Rural Studio Road Trip Blog

November 16, 2007
Guest Pod Progress Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer  When Trent and I were on site in October, the second-year students were hard at work building the 'guest pod,' not to be confused with the student pods across the street behind Morissette House. As local lodging is a bit scarce, this structure is meant for visiting lecturers, faculty from the Auburn campus (2-3 hrs away), and other guests. They hope to have a total of seven pods built over the next couple of years.  In early November I had the pleasure of driving down to Florida with my dad and brother, Tom, who is an architect. I planned our trip to take us through the Rural Studio's backyard so my bro could see the structures and meet some of the staff. The photo on the right shows how far the students got in just three weeks.  P. S. Over at the student pods we ran into Ed May, a second-year student from New York, and he gave us a brief tour. Among other things, he mentioned that his pod's heater is broken and that he and his roommate can see their breath at night. Hopefully, the new guest pod's heater fares a bit better… it gets pretty cold down there at night!

Guest Pod Progress

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

When Trent and I were on site in October, the second-year students were hard at work building the "guest pod," not to be confused with the student pods across the street behind Morissette House. As local lodging is a bit scarce, this structure is meant for visiting lecturers, faculty from the Auburn campus (2-3 hrs away), and other guests. They hope to have a total of seven pods built over the next couple of years.

In early November I had the pleasure of driving down to Florida with my dad and brother, Tom, who is an architect. I planned our trip to take us through the Rural Studio's backyard so my bro could see the structures and meet some of the staff. The photo on the right shows how far the students got in just three weeks.

P. S. Over at the student pods we ran into Ed May, a second-year student from New York, and he gave us a brief tour. Among other things, he mentioned that his pod's heater is broken and that he and his roommate can see their breath at night. Hopefully, the new guest pod's heater fares a bit better. it gets pretty cold down there at night!

October 26, 2007
Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should Trent Gilliss, Online Editor<br />
Being a homeowner who has gutted and rehabbed a number of residences now, I've come to learn that materials really do have their place. Asphalt shingles work great on a pitched roof, but place them on a porch's shed roof with a shallow incline… well, you're begging for those newly laid floors of reclaimed Douglas fir from your upstairs attic to cup and bend. Wood putty is fine for those nail holes on an interior door. But, try to close the gap on those weathered storm windows — the first spring rain bubbles the paint and makes them look worse than before. Lessons learned.<br />
And, as you can see from the picture above, what worked beautifully as a retaining wall treatment in the Yancey 'Tire' Chapel (1995) failed miserably on Tracy Shiles' house. The stepped approach to the front entry hasn't borne foot traffic well, and it wasn't covered either. The flaking stuccoed tires reminds me of something Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio, told Krista in our anchor interview for SOF's upcoming program, 'An Architecture of Decency.'<br />
He views sustainability with a small ess. Instead of searching for 'green' products with the proper FSC stamp or building structures that are LEED certified, Rural Studio emphasizes vernacular materials that require zero maintenance. The stuff has to be readily available, reusable, and understood by the owners so that it can be easily fixed. Their clients are scratching out a living and extra time, says Freear, needs to be spent making additional income, being with their families, or simply just resting from a hard day's work.<br />
After all, this isn't so hard to understand. How many of you have an uncle, grandfather, or dad who gripes every time he opens the hood of his Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Prius or even a Ford Taurus because he can't make simple repairs because of all the electronics being used? The same idea applies here. A Dutch-produced prefabricated cementitious fiberboard may be 'green' and durable, but if it gets damaged in a storm, the owner can't replace it. But, use corrugated sheet metal and the owner can find a piece at any scrap yard or vacant, tumbledown building in the tri-county area for the repair.

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Being a homeowner who has gutted and rehabbed a number of residences now, I've come to learn that materials really do have their place. Asphalt shingles work great on a pitched roof, but place them on a porch's shed roof with a shallow incline. well, you're begging for those newly laid floors of reclaimed Douglas fir from your upstairs attic to cup and bend. Wood putty is fine for those nail holes on an interior door. But, try to close the gap on those weathered storm windows — the first spring rain bubbles the paint and makes them look worse than before. Lessons learned.

