Rural Studio builds community in Alabama’s Hale County

Rural Studio builds community in Alabama’s Hale County
The Hoseshoe Farm Hub team stands on the site and shares the project design. From left, Claudia Paz Melendez, Zack Cundey, Caleb Munson, Claire Kubilins. (Rob Culpepper)

Since 1993, Rural Studio has been educating the next generation of architects while building up the Hale County community through innovative architectural projects. The Alabama Power Foundation was an early supporter of Rural Studio.

Rural Studio has two programs for students of Auburn University’s architecture program, one for third-year students and another for fifth-years. Students in the third-year program are in Newbern, home of Rural Studio, for one semester. “This semester offers a really great opportunity for students to get out of the classroom environment and get that experience of being on an actual build,” said Natalie Butts-Ball, manager of Communications and the 20K Home initiative.

As an alumna of the program, Butts-Ball knows the importance of these hands-on experiences. “It’s one of the best opportunities you can have as an architecture student. Students who come through this program are generally a year or two ahead of their peers in terms of experience,” she said. “They’ve had a chance to work on projects from beginning to end and touch every part.”

Rural Studio’s projects are for the home or community. Home projects include one of Rural Studio’s best-known initiatives: the 20K Homes. The 20K Home initiative began in 2005 and is now on its 22nd version.

The goal of the 20K Home project is to provide an affordable, attractive and well-made home for residents of rural communities. Rural Studio wants to use what students have learned through the past 21 versions to come up with a plan that can reach more people.

“Not just one house for one client,” said Butts-Ball. “Something that can compete with trailer homes in terms of cost, time, access. A 20K Home is built quickly, and that quick build makes it affordable from a construction standpoint.” While a mobile home depreciates in value over time, a 20K Home gains value.

Rural Studio plans to release the 20K Home plans for public use. Butts-Ball said there are many opportunities for the 20K Home to address affordability in housing.

During the 2017-2018 school year, two teams of third-year students worked on one of Rural Studio’s signature 20K Homes. Two fifth-year teams began work on projects to benefit Project Horseshoe Farm, a Greensboro-based nonprofit focusing on health care and building community. Though the school year is over and these students have graduated, their work on these projects will continue until the projects are complete.

Horseshoe Farm Hub

One of the fifth-year teams is busy working on an outdoor space behind the recently renovated old Greensboro Hotel, now the main headquarters of Project Horseshoe Farm. The space is narrow, tucked between two walls of varying heights. One end is the back of Project Horseshoe Farm’s main building; the other end is an alleyway. The team’s challenge is to create a low-maintenance, attractive space that can be used for all of Horseshoe Farm’s programs.

Despite the challenge, the four-person team recognizes the interesting opportunities this project provides. Specifically, they envision an outdoor “room” for Project Horseshoe Farm to use.

“We had this great opportunity to create an exterior room that can benefit all the programs within the organization,” said Zach Cundey, one of the team members.

“Our plan is to create a really functional, flexible space where lots of different activities can happen. We want Project Horseshoe Farm to be able to use the space in all of their programs,” added student Claudia Paz Melendez.

Project Horseshoe Farm homes

The second team is working on a different but very valuable project for Project Horseshoe Farm. The students’ task is to build a series of small homes on land the nonprofit owns. These homes will be used in the organization’s housing program, which helps community members unable to live on their own transition back to independent living. The houses will serve as a final step for them to have their own space and home but remain very much a part of the Project Horseshoe Farm community.

Dr. John Dorsey, founder and director of Project Horseshoe Farm, is thrilled with this project and its implications. “This project is so spectacular,” he said. “It meets a local need but it also serves as a model that people from rural communities all over can look to. I could see not just other nonprofits but even churches adopting this type of project.”

Both fifth-year teams graduated this month, but the work won’t end until the projects are complete. Even though they have graduated, the students stay on as volunteers to finish the project.

“They make an unusual commitment that I don’t think a lot of people would do,” said Butts-Ball. “They will be volunteers – not getting academic credit, not getting paid – and hopefully within a year we will have a row of small homes and a courtyard for Horseshoe Farm to use.”

While working on these projects, the students live in the Greensboro community. Dorsey says there’s great opportunity there. “These students come in, learn about how you engage with a community, work with their community partner to raise money for the project, then they design the project and build it, all in two years,” Dorsey said. “It’s a launching ground for their careers – architecture firms from around the world want these graduates — but the impact on Greensboro and Hale County is phenomenal.”

Dorsey believes Rural Studio doesn’t just provide an exceptional educational experience for the students who participate, it makes a difference on the rural Alabama communities where its projects exist.

“Rural Studio has impact at all levels,” he said. “The program has a thousand graduates across the country. Their consultants and visitors come from not just all over the country but all over the world. The economic impact for Greensboro and Newbern and Hale County is enormous.

“If you looked at Greensboro 10 years ago, 80 percent of it was empty and boarded up,” Dorsey said. “There’s definitely an energy here, and without Rural Studio that doesn’t happen.”

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