Designing Prototypes of Self-Sufficient Living
A Conversation with Elena Barthel of Rural Studio
By Mala Parikh and Paola Ladino
Issue 8 Summer 2011
Rural Studio has been responsible for over 75 beautifully crafted architectural interventions such as homes, parks, community and public buildings for the residents of West Alabama that are plagued by poverty and substandard housing.
Over the last twenty years, Rural Studio has catalyzed the rebuilding of communities and provided students with an education of architectural practices that improve life conditions. Their symbiotic strategy is based on the building of inspiring architecture, self-sufficient communities, and socially aware students. Though the Rural Studio lives in the community they serve, their latest projects are designed as prototypes of socially and environmentally sustainable design which can be applied elsewhere.
We were fortunate to speak to Elena Barthel, Architect and Studio Professor at the Rural Studio of Auburn University, to gain a better understanding of Rural Studio’s process and their latest projects.
CATALYST: How do you define the good life?
Elena Barthel (EB): I think good food aids good life!
The Rural Studio acts in a very unique environment. We live and work in a small rural area with a powerful past and a weak present.
In the last 50 years the style of life of the rural community in Hale County has progressively been converted into a suburban way of living. Coming from Tuscany, Italy, I found it very disappointing that no one lives off the land anymore; no one grows his own vegetables or raises domestic animals. Rarely do people eat fresh vegetables and the southern culture of seasonal food is lost. The most popular way of eating down here is to drive a “large car” and to buy processed food at the grocery store. I think this model is not sustainable anymore for both people and the planet. We need to stop transporting industrial food around the world and start cooking and eating locally.
“In the last 50 years the style of life of the rural community in Hale County
has progressively been converted into a suburban way of living.”
CATALYST: Since the beginning, the Rural Studio’s work always addressed the big question- What is the future of the rural settlements in Alabama and how can we, as architects, contribute to improve the quality of life?
EB: These questions have led Rural Studio to create the Rural Studio Farm project. The idea is to transform the school’s campus into a self-sufficient farm capable of producing its own food, energy and materials to build.
The Rural Studio Farm aims to reintroduce a style of life based on living off the land, and after five years, becoming a model for the surrounding communities supporting the social and economic fabric. In the future we want to be able to barter milk and catfish for arugula and fresh eggs.
At the same time it is a fantastic opportunity to exchange knowledge with the local farmers. It is a 360-degree project challenged by multiple scale issues: what should we eat, where should the food come from and how can we reduce our waste.
From a pedagogical point of view, the Rural Studio Farm