And, as you can see from the picture above, what worked beautifully as a retaining wall treatment in the Yancey "Tire" Chapel (1995) failed miserably on Tracy Shiles' house. The stepped approach to the front entry hasn't borne foot traffic well, and it wasn't covered either. The flaking stuccoed tires reminds me of something Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio, told Krista in our anchor interview for SOF's upcoming program, "An Architecture of Decency."

He views sustainability with a small ess. Instead of searching for "green" products with the proper FSC stamp or building structures that are LEED certified, Rural Studio emphasizes vernacular materials that require zero maintenance. The stuff has to be readily available, reusable, and understood by the owners so that it can be easily fixed. Their clients are scratching out a living and extra time, says Freear, needs to be spent making additional income, being with their families, or simply just resting from a hard day's work.

After all, this isn't so hard to understand. How many of you have an uncle, grandfather, or dad who gripes every time he opens the hood of his Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Prius or even a Ford Taurus because he can't make simple repairs because of all the electronics being used? The same idea applies here. A Dutch-produced prefabricated cementitious fiberboard may be "green" and durable, but if it gets damaged in a storm, the owner can't replace it. But, use corrugated sheet metal and the owner can find a piece at any scrap yard or vacant, tumbledown building in the tri-county area for the repair.

October 23, 2007
Amos Kennedy, Filling the Void Trent Gilliss, Online Editor  Not all projects turn out as planned for the Rural Studio and its clients. A resident of Akron, Alabama had offered to donate private land as the location for a Boys &amp; Girls Club. Using the brick shell of a former grocery store that stood there, students designed and built a fantastic structure with a vaulted shed roof and an open floor plan.  I had seen all the lovely images by Timothy Hursley of kids and community hanging out in preparation for recreation. Seven years later, I learned that legal squabbles between the town and the owner resulted in an impasse. The structure has yet to be used for its intended purpose, but it currently claims a space for one artist who hand-sets print for posters and books.  You could say that Amos Kennedy is part of this sustainability and recycling movement going on. He moves to rural Alabama, makes use of a building, and salvages old Heidelberg presses for commercial and personal enterprises. His is an ethic of recycling — not for the sake of landfills but for the sake of culture and authenticity and a link to the past.<br />
For the sake of sensitivity of others, I redacted the first word of a poster behind Amos' head (see unedited version).  (Photo: Trent Gilliss)

Amos Kennedy, Filling the Void
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Not all projects turn out as planned for the Rural Studio and its clients. A resident of Akron, Alabama had offered to donate private land as the location for a Boys & Girls Club. Using the brick shell of a former grocery store that stood there, students designed and built a fantastic structure with a vaulted shed roof and an open floor plan.

I had seen all the lovely images by Timothy Hursley of kids and community hanging out in preparation for recreation. Seven years later, I learned that legal squabbles between the town and the owner resulted in an impasse. The structure has yet to be used for its intended purpose, but it currently claims a space for one artist who hand-sets print for posters and books.

You could say that Amos Kennedy is part of this sustainability and recycling movement going on. He moves to rural Alabama, makes use of a building, and salvages old Heidelberg presses for commercial and personal enterprises. His is an ethic of recycling — not for the sake of landfills but for the sake of culture and authenticity and a link to the past.

For the sake of sensitivity of others, I redacted the first word of a poster behind Amos' head.

(Photo: Trent Gilliss)

October 14, 2007

Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

This is one of the signature public structures built under Sam Mockbee's direction in 2000. The chapel was intended to serve as a community center for a bookmobile and traveling medical care, and a gathering space for prayer and fellowship. But now, I'm not so sure.

The structure and its companion piece across the clay and gravel road are maintained, but they don't appear to be lived in. Where the glass wall of overlapping car windshields once used to welcome passersby, now lurks an older mobile home. The rammed earth walls have held up remarkably well. What I didn't expect to see is the lush, tropical plants and flowers that now line the interior passageway and the front.

After the long wait to see the Glass Chapel though, it was well worth it. Pictures seem to grow its peak by 30 feet. It's much smaller, and much more intimate than that. Human scale factored in and provides a sense of awe and serenity. Take a walk through it.

