potentially take place in parallel in very different climate zones.

In the first project, Sal challenged us to look at the design of mass trim panels as heat exchangers. The big picture was not only to be able to build with more mass timber products to help decarbonize the construction industry, but also the potential to eliminate insulation while simplifying HVAC systems. Sal had done a desktop experiment and already published a peer-reviewed paper with Jon Grinham on the subject. The basic premise is that if you have a heat source in a space that instigates buoyancy ventilation and hot air rising, if you have apertures up in the roof and low down in the wall, the hot air rises, escapes, and is replaced lower down by cool air from the outside. We align that with the simple fact that heat will be lost through absolutely any wall. So to take advantage of these phenomena, Sal proposed to capture that heat loss with channels of external air that are appropriately positioned and sized to capture that heat loss through the wall as the cool air is drawn in through the channels. The optimal Goldilocks scenario is illustrated in the center illustration. It’s a balancing act of size of hole, thickness of wall, and position of the holes and their tributary area. Doesn’t work if, for example, a wall is too thick and the channel diameters too small. Increased friction means reduced air loss, airflow, and inefficient heat transfer.

To drive this buoyancy ventilation machine, you can use any kind of heat source in the space. In our test condition, we built a thermally active electrical surface mounted to the wall to enable it to exactly quantify the heat supply and to be precise about its physical relationship to the timber wall. With the goal of scaling up the experiment to building scale, we strategized a series of intermediary test steps, and the students worked on two tracks, one testing at small scale, the other the design track, for testing at building scale. In the test track, we started by replicating the original test boxes to confirm the science and, at the same time, work to understand the thermal conductivity of the local yellow pine we intended to use. Oddly, we found despite the proliferation of, and importance of, Southern yellow pine in the construction industry, there was actually very little scientific publication or information on its thermal capabilities.

First, we tested the premise without using buoyancy ventilation, instead using a blower door fan to be able to precisely control the airflow, and applied sensors to the timber test panels. Once proven, we moved into the chimney condition and tested it with buoyancy ventilation. Then we scaled up to a panel of thickness that we anticipated for our larger-scale build and did a large, human-scale, fully insulated test cell with a scaled-up breathing wall that would help us tune the system prior to the full-scale building. That allowed us to validate ventilation levels and heat recovery.

In the design track, the student team proposed building two side-by-side comparison test pods on our property that down the road will be inhabited by students. One is a simple timber test building, the other with removable walls to test different breathing wall configurations. The pods were lifted off the ground for access to all sides, with the thought that down the road we may need to add exterior insulation. The team evolved an architectural language for the parts of the building that were not part of the science experiment. This included a big metal umbrella roof to ensure full and equal shade, and rain protection and metal entry walkways and building penetrations. They tested different ways of lamination to ensure tightness. Full spreader plates and threaded rod proved the most successful. They also tested constructibility, with vertical and horizontal laminations. Of course, stacking, gravity, and self-weight one the day.

So here are the pods today, ready for testing. The full-scale breathing walls will come in the future. A peer-reviewed paper was published on the subject, a first for Rural Studio and the collaboration, and one of our graduate team started a PhD with McGill to continue this specific work.

The last adventure I’ll show you today, and then I’ll shut up, is a thermal mass and buoyancy ventilation research project that aims to validate scaling rules of thermal mass design while showing that wood can perform as well as more traditional thermal mass materials. Who would have thought it? When properly validated, the scaling rules may provide a powerful shortcut for thermal mass design in climate-resilient buildings.

