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  • Writer's pictureBuild Forward


Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Located in a tiny town in West Alabama, Rural Studio is Auburn University’s design-build program for architecture students. This isn’t just any ordinary design-build program, however, and these aren’t just any ordinary architecture students. For the past 30 years, these students have been essentially working to answer this one important housing 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).

(Image via Fast Company)

(Image via Fast Company)

In 1993, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee started Rural Studio with the idea that “the role of an architect includes a certain social obligation” and with the intent “to get students out of the classroom and put them to work where he thought they could do some good – smack dab in the center of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country.” (The Bitter Southerner).

(Image via Pinterest)

Working with the non-profit, Front Porch Initiative, they are primarily saving costs by using different construction techniques that work just as well as standard construction techniques but don’t cost as much. During the experimentation stage the architects had to explain to code officials how it works and how these new techniques actually result in their structures performing better than they would using the normal construction techniques. In order to bring this design to others to carry out and build, they basically needed to provide a step by step “Ikea-like” guide that tells them how to build each part and how to explain it to local code officials. This way, basically anyone can be instructed on how to build and carry out these projects and get them more widespread across the areas that would really benefit from this type of housing (Fast Company).

Clearly, this idea has some merit to it, since it’s become notably and rightfully successful in the 30 years it’s been up and running. After Mockbee’s passing in 2001, the project was taken over by professor Andrew Freear, who arrived on the scene just the year before. They now have 100 plus projects all across Alabama’s Black Belt and there have been over 800 students taking part in these design and construction projects. They’ve worked on everything from private homes, to fire stations and even a skate park (with a grant from Tony Hawk's foundation The Skateboard Project). Since the program operates off of funding from the school and donations, the name of the game in keeping this operation running is to creatively use whatever materials are available to them at the time to create powerful, long lasting structures (The Bitter Southerner).

(Newburn Firehouse built by Rural Studio. Image via Rural Studio)

“When the students do think about building houses these days, they show off the kind of raw, moonshot zeal that tends to wear away by the time most of us turn 30. They ask big questions like, ‘Why does anybody have to live in a trailer?’ As in all rural areas, trailers are everywhere in Hale County. They’re ‘faceless and inhuman,’ Freear says. They don’t appreciate in value, and they don’t last,” (The Bitter Southerner). The answer to that big question is what Rural Studio calls the 20K House, which is a livable home, designed simply and efficiently enough to be built on a large scale by contractors for just 20K. “[...] ‘Since 2006 we’ve been looking at the 20K House,’ Freear says, ‘which has no design value in it at all. No architect, no builder, no contractor, no developer could afford to do that. And yet we have this sort of luxury of a constant supply of students, an endless supply of folks who could live in them, and so we can watch. I almost feel more of a responsibility to do it,'” (The Bitter Southerner).

(Image by Danny Wicke via Rural Studio)

When Build Forward discovered this unique and utterly fascinating program, we decided we had to get closer to the action. Two members of our team, one being the owner, set out to West Alabama last month to find out more and really immerse themselves in the landscape and environment that inspired the existence and development of this project, and to tour Rural Studio themselves. Tune in next week to find out more about how the trip went and how we at Build Forward are inspired to keep learning and growing thanks to programs like this that are fostering innovation and helping strengthen their own communities!

In the meantime, if you’re feeling inspired to start developing some of your own lovely solutions for problems you may be having with your home, we would be happy to help get you started! You can reach out to us at, or contact us through our website.

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