October 12, 2007
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer<br />
It was after midnight when, after archiving the day's worth of interviews, I was kept awake by the barking of dogs in the neighborhood. There are a lot of dogs down here and they, too, are social characters in the community — with or without homes. Each county in Alabama is required by the state government to have an animal shelter and Hale county, until recently, was without. Rural Studio just completed this lovely new facility and is waiting for the county to sign off on the funding for the operating budget. The design is very cool, in every sense of the word. It is a box-like structure set within an arched shelter, almost like a train station. A gentleman we spoke with a few days ago recalled that on a recent 100+ degree day, that shelter was really comfortable. Later today we will be visiting the Akron Boys/Girls Club which has a very similar design and we hope to have someone explain the design approach and considerations. This will be the last entry about dogs, I promise.

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

It was after midnight when, after archiving the day's worth of interviews, I was kept awake by the barking of dogs in the neighborhood. There are a lot of dogs down here and they, too, are social characters in the community — with or without homes. Each county in Alabama is required by the state government to have an animal shelter and Hale county, until recently, was without. Rural Studio just completed this lovely new facility and is waiting for the county to sign off on the funding for the operating budget. The design is very cool, in every sense of the word. It is a box-like structure set within an arched shelter, almost like a train station. A gentleman we spoke with a few days ago recalled that on a recent 100+ degree day, that shelter was really comfortable. Later today we will be visiting the Akron Boys/Girls Club which has a very similar design and we hope to have someone explain the design approach and considerations. This will be the last entry about dogs, I promise.

Much Assembly RequiredMitch Hanley, Senior Producer<br />
Our first stop on Wednesday was the Saint Luke's Church project in Cahawba (see Trent's post below for more info).  The second-year RS students are busy trying to resurrect this church in its new/old location, back in Alabama's first capitol, Cahawba.  Originally built in the 1850's, the church was moved around 1870 to Martin Station because Cahawba happened to be a large flood plain, situated right next to the Cahawba River.  Phase I consisted of dismantling the entire church, cataloging every piece right down to each board in the floor.  This semester's work is phase II of the project: reassembly.   This seems like a puzzle far worse than assembling any piece of Ikea furniture.<br />
We caught up with some of the student's having lunch at a riverside park, which happened to also be ~40 feet away from the church's original site.  The Spanish moss hanging from the trees reminded me of the year I spent in Valdosta, GA as a kid.  When we first drove into GA I thought the stuff was alive, like a sloth or something.  It is kinda eerie, but it is very beautiful and pretty cool to see it again…

Much Assembly Required
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Our first stop on Wednesday was the Saint Luke's Church project in Cahawba (see Trent's post below for more info). The second-year RS students are busy trying to resurrect this church in its new/old location, back in Alabama's first capitol, Cahawba. Originally built in the 1850's, the church was moved around 1870 to Martin Station because Cahawba happened to be a large flood plain, situated right next to the Cahawba River. Phase I consisted of dismantling the entire church, cataloging every piece right down to each board in the floor. This semester's work is phase II of the project: reassembly. This seems like a puzzle far worse than assembling any piece of Ikea furniture.

We caught up with some of the student's having lunch at a riverside park, which happened to also be ~40 feet away from the church's original site. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees reminded me of the year I spent in Valdosta, GA as a kid. When we first drove into GA I thought the stuff was alive, like a sloth or something. It is kinda eerie, but it is very beautiful and pretty cool to see it again.

October 11, 2007
Welcome to Alabama

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

We arrived in Greensboro on Tuesday afternoon and headed straight up to Antioch Baptist Church (see image below) to see if there was any information on services during the week. We were hoping to gather sound of the church's congregation, perhaps speaking to members who had seen the previous incarnation. Cruising down the 1.5 lane highway at a healthy speed, we eyed this tiny sign pointing down a gravel road (driveway) "Antioch Baptist Church." The grass between the tire tracks was quite tall, giving me the impression that this church might not get used at all. As we walked up to the structure we knew immediately that this was a Rural Studio project, it was like no other church in the area (except for the other RS chapels).

Alongside the church is an elevated graveyard with headstones dating back to the early 1800's. The juxtaposition of these old tombs looking upon the modern chapel below was striking, as was the fact that the only windows along the long walls of the church were the narrow strip which looked directly out at the graves.