The mathematical scaling rules are inspired by new research into termite mounds and the way their mounds use internal thermal mass for temperature regulation as well as ventilation. During the day, the heat from the interior is transferred to the thermal mass, cooling the air and causing the air to fall. At night, the thermal mass, warm throughout the day, transfers heat back to the interior air, which then rises, creating buoyancy ventilation convection cycles. These temperature cycles can be predicted and designed with an app developed and published by Sal and the McGill research team. The app allows you to manipulate the proportions of a thermal mass in building with inputs of height of the space, desired ventilation rate, temperature damping, and internal heat load. The app gives ranges for the size of thermal mass with thickness and surface area to meet the desired performance parameters. Any material can be put into the app as long as you have the specific heat capacity and thermal conductivity. The mathematical scaling rules optimize thermal mass thickness and the surface area, using material property data to target a free-running temperature and buoyancy ventilation rate. The app was used to design in small test box experiments with the goal of validating the scaling rules, while also comparing two thermal mass materials, wood and concrete. Like the termite mounds, the test boxes use thermal mass to synchronize natural thermal storage and convection cycles. Data from the test boxes was recorded and analyzed and gave really positive results. The temperature swing in the test boxes was more regular than the outside air, and ventilation has been produced in both the updraft and downdraft condition. Both the wood and concrete test boxes produced at a temperature damping of close to 80 percent, which equates to around a seven-degree temperature change. The design buoyancy ventilation was .05 liters per second. Because of the difference in thermal properties, the wood test box produced slightly less ventilation, whereas the concrete perform closer to expected. So with a slight increase in surface area, wood would achieve the same ventilation rate.

These small-scale test box experiments validated the scaling rules, and now two larger, inhabitable structures have been built to test performance of building scale. These will provide spaces for testing and living, as well as demonstrating the effects of buoyancy ventilation in the cooling porch below. And here they are, the two pods, hot off the press, just completed, one testing thin concrete panels, the other testing wood as internal thermal masses. This is the cooling porch where in the cooling season, visitors will be able to have a visceral experience of the cool air generated by the pods as it drops down through the chimneys into the space below. These are the thin precast panels being made and being installed. And this is a famous architect who was caught stealing our ideas.

So to close, working with McGill has been an extraordinary learning curve, a shock to our system. The scientific rigor has changed the game and brought a new discourse to the studio. It’s challenged us to think about how to review and critique the work, to reflect on the way we do the work, how to learn from it, and how to measure the things we have made. It’s made me believe that architects need to take a position and not be passive consumers—to dare to be producers and contributors of knowledge, to the global discourse.

And now I’ll will shut up. Thank you. Julie, come and help us please.

Julie Eizenberg: (1:02:55) I thought it was I thought it was going to be my job to shut you up. I’m glad you did it on your own.

So as Rosalie mentioned, I’ve been to this Rural Studio often. And what is wonderful about going there is the rigor of the thinking for the smallest things. And you saw that today in what’s been presented. And I have the honor of sort of fielding the questions.

So my first thing for people online is to take whatever questions you had in your chat, if you did put them there by mistake and put them into the other little box. It’s much tidier. It’s called Q&A. And if you’ve got new questions, add it to them.

But because of my privilege of being on this panel, I get to ask some questions first. And the one that has always fascinated me has been the trajectory from the craft and idiosyncratic to the systems in the lane. and there seems to be something about the beauty of the architecture that’s in the lane and I just wanted and it’s not exactly the question I let you practice the other day. But could you answer where the studio is going in terms of where they see beauty and where that forms an aspiration that you think has legs?

Freear: You gonna answer that, or am I answering that, Rusty?

Eizenberg: No, no, you are!

Smith: Yeah, she asked you!

Freear: Ah, shit. Well, I hope our buildings start to look in some respects . . . and how the how the way they perform is illustrated and how they look. So you know, when we went back, when we started with the 20k, why did those houses end up looking like vernacular forms? Well, it was the kind of the material that was available. So what sort of delights me about the last two pieces that I showed, the thermal mass buoyancy ventilation project, is that that’s all about trying to understand how to move air through the space, and the kinds of dimensions of the materials on the wall that you needed to make that space comfortable. So I think for me, you know, that it’s always, you know, the conversation about beauty is always difficult, right? And Samuel Mockbee, would always, you know, put his hand and say, make this beautiful. So I think it is, it is important for us to dare to talk about beauty and how you . . . and you know, what is beauty?

I’m now going around in circles. Rusty, help me please.

Eizenberg: Wait, before you send it to Rusty. I think the tricky here is that part of what’s been compelling about watching the Rural Studio is not just that it’s doing good, but it’s doing good so elegantly, and that the forms are compelling. And, you know, because there’s, there’s lots of good work being done around the country, and you want to applaud it all. But there’s something unique at play. And that’s what I keep niggling you about this.

