Making Home Happen

Making Home Happen


Words by Melanie Cissone

“These students, they are gonna contribute something wonderful back to the profession and back to makin’ this a better place, a better world. Which is what we should all be about. That’s the reason you go to college, not to make more money, but to gain the knowledge to make this a better world. And I believe Rural Studio fosters that sort of idealism. And once you go to Rural Studio and you get a chance to experience not only designing it on paper but getting it built, and have the pleasure of people comin’ in and really admiring what you’ve done and are appreciative of what you’ve done, it’s a great feelin’. And you know, you can’t replace it. And once you have that, you’re snakebit after that.”

Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee
“Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio”
A film directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas

At Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, you’ll find a reasonable number of its Rural Studio students not in Auburn, Alabama, but 150 miles west in either Newbern, where the design-build studio and its 20K Projects are based, or in the charming town of Greensboro, Hale County’s seat.

Old barns, antebellum houses, and churches dot the sloping, lush greenery covered hills celebrated in William Christenberry’s photography. A water tower in Greensboro stakes its claim as “The Catfish Capital of Alabama,” and folks gather to shoot the breeze at the Mercantile—the “Merc” as locals say—in Newbern, wondering aloud about the fluctuating market price of their beef cattle. Beyond the tree line lies a housing tale that weds a much-admired top-20-ranked architectural program to a population of residents who, in some cases, may never have had running water. A modern version of the James Agee and Walker Evans Fortune magazine assignment-turned-book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” comes alive.

While maintaining his partnership with Coleman Coker in the private practice of Mockbee/Coker, Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by Auburn University architecture professors Samuel Mockbee and Dennis K. “D.K.” Ruth. Coker’s unwavering support and advocacy for the academics safeguarded the reality of their essential mission, which was to reconcile design with equitable housing for an underserved population. A recipient of the 2000 “Genius Grant” for architecture—officially a MacArthur Foundation grant—the late Sambo, as he is affectionately called by friends and colleagues, “erased the boundary between experimental design and social consciousness,” wrote the Foundation.

In the ensuing 27 years from its founding, Rural Studio has evolved into a hands-on workshop of sorts that operates symbiotically between and among its architecture faculty and students, its housing and public works recipients, its research initiatives, its affiliated partners, its charitable organizations, its individual supporters, and its financial institutions.

“Housing affordability,” according to Rusty Smith, Associate Director of Rural Studio, “is a complex issue.” Referring to the design-build construct and the role students play in a program embedded in a rural farmland community, Smith describes affordability as so much more than the cost of construction alone, which, he says, “is a small piece.” Maximum affordability is intricately layered with building costs, culture, socioeconomics, education, inventory, and security.

Smith lauds his alma mater, “To Auburn’s credit, there is no other program that is on the scale or has the scope of Rural Studio.” Internationally recognized for its best practices, Smith shares these in speaking engagements around the world.

The means to housing affordability’s end, according to Smith? It’s twofold: Minimize the cost to build a house and subsidize the equation. It seems simple. It’s not. 

In an innovative curricular twist, Rural Studio front-loads essential technical architectural skills, such as the study of materials, methods, and environmental controls its students need to understand, almost immediately into the “build” facet of its design-build program. When they embark on their in-situ second-year projects, the early technical training integrates well with design, of course, but also with the other fundamental processes that coexist with affording a house. In most cases, it’s unlikely that students have witnessed the rural, sometimes substandard housing conditions they encounter in Hale County and the program’s five-county service area.

Native Alabaman and Rural Studio graduate-turned-assistant research professor Mackenzie Stagg, recalls her student days: “I went in there not knowing what I was doing.”

“Today,” she remarks, “I can’t understand how architecture students [elsewhere] don’t have place-based immersive design-build experiences.” She is ingratiated for her Rural Studio education and well aware of data the research garners and its far-reaching impact.

Concurrently, the underserved Rural Studio beneficiary population has been so disenfranchised from systemic anything that it’s profoundly alarming and usually generational. Sambo’s good intentions evolved from an ill-afforded do-good model to the studio’s integrated multi-disciplinary 20K Project, the offshoot of which is the Front Porch Initiative.

