As you may remember from our last blog (it’s fine if you don’t, we’re happy to give a little refresher!), two of our team members, Javier (the owner) and Dawn, set out to West Alabama to get a closer look at Auburn University’s design-build program for architecture students, known as Rural Studio. What drew Build Forward to this unique and innovative program initially was the Studio's partnership with a non-profit organization called the Front Porch Initiative. Their collaboration inspired the creation of the 20k house, which came from getting students to try and answer this question: “How do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want-while also providing a living wage for the local construction team that builds it?” (Fast Company). With an endless supply of ambitious students ready to learn, make mistakes, and grow, and the support of the community, they are able to experiment with all kinds of alternate, cost-saving materials and design techniques in order to develop affordable, well-designed homes for the impoverished populations of rural Alabama. Alongside some pretty unique and sleek public projects as well! So without further ado, here’s what they had to report back, and what kinds of inspiration and tried and true wisdom they’re bringing back to us here at Build Forward:
After getting the full tour and walking the grounds of this very special landscape, Dawn found that one of the things that stood out to her most about the process was, “that because it’s a school and it’s a learning thing, they don’t see their failures as mistakes, they’re literally just part of the process. It’s just saying, okay, so we tried that and that didn’t work so that’s not a solution, so now we find another solution. It’s not that it was a failure.” Doesn’t that make you feel better about every mistake you’ve ever made?
She adds, “For example, they have a house [...] that’s made only out of cardboard so it’s thick. And it’s not just like it’s a cardboard box, it’s all kind of layered and is in the shape of a house, and their thought was that they would be recycling, it would be insulating, and it wasn’t. It’s a fire hazard [...]. So they’re like well that wasn’t a failure, that’s just telling us that that’s not a part of the solution, which is actually how you get to it being a success, is to take away the things that aren’t successful. That was huge to me, and even in my own life. Just because you make a mistake that doesn’t mean it was a failure, it’s actually a success in finding what doesn’t work. I really liked that.” The world would probably be a much better place if everyone thought like that, don’t you think?
In terms of how they operate, there are a lot of things that make this design-build program stand apart from others. Something else Dawn noted, was how the program integrates the local culture and landscape to shape their design ideas and principles. She mentions, “The other thing that I really liked was that they [...] focused on their specific culture and the way that communities kind of live and communicate, one of those [ways] being (and this is where the front porch comes in) is [that] in the South, the front porch [...] is such a part of the culture. So they very much focused on A) making sure that the people have a place to live [...] and B) that they still feel like they have their dignity, they’re part of a community [...], so they have porches. They have even experimented with different placements of where the porch is and how the family can kind of move around the house and integrate the outdoors to the indoors. It is really those kinds of details that aren’t just architectural details, they’re like psychological details that were amazing to me.” This kind of detailed thinking is so valuable to our team and can help us better understand how to find solutions for our clients that are mindful of our local environment and culture.
So how does Build Forward fit into all this? We are always looking to other innovative organizations and individuals who have taken initiative, have a vision for a better future, and have developed better and smarter practices and solutions to see how we can improve and expand in our own way. Given our obvious interest in Rural Studio’s projects and methods, we wanted to give you a little insight as to why this was so inspiring and hits close to home for Build Forward’s owner, Javier.
(Rural Studio's Thermal Mass and Buoyancy Ventilation Research Project )
When asked what prompted his interest in affordable housing solutions, Javier stated, “The idea started when I was thinking about how my daughters were going to be able to afford a home. I could just see that the new generations are not gonna be able to easily afford a home that is priced at 350k or more. And it’s not because they’re less productive or because they are buying too much avocado toast. [...] So I started to think of solutions, how could this happen, and if it was able to be done then how could that be incorporated into the business model that we have now.” In other words, the day we stop focusing on avocado toast and actually start developing more cost efficient ways to provide well-designed housing will be the day we might actually make some progress!
Here are the main pillars of what we’re trying to accomplish according to the owner, “There are really 5 things: 1) It has to be affordable. And by affordable we mean it should be [...] [below] 350k. 2) It has to be well designed. “Warm, dry, and noble” (a quote from the co-founder of Rural Studio, Sam Mockbee). 3) It has to be as energy efficient as possible. Even possibly using sustainable, energy efficient materials. 4) It has to be small for two reasons. It is easier to cool and heat a house that is smaller, and surveys say that Millenials/Gen Z, are more interested in a smaller home than buying a bigger home. 5) It has to have a sense of community, where people feel connected. [...] We would apply it to the Northwest. So we don’t have hurricane problems but we have rain issues and mold and fires, and our culture is more geared toward the outdoors, communal outdoor spaces.”
(Image via Rural Studio)
While fleshing out the parameters of this project and these ideas, the owner also adds, “The other kind of side of that is that we do know that obviously this whole program is for poverty stricken communities, and in that sense part of our [...] plan is to share the information that we’ve learned with the groups that work on that kind of housing here. Working together, not necessarily for our own project but to be the connector and say, ‘Hey there’s this program, this might be something that you guys would be interested in doing,’ and just kind of being the liaison in between. Just communicating what we’ve learned.”
Of course, the nature of the construction industry does produce some pretty tough roadblocks in getting this project off the ground and in a sustainable place. Although we’re still in the planning stages and don’t have all the answers just yet, we know where we’re headed and what we don’t want. When talking through these various possible obstacles and how we can potentially change the name of the game, Javier notes, “One of the original things that I struggled with even before this idea came into my head was that the construction industry is already set, it hasn’t changed much, and the driver of the construction industry is money. Contractors are looking to see how to make a living, but the development process stopped a while ago. Before they were looking for ways to build things more effectively, better, sturdier, more aesthetically, and you can see that through the decades when you start analyzing homes and how they have changed. We have basically ended up with what’s the cheapest way to build a house and how much more money can we charge for it (how can we make a bigger profit). For us, to look at this evolution, what they’re going through, what they’re doing, is super refreshing because it revitalizes the inquisitive desire to get different processes, find new materials, better materials, better ways of building, start thinking outside the box, which is exactly what these people [Rural Studio and the Front Porch Initiative] are doing. And hopefully take that initiative.”
(Rural Studio: Lions Park Scout Hut)
Stay tuned for more information on how Build Forward is working towards a more sustainable and well-designed future! In the meantime, if you caught the problem-solving bug like we did and want to start finding better solutions for your home design and construction needs, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us through our website.
ARCHITECTURE IS ABOUT SHELTER FOR SOUL
- SAM MOCKBEE CO FOUNDER RURAL STUDIO