Freear: I may just be way too into the weeds, but it’s interesting, we really, very rarely talk about how things look. So our every convers . . .  you know, we, the way we talk about projects here every day is the work is pinned up on the wall, and we examine it. And it’s really important, you know, we’re going to build it at the end of the day, so can we build it? And I think that that’s a big part of the, the richness of the work, I think is that all of that matters, right?

When we get the students together at the beginning of the year, they meet all of our different consultants. And from day one, they’re talking to an engineer. So they’re not using an engineers as a kind of, you know, a fireman at certain point down the road. They understand it as a collaborative practice, and that it actually all matters, and that it’s really complicated.

And I think, you know, honestly, we just keep coming back and asking questions and trying to figure out what the right questions are to ask until we exhaust ourselves. And I always say that we’re like dogs with a bone—you know, you just don’t let go of it until it’s actually in the ground.

Eizenberg: I agree, from what I’ve seen.

Freear: There’s no magic there. I think it’s just being persistent. Persistence.

And I think also, the studio doesn’t . . .  you know, you’ve got a beautiful collection of books behind you. We actually don’t have a library out here. But we’ve got a library of buildings that we go, and actually can be pretty brutal to ourselves about what we did, and learn from it. And everybody out here wants to do better than the last one. We don’t want to make the same mistakes. And our work is in a 25-mile radius. And that’s both a huge privilege and an incredible opportunity for an architect and a teacher to go say, “Go look at that. What do we do well, what do we do badly?” And you know, locally, if we do okay, we don’t hear about it. If we screw up—my goodness, we hear about it, right? And that . . . it’s something’s at stake. And that’s a that’s a big frickin’ deal.

You know, you’re . . . everybody wants to figure out what the right the appropriate thing to do is, and that’s tough. And it’s—I find that process wonderfully rigorous, honestly. I mean, it’s an incredible teaching situation to be in.

Eizenberg: And we were talking the other day about the contribution of the students back because . . . they because they’re not working from habit. They’re looking at things from first principles, That adds to it. You want to?

Freear: Well, I mean, it’s exhausting every August having somebody coming in and asking the same question, again, or challenging. It’s actually . . . You always are reassessing what you’ve done and why you’ve done it. And it’s a kind of wonderfully critical cycle.

The only problem is, they all stay the same age, and I just get fucking older, you know.

Eizenberg: So you’ll have to work on that. So Rusty, if we go the other direction, when you’re taking out the lessons, you know, the purest lessons from the Rural Studio, not adding any moral judgment on that, what architects think is beautiful, and then it gets into the hands of people who are working in completely different marketplaces and taste, sensibilities. You want to talk a little bit about what it means to go back the other way and allow people to have freedom with what you’ve made?

Smith: Oh, that’s a great question, Julie. Yeah, we really have talked a lot about that and have struggled with that over the years. And, you know, we, working with the university, when we first sort of proposed to kind of take these learnings and pass them out, the university did what any good university will do: They wanted to first figure out how they could protect it and monetize it, right? And our goal was to kind of give it away for free, of course, to anybody that it might be useful. And so, you know, even we were like, “Well, how will people know if it’s a Rural Studio house? And how can we control how the house is built?” And these sorts of things. And we were really timid at the beginning. We got really locked up in some early years around the that control issue.

But then we had the first partner. And they built houses that looked exactly like what they were supposed to look like, they worked really hard to make sure they looked like what they were supposed to look like. But they were nothing like what they were supposed to be like.

It was a sort of an extraordinary lesson in kind of, you know, the relationship, that I guess we always realized, between architects and builders, you know, how we’re sort of bifurcated in some way. And so we really began to understand how important it was, as I talked about, to talk about why it’s designed to be built a certain way, and how to build it that way. Which meant we had to be really knowledgeable around not just the whys, but also the hows.

And so working with every housing partner, they always ask, you know, “Can we do this? Can we do that?” And, “This is what we do, and this is what’s normal and traditional in our community.” And, you know, sometimes it’s even, you know, “Can we attach a whole bunch of doilies and all kinds of things to the house?” And we’ve learned to say, “Well, sure, you can. But let’s talk about what we’re trying to do. Let’s talk about what how we’re trying to really get this house to perform.”