From the outset of a 20K Project, students study the durability of the houses they design for Hale County-area recipients. Situated on rural western Alabama beneficiary-owned land, these homes are donated and their viability studied long after move-in. Function and place, right down to climate zone, are essential bits to the study of the affordability ecosystem. 

Findings are synthesized and then shared with the Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative, an adjunct collaborative program that matches designs and technical assistance with a variety of housing providers to reach a market of qualified but often disregarded potential homeowners. Front Porch Initiative designs are a catalogue of mixed and matched components from which homeowners-to-be can choose. It’s a model that extends well beyond the greater Hale County area as evidenced in the collaboration with the school’s field study partners in Auburn, Alabama and more recently in Nashville, Tennessee. These affiliated housing providers include Habitat for Humanity, Wells Fargo, USDA’s Single-Family Housing Loan Program (USDA 502 Loans), Fannie Mae, and the Community Development Financial Institution Fund (CDFI).

Rusty Smith comments about a generalized knee-jerk reaction to obtaining a house, “Income is not the problem.”

“Neither is mortgage affordability.”

“It’s a low wealth problem,” he asserts.

Using energy savings as an example of wealth, Smith explains how Rural Studio applies research derived from its 20K Projects to its Front Porch Initiative. Incidentally, despite an inability to build a house for $20,000, 20K is a moniker that stuck from its early 2000s creation.

Algorithmic in nature, Smith defines Rural Studio’s approach. He says, “The way we procure housing is a highly integrated system.” 

“While $25 a month in savings on an electric bill is significant for a homeowner, there is a cost to that savings,” he says. “That $25 per month nets 200 times that in a homeowner’s mortgage.”

“In other words,” he illustrates, “by reallocating the $25 savings toward an increased mortgage payment in that amount, the homeowner is able to budget $5,000 more toward construction, and the investment value increases. That $5,000 permits the installation of materials that make for a better performing healthier house. And, better performance reduces the cost of the house in the long run.”

Instead of looking at a mortgage as a debt instrument or a university architecture program as a design trade, Rural Studio is turning the paradigm of an affordable designed house on its end. The increased leverage multiplies the investment, stabilizes expenses and invites a winning proposition for all program participants.

In furtherance of the investment-versus-debt concept, a mere 20% of the nation’s inhabitants reside on its 90% rural land mass. The invisibility of these population pockets becomes apparent when a homeowner attempts to secure a mortgage. The interconnectedness between security and an ability to finance construction manifests itself in housing insurability. That’s why Rural Studio chose years ago to undertake the design and construction of Newbern’s fire house. 

Something most homeowners take for granted is an ability to make a 911 call in the event of a fire. Not only do local firefighters extinguish an inflamed house, the inherent value of having such an essential service reduces the expense of homeowner insurance, a savings potentially applicable to a mortgage payment. Again, viewed as an investment, the mortgage nets construction of a “healthy” house with materials that withstand generations of use.

Smith says of the studio’s evolved integration of partners, “There are so many stakeholders who aren’t fully aware of the area of influence they do or can have.” Toward that end, homeownership—“an American idea, an American ideal,” Smith says—is realistic, and valuable in ways that extend beyond the financial value of a home, and, he avows, “that trickle up to impact all of us.”

The Rural Studio of nearly three decades ago joined architecture students in hands-on design and build experience with a constituency of failed “sweet home” inhabitants deserving of beautiful, safe, and warm residences. The Rural Studio of today transcends its original compassionate mission. Refinement from historical self-examination has resulted in a Venn diagram of good intention, experience-based education, and calculable action on the part of all interested parties whereby home and all that it represents is the defined area of overlap. Thus, the power and security inherent in that shaded area offers a launchpad, a virtual winning lottery ticket, for whatever the homeowner’s future holds. 

A 1990s recipient of a 20K house commented proudly about first-time homeownership to one of the school’s former outreach partners, “I can get married now. I can help my church.”

Home isn’t just where the heart is; it’s a secure, familiar feeling that instills confidence to conquer all the unknowns lobbed at us. In the indomitable tagline of old New York Lotto commercials, with that confidence comes an attitude of, “Hey, you never know.”