20K Project Team: Thomas Johnston, Rob Culpepper, Cierra Heard
Independent Study Sponsor: Joyce Rosner, University of Texas at Austin
Thomas Alexander Johnston under the guidance of Joyce Rosner of the University of Texas at Austin. Summer 2014
All work contained in this book to be considered shared authorship of Thomas Johnston, Rob Culpepper, and Cierra Heard as students of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. Photographs by Thomas Johnston except where otherwise noted.
Printed and bound by Capital Printing Company in Austin, Texas on Mohawk Options Digital 100 PC White 110#C, Neenah Eames Solar White Vellum 80#T, Neenah Environment Concrete 70#T. First Edition of 25 copies.
The typefaces in this book are Gotham HTF and Hoefler Text by the Hoefler Frere-Jones Foundry.
To all who contributed to the realization of the 20Kv16 House and the subsequent publication of this book, particularly: Andrew Freear, Mackenzie Stagg, Steve Long, Cameron Acheson, Xavier Vendrell, Alex Henderson, Johnny Parker, Natalie Butts, Dick Hudgens, Gayle Etheridge, Brenda Wilkerson, Joe Farruggia, Michael Clemmer, Brad Schmidt, Steve Johnston, Stephen Durham, Andrew Dolder, Tyler Allgood, Christine Bagdigian, Dylan Moore, Stephen Kesel, Lucy Uren.
This project would not have been possible without the guidance and critique of the guests of the Rural Studio during its 20th Anniversary, particularly: John Forney, Coleman Coker, Rick Joy, Steve Badanes, Jake LaBarre, Marlon Blackwell, Wendell Burnette, Katrina Van Valkenburg, Mike Newman, Hank Koning, Julie Eisenberg, Ted Flato, Clifton Burt, David Hinson, Rusty Smith, Claire Maxfield, Paul Stoller, Glenn Murcutt, Peter Gluck, Dan Wheeler, Brian MacKay-Lyons, Tom Kundig, Frank Harmon, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien.
Time moves differently in west alabama. Towns appear unchanged from fifty years ago, rural areas one hundred. It is a place shaped by deeply ingrained social patterns and tradition, a place made charming by its sheer locality and unwavering self-identity. Despite issues of chronic poverty and related health concerns, it is not a place of despondency or desperation. West Alabama actually seems to be a place of contentment. The slowness of time here—like the heat—is something that people are used to. Things are the same as they ever were.
Hale County, Alabama is an incredibly special place, but it is far from unique. It is a representation of much of the rural American South. It is a food desert surrounded by agricultural land, a network of tiny towns completely dependent on fossil fuels. Universally friendly streets are full of “howdy’s” despite distinctly segregated neighborhoods. Businesses are open a few days a week, everything dark at sundown. The nearest bar is a twenty-five minute drive down an unlit winding road. A third of the storefronts lining Main Street are vacant. Leisure activity rarely extends beyond the shade of a front porch. Patterns of life slow down and adapt until things just are what they are.
Samuel Mockbee, lovingly known as Sambo, and D.K. Ruth founded Rural Studio in Hale County because of this. Established in 1993, the studio is a way to pull students out of the classroom at Auburn to remind them of the human aspects of architecture. Architecture has tremendous social responsibility and is necessarily inseparable from its context. Hale was and is the perfect laboratory. The way of life is something most students have never been exposed to, and there are innumerable needs in the community that remain unaddressed. A mutually beneficial relationship has grown between students and residents, where close interaction has led to the development of deeply meaningful projects for the towns and invaluable experience for the students.
Although the studio has changed in its twenty years, most notably under the direction of Andrew Freear, the ethics and design philosophy remain the same. No one has the right to build here. It must be earned. Designs must be rigorous and relevant. Each year, students from Auburn move to West Alabama to learn to be sensitive, critical designers, self-reliant builders, and respectful, engaged neighbors. Sambo called them “citizen architects.”
Thesis students in their fifth year at Auburn take up residence in Greensboro, population 2,731, ten miles north of the Rural Studio campus in Newbern, population 182. The Red Barn studio space is in the heart of Newbern, next door to the US Post Office and the Mercantile general store, opposite the Rural Studio-designed Volunteer Fire Station and Town Hall. From this location, students are inevitably immersed in the daily life of the tiny town. Third-year students who come out for a semester at a time live at Morrisette House, the core of the campus.
Each year the studio takes on four new thesis projects, three of which are larger-scale community projects located around Hale County, and the 20K House, developed for the Outreach Program. Four students from outside the Auburn architecture program join the fifth year Thesis students. Typically two are from the United States and two come as international exchange students. No design background is required; more important is the desire to make contributions to meaningful design discourse and practice. For the Twentieth Anniversary of Rural Studio, all thesis students from Auburn and the Outreach students collaborated on four 20K Houses.
The unquestionable takeaway of Rural Studio is its humanity. It has earned well-deserved international acclaim for outstanding architectural design, but it is all the product of exceptional instruction and response. I am continually amazed by the dedication of the students and staff who fully commit to being a part of the place, making the local problems their own and fully investing in working towards a positive solution. The experience of working in teams is an invaluable lesson in understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses, in producing something far greater than the sum of its contributors.
The design process was lengthy and trying, particularly for a tiny house, but despite the occasional tedium, it was a luxury afforded by no one outside of academia. We would be fools not to relish in the opportunity to be so thorough with a project that could never receive such attention in practice. All four houses from this year are exceptional for precisely that reason.
The unfortunate compression of our construction schedule due to uncooperative weather and unflinching external deadlines ultimately proved to be more blessing than curse. There is no greater motivator than fear of running out of time, and there is no greater teacher than failure and frustration. We would never have grasped the true difficulty of the 20K House project or the realities of manifesting architecture without setbacks, missteps, and time pressure.
It was incredibly rewarding to see what we could actually accomplish when pressed to do so. The extremely short projected construction schedule for 20K Product Line houses sounded dubious, but proved feasible with proper motivation and well-timed assistance.
The buildings we all produced will be lasting teaching tools and inspiration for years to come, but the true legacy of the studio is its influence on students well after they graduate from the program. Rural Studio has forever solidified my belief that architecture must be of its time and place and that design is a response to humanity. From here, we must all proceed and be bold.
Hale County will always be a special home to me, but it is not mine. Already, new students have arrived. They will see it as we all did, they will quietly assess all the work that has preceded them, and they will determine an even better course forward. Hale County is in good hands, our task now is to humbly apply the process of rooted, humane architecture elsewhere.
As can only be realized from the inside, Rural Studio is a place that must be experienced in order to be understood. No matter how thorough the research, something is invariably lost in the translation to press. The basic premise is clear to all, but the subtlety and nuance experienced by living in Hale County is impossible to explain. If anything, it can be picked up through the stories told, often with far more to do with people than architecture. And stories should be told from a shady porch with a cold beer.