And it goes back to exactly what Andrew had suggested, you know, that is the same on the ground in Hale County as it is anywhere else. Is that, you know, when something looks like what it does, and what it’s been asked to do is good, and it does that thing well, it will be beautiful. And so our partners see that. You know, they listen, and they know they’ve come to us for a certain reason.

And then it’s also—partners are kind of a long-term commitment. We don’t just do one-offs. We’re not working with partners that are just going to build one or two houses then go off, go on. So we also say there’s a learning opportunity, you know? What areas are we going to focus on? What areas are we going to really say, “This is so important to do it this way?” But in something else, it’s maybe important to the partner to do it another way. And then when we actually learn from that. We learn all kinds of things, in some ways, just like working with students who do remarkable things because they have different experiences and knowledge sets than we do. Our partners are the same, and we’ve learned so much from them about how we ought to be doing things instead.

And so there is this sort of remarkable feedback loop from the students on the ground in Hale County, and us faculty and staff, and external sort of builder partners that we work with. And as that relationship continues to strengthen and grow and we understand how to leverage it better and better and better, I think it’s just, you know—the sky’s the limit for the kinds of questions that our students can tackle around these really important issues.

Freear: I . . .

Eizenberg: So I’m gonna have to interrupt you, Andrew. We have 28 questions here.

Freear: Well, that’s too many, so we’re just going to say we’re not going to take any of them.

Eizenberg: A ha! OK. Well, there you go. Um, did you really want to say something?

Freear: Well, I mean, first of all, I need to . . . I kind of pinch myself that what Rusty is doing, and the team are doing, is going . . .

Eizenberg: It’s amazing.

Freear: It’s extraordinary. I mean, I think, what’s helped out in Hale County is that these the models and the product line have not become our . . .  what we’re doing everyday is, hasn’t become so precious. So as Rusty suggested at the beginning was so uptight, and each design was so precious. It doesn’t matter. Now, with the Front Porch Initiative, rolling them out and seeing multiple iterations is really exciting.

And, you know, Rusty said to me, “Are we willing to”—at the beginning—”do you really want to put your head above the radar?” And honestly, we were going around in circles. And I’m like, “Come on, we’ve got to be brave, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to put our money where’s our mouth is. You know, let’s do this.” So I’m super proud of it. It’s just, it’s so I find that relationship really exhilarating. So.

Smith: You know, 17 years ago, when we started working, we thought we thought we’re gonna have, we’re gonna figure out, we’re gonna spend a couple of years and the students would develop a house, and that was that was going to sort of solve all the issues that we were challenged with, and we were going to move on to other problems. And it’s really sort of remarkable, gosh, 17 years on now, where there’s still, you know, so much to do, and so much to learn, and so much to unlearn. There’s just a lifetime of work in this little project. It’s just absolutely remarkable, the sort of the complexities that housing and access to housing reveal in the way we live with each other, and the sort of the expectations that we have for those around us.

Eizenberg: So I’m gonna get to one of the questions that keeps turning up often. And I would ask Rafi or somebody from the League to help me out with this. Will there be a recording? Which I know there is, and I’m not sure how to access it. So if someone could put that in the chat, that would be great.

Freear: Will it be . . . ? It’ll be it’ll be bleeped out at appropriate moments, I assume.

Eizenberg: No, they’re gonna add extras. It’s an enhanced version.

Freear: Is Hank gonna join us then, is it?

Eizenberg: Yeah. So all right, this one just struck me as I was scrolling through, and I will have missed some that are more, you know, there’s so many good questions here. What practices can be transferred over into urban planning? Which is something I had never thought to ask. I mean, we’ve talked about infrastructure, and you may want to touch on infrastructure as well a little bit more, because you talked about broadband. But this is, what are the practices to transfer over to urban planning? And I know you’ve got plenty of time to take on this next layer of scale.

Smith: You want to you want to wrestle with that, Andrew, or would you like me to?

Freear: Go ahead.