As we walked along the grounds, which were surrounded by thick forests of pines, you could hear an old hound dog howling in the distance interspersed with long stretches of eerie silence. This combination seemed to say, Welcome to rural Alabama!

We left Antioch to head back to Greensboro and again, at highway speed this dog seemed to come out of nowhere. At least, it seemed like a dog, minus one ear. This German Shepherd was standing next to the side of the road waiting for us to pass, standing alert with its one good ear. Sorry, it was just too strange for us to want to get out and snap a photo.

Just give it a little gas…Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer<br />
Amid a day full of interviews and site visits, our tour guide Dan Splaingard took us over to his former landlady's place so he could deliver a delicious Icee fresh from the gas station.  Theresa's two dogs, whose names I cannot recall, came running out to greet us as Dan went inside.  These dogs were very sweet and all I can say is that I am glad this car was a rental.  It was as we were leaving that we learned the 'game' these dogs love to play:  Car Chase the Dogs!  We had the hardest time getting out of the driveway, these dogs were right behind us, when we drove out to the main street they ran right in front of us.  Dan said, just give it a little gas and they'll get out of the way.  Here's a pic of one of them, having just gotten out of the way…

Just give it a little gas.
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Amid a day full of interviews and site visits, our tour guide Dan Splaingard took us over to his former landlady's place so he could deliver a delicious Icee fresh from the gas station. Theresa's two dogs, whose names I cannot recall, came running out to greet us as Dan went inside. These dogs were very sweet and all I can say is that I am glad this car was a rental. It was as we were leaving that we learned the "game" these dogs love to play: Car Chase the Dogs! We had the hardest time getting out of the driveway, these dogs were right behind us, when we drove out to the main street they ran right in front of us. Dan said, just give it a little gas and they'll get out of the way. Here's a pic of one of them, having just gotten out of the way.

Establishing Roots to the Past Trent Gilliss, Online Editor<br />
The foundation has been laid and now the heavy lifting begins for second-year students at the Rural Studio. They completely dismantled St. Luke's Episcopal Church (circa 1854) last year and cataloged all its elements — from mortise &amp; tenon beams to cut nails. Then, they loaded up the truck and relocated the structure near its original location in Cahawba, the first capital of Alabama.<br />
The effort is painstaking, but history teaches lessons. And Jason Coomes, the instructor for this project, says it awakens the eyes of his young students and town citizens alike. The quality of craftsmanship and ingenuity of construction contributed to its longevity.<br />
Beams used for floor joists weren't nailed to the foundation. Taboo nowadays perhaps, but a feature that allowed the building to move enough so that it didn't collapse under stress and strain. Now that they're assembling the salvaged floor, they'll date-stamp the contemporary substitutions to provide a legacy for the next generation trying to figure out how the church was built and rebuilt.<br />
In so doing, they preserve our cultural legacy, teach the next generation of architects what it means to design buildings that last, salvage wood that most likely would have deteriorated or been scrapped, and sustain the geography of place that was once washed away by the floodplain of the Cahawba River. This seems like sensible sustainability, one that sates the curiosity of generations to come.

Establishing Roots to the Past
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

The foundation has been laid and now the heavy lifting begins for second-year students at the Rural Studio. They completely dismantled St. Luke's Episcopal Church (circa 1854) last year and cataloged all its elements — from mortise & tenon beams to cut nails. Then, they loaded up the truck and relocated the structure near its original location in Cahawba, the first capital of Alabama.

The effort is painstaking, but history teaches lessons. And Jason Coomes, the instructor for this project, says it awakens the eyes of his young students and town citizens alike. The quality of craftsmanship and ingenuity of construction contributed to its longevity.

Beams used for floor joists weren't nailed to the foundation. Taboo nowadays perhaps, but a feature that allowed the building to move enough so that it didn't collapse under stress and strain. Now that they're assembling the salvaged floor, they'll date-stamp the contemporary substitutions to provide a legacy for the next generation trying to figure out how the church was built and rebuilt.

In so doing, they preserve our cultural legacy, teach the next generation of architects what it means to design buildings that last, salvage wood that most likely would have deteriorated or been scrapped, and sustain the geography of place that was once washed away by the floodplain of the Cahawba River. This seems like sensible sustainability, one that sates the curiosity of generations to come.