Smith: Yeah, it’s super. And I think it’s, you know, so there’s so many . . .  like all these questions, there are so many different ways to answer it. So, you know, one way to answer it is, you know, with some halfhearted attempt to be provocative, is to say the Rural Studio 28 years ago was misnamed, I think, you know, as a Rural Studio. And you sort of look at those projects that Andrew shared of the fire station and the library and the town hall: Those are the most urban, and optimistically urban, buildings you’ll ever see in a community. You know, where do cities come from? And so there’s these sorts of decisions that are made in those buildings that we would consider to be urban, even though it’s in a town of 186 people.

And so there’s this funny question about what is even urban, you know, and what is rural? That’s a huge question that we wrestle with all the time. USDA has, I think, seven different definitions of rural, and they all, when you break them down, they sort of come out to be “not urban.” It’s a really sort of funny thing.

So this issue of kind of rural design and urban design is an interesting question. There are issues of scale, right?, that we deal with and density and what-have-you that are different. And so, I think, you know, one of the opportunities that we do have in Front Porch is to kind of, you know, over half of our partners are actually urban, you know, in fairly large cities or even in small rural cities, but in town, inside the urban, what we consider the urban fabric. And so, you know, what is sort of universal and what’s particular to these sorts of different ways that we develop land? Those are really interesting questions.

So the lesson, you know, to the, so the lesson that maybe you can take away from Rural Studio, is I think, you know, maybe that if we think about Rural Studio, is it’s not really a design–build program by design. You know, when Sambo and DK hauled folks out into West Alabama all those years ago, they just knew there was work that needed to be done, and architecture students needed to be doing it. And it just so happened that building was a thing that we could do there. And that it just so happened that building was a thing that needed to be done.

There are so many great programs in the United States that are in urban places that don’t build anything, but do really important work. And so the real lesson to learn is to, wherever you find yourself, look down at the ground, see where you are, and then look up—and there is a lifetime of work right in front of you. It may be building, it may be advocacy, it may be law, who knows what it might be, but there’s a lifetime of work right there in front of you. So if you find yourself in an urban place, do the work there that needs to be done. When you find yourself in a rural place, do the work that needs to be done. When you find yourself in a suburban place, maybe go to one of those other two places and do some do the work there that needs to be done.

Eizenberg: So you know Julie Bargmann, probably . . . Whenever we go with her somewhere she talks about ground-truthing, which is a term I hadn’t heard before. And I think what you’re saying is that is to observe well and see where you can have a make an impact. And I think that’s really a good lesson that comes out of this.

I’ve got to go the other way now and sort of ask some, some easy hit-back questions, because it’s the kind of stuff I remember being confused about when I got to the studio. So okay, you’re out here, it seems like you can do anything. Somebody is asking about what happens about building regulations and all that kind of stuff? The stuff that in the city drives everyone crazy. And I . . . you want to talk about that? Andrew, what are the, what’s the framework of quality control and safety?

Freear: The unfortunate truth is that there is not the money in the local government to essentially have a building department or have a building inspector. So to all intents and purposes, you can go out in your backyard and pretty much do whatever you want. And I think we actually build probably better than anybody else around here because we have this plethora of consultants who are all building to IRC or IBC. But it’s actually . . . when there when there isn’t the codebook there’re, it’s actually becomes—it’s almost a huge moral responsibility, then it’s like, when am I going to follow it and when are not going to follow it? You know?

So I think the studio perhaps right at the beginning took some liberties. And I think that we have become . . .  you know, just in the kind of the type of work that we’ve done and the way the studio has progressed and the bigger scales of the project, we’ve had to say . . .  And all of our consultants need to be able to say that we’re working either to IBC or IRC. So we work to the state codes, we make all the drawings, but there simply isn’t anybody that comes along and ticks the box for us.

And in a place like this, it’s actually kind of, it’s awkward, because whether it’s building code or planning, you know . . . We’ve, a few years ago, we started helping Greensboro with a zoning ordinance, because you get to a city council meeting and somebody would want to come up and build a new Dollar General close to a residential estate, and they didn’t have a zoning ordinance, so they didn’t know how to say no. So it was really awkward watching them kind of just shuffle it down to the next council meeting or the next council meeting beyond that, because they didn’t have a way to say no to somebody, or a way to say, “This is why the way we want our city to look, our town to look.”

So it, yeah, on the one hand it enables us to build more quickly. But I think you do need to know that what, if we’re doing the kind of quote unquote public projects, we always we always get the council sign-off on the projects. It’s just they don’t have a building inspector who’s qualified to kind of tick any of the boxes. But it’s . . . we wouldn’t do that if they didn’t approve of it. So and all of our collaborations with the municipalities are that way, honestly. They are actually looking for us for advice. They don’t know when they’re breaking the rules. We’re the ones who are actually coming to them and saying, “Hold on a second, don’t do that, you’re gonna get yourself in a whole shitload of trouble down the road.”

So Rusty, I’m sure you’re eager to . . .

Smith: No, that’s spot on. You know, as every architect in the in the audience knows, it’s like, your greatest responsibility is when no one’s watching. And you know, that’s what we have to do as architects. And of course, that’s what we teach our students: it’s that, you know, when nobody’s watching, that’s when it’s the most important to do the right thing. And I think that’s what we do on the ground in West Alabama.

Eizenberg: Boy. So then the questions keep rising. There’s now 40 questions. And I feel like I should be doing a buzzer quiz: Like, whoever can ask the question the fastest, in the next, you know, when I say go, should get the question answered.

So there was one from a student that asked about, what do you think happens in the Rural Studio program that would be translatable to other institutions of learning? And I don’t know how familiar you are with what’s going on in other educational settings. But what is it that you think it gives students the greatest advantage to move forward with how they think about things?

Smith: You know, I’ll take it, and I’ll try to be quick, Andrew, and then you can chime in. Because I do, I’m fortunate enough to get to go to a lot of universities and programs that are trying to not just start Rural Studios but are teaching other disciplines and want to know what they can learn. And of course, you know, it has all kinds of names, whether it’s hands-on learning or project-based learning or, you know, the live project, or what-have-you. This sort of context-based learning is really important. You know, it’s an extraordinarily inefficient and slow way to—and of course, by inefficient, that’s university word for “expensive”—but it’s a really inefficient and slow way to kind of learn things. But you know, this sort of the transference of kind of the knowledge that you build, you know . . . When you go to university, building knowledge is really important. But through experience, that knowledge turns into something even more valuable, which is just know-how. And then hopefully, you know, when a student that sort of does this kind of work, they kind of know how to get things done at the end. That’s really an important outcome. So, you know, I think the thing that really sort of investing in whatever you call it, this kind of, you know, live project learning is really important.

And then I think as faculty members, you know, one of the biggest challenges and exhilarating things when, I’m engaged in this work—I think it’s true for Andrew—is that, unlike a lot of things, you know, we’re asking the students to do things that we don’t know how to do, you know, every single day. You know, so when Andrew sort of talked about the birding tower, for example, and he talked about, we got the students certified. We didn’t get certified; we actually couldn’t do the work. And those sorts of things happen every single day. And so this moment when the student comes to you and says, you know, “Andrew or Rusty or whoever,” is like, “How do I do this?” And that day when you get to say, “Hey, I don’t know. But let’s figure it out.” I think that change in education, where faculty can really expose themselves in some ways and work in partnership with students to work through really complex sort of challenges, we could use a lot more of that. But it’s really challenging for faculty members, because sometimes the ideas and the things we know is really the only currency we have. And there’s a lot of risk involved for teachers working in that environment.

Eizenberg: Now, you raise a really good point. We have, I think, according to the League people, only a couple of minutes left. And I haven’t got anywhere through the questions, but I was told that there will be—I guess this is homework for you guys—there will be an attempt to answer more of the questions after the session. Yeah, I think you need to work harder. And there’ll be posted once that once they have them. So don’t worry, it’s not none of this is going to waste.