October 10, 2007
Sustainability Efforts a Ruse?

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

David Buege, the interim director of Rural Studio while Andrew Freear is on sabbatical, questions the long-term effectiveness of green building and sustainability in general. He wonders whether LEED certification isn't just another highly profitable add-on service that some architects exploit. Long-term, land-use planning, he says, should be at the forefront of his profession. Without that, most other efforts will fail to make an impact on generations outside of our grandchildren.

People in the field he admires? Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University. They have proposed a radical plan of creating a Buffalo Commons stretching from Canada through the Dakotas right on down to Texas. This commons area would reclaim millions of acres of land and restore the prairies to their natural condition before colonial efforts seized North America. Anne Matthews chronicles their ideas in Where the Buffalo Roam: Restoring America's Great Plains.

October 9, 2007
Antioch Baptist ChurchTrent Gilliss, Online Editor<br />
Thirty minutes north of Greensboro is a magnificent country church with a modernist flare that would appeal to most minimalists. In 2002, a century-old church standing on the site was carefully dismantled right down to the pulled nails so the materials could be reused in its current incarnation. The concrete blocks were salvaged from the women's dorms at Auburn and serve as a retaining wall leading parishioners into the church.<br />
(photo: Mitch Hanley) 

Antioch Baptist Church
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Thirty minutes north of Greensboro is a magnificent country church with a modernist flare that would appeal to most minimalists. In 2002, a century-old church standing on the site was carefully dismantled right down to the pulled nails so the materials could be reused in its current incarnation. The concrete blocks were salvaged from the women's dorms at Auburn and serve as a retaining wall leading parishioners into the church.

(photo: Mitch Hanley)

October 9, 2007
Consumed, and Consuming Trent Gilliss, Online Editor<br />
Irony is not a sentiment lost on us at Speaking of Faith. As we were driving from Birmingham to Greensboro, we (Mitch Hanley, the senior producer, and I) had to swallow hard and chuckle that we are symbolic of the U.S. culture, at large. As part of APM's upcoming Consumed collaboration in November, we are producing a program on Auburn University's Rural Studio.<br />
To collect sound and interviews and visuals, we had to travel to the design-build program's work sites in Hale County, Alabama, from our home base in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, we ended up taking two jets and renting a massive SUV — a Dodge Durango — to carry our equipment and sundry people. We are reporting on sustainability and consumption issues. Oy vey.<br />
But, this scenario isn't a one-off. The confessional part is that I drive an 8-cylinder, 4x4 Toyota Tundra that gets probably 14 mpg in town. And, I do a lot of trekking for childcare and other stuff. The fact is, I love that darned truck. I've even named it Black Thunder. My wife cringes and my co-workers laugh, and yes it's playful and all. But the truth is I like ridin' high and haulin' brush and scrap. I'm guilty, and I'm riddled with guilt but I'm not willing to give it up.<br />
(photo: Trent Gilliss)

Consumed, and Consuming
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Irony is not a sentiment lost on us at On Being. As we were driving from Birmingham to Greensboro, we (Mitch Hanley, the senior producer, and I) had to swallow hard and chuckle that we are symbolic of the U.S. culture, at large. As part of APM's upcoming Consumed collaboration in November, we are producing a program on Auburn University's Rural Studio.

To collect sound and interviews and visuals, we had to travel to the design-build program's work sites in Hale County, Alabama, from our home base in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, we ended up taking two jets and renting a massive SUV — a Dodge Durango — to carry our equipment and sundry people. We are reporting on sustainability and consumption issues. Oy vey.

But, this scenario isn't a one-off. The confessional part is that I drive an 8-cylinder, 4x4 Toyota Tundra that gets probably 14 mpg in town. And, I do a lot of trekking for childcare and other stuff. The fact is, I love that darned truck. I've even named it Black Thunder. My wife cringes and my co-workers laugh, and yes it's playful and all. But the truth is I like ridin' high and haulin' brush and scrap. I'm guilty, and I'm riddled with guilt but I'm not willing to give it up.

(photo: Trent Gilliss)

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is an associate professor of Architecture at Auburn University and director of the Rural Studio.

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