So. Two questions. One—you gotta give really short answers, okay?—so one is about prefab and found. And the interesting thing about what the Rural Studio Front Porch plan did is that it actually doesn’t try and take the work out of it, it just takes the calculation out of it, so it’s a simple task to build something. So I want to understand, is it a rural–urban thing, this issue that prefab is our solution in the cities and that providing jobs and labor is our job in the countryside? What’s going on there?

Smith: Well, you sort of, you kind of hit on a piece of it. And it’s not … it always is like, there’s a billion issues that you’re trying to address around housing access, but one of those things is you’re always wondering, is there a workforce and no housing? Or is there, you know, housing and no workforce? So that’s sort of one of the questions that you have to ask.

But quite honestly, you know, a lot of the prefab stuff, I’ll just be candid, you know, comes out of a kind of a high-tech mode of thinking. And there’s a lot of good in that, right? But, you know, the way that we build these things—you know, our automobiles or what have you—and how we exist with them, are very different from our houses and our buildings. And so, you know, you have to really think about what parts of the building that you build in the factory. And there’s lots of our site-built buildings that are built in factories. You just think about, a two by four’s made in a factory, a door is made in a factory, a window’s made in a factory. And so we have this notion . . . it’s not about site-built or factory-built or prefabbed or flat-packed or whatever—we just sort of think of it as advanced-component construction. And we think about, you know, sort of where a component is made and how it’s aggregated and assembled.

And so the project that Andrew showed, the pole barn house, where we sort of built the roof and then the house, that’s one of those things that you can do when you don’t have a factory. One of the things that a factory does is it protects the place where you build the house. And weirdly, we build the thing that protects the house last most often when you site-build a house.

So in some ways you can sort of . . . it’s not an all-or-nothing game. And so, it’s this question about how things are made, how they get to the site, how they get integrated in a more efficient way, really becomes the question of the game.

I think increasingly, you’re going to see Rural Studio thinking about that. Where things get built, what gets built, how it gets integrated is really important. Because a lot of the issues of . . . you know, it’s pretty tough to deliver a house to a site—just get the material parts of the house to a site in a more efficient way than site-built construction.

Eizenberg: I’m waiting for the next 20 questions to get posted any second now. So I’m gonna sort of stop you there, Rusty, because I think we’re reaching the end of the session. And I’m going to make Andrew do a closing comment, because that will make him really uncomfortable. So, Andrew, you started this session, you’re gonna have to finish it.

Freear: Oh, on the same topic?

Eizenberg:  No, whatever you’d like to say.

Freear: Oh, shit. Well, you know, I hate Zoom. Can I say that?

Eizenberg: Thank you, that’s very constructive. Anything you’d like to say about the contribution of the Rural Studio, things you’re investigating?

Freear: Well, um, I do think, what I said at the end. I mean, the partnership that we started to establish with McGill. And I think too often, architects are simply passive consumers. And it may be it’s just a luxury of academia. But I think we do need to be, take a critical . . . I mean, the layer cake question for me—just, you keep adding layers and somehow you kind of guilted into putting the next technology on the outside of the building, so you go around it again. How do we know what’s appropriate? Are we, is it all gonna end up being like asbestos in 20 years’ time, that we were really stupid in doing that? So I just, you know, I would encourage architects, academics, students, to be really critical and not be afraid to question the stuff that’s been pushed down our throats honestly. And take a position. So.

Eizenberg: Thank you, guys, I guess, Rosalie, you’re gonna close out? That would be . . . Thank you.

Genevro: Three words: Worth the wait. It was a two-year wait for this lecture, but that was an extraordinary lecture. And the level of intelligence, the openness to . . .

Eizenberg: Who knew they were that smart?

Genevro: Yeah, who knew?

Freear: We resent being called intelligent.

Genevro: Now, come on. Here’s what I mean by that: The capacity to be open to, and to use super-sophisticated technology and the latest research, and also be open to and using traditional building methods, and then, most important of all, the level of ongoing commitment and stick-to-it-iveness of . . . both of you have been there a long time. It matters a lot.

And I just, thank you so much. This was an extraordinary presentation, conversation. Extraordinary information for all of us. So thank you.

Explore

Kiel Moe lecture

Kiel Moe's research focuses on theories, techniques, and technologies of converged material and energy systems. 

League Prize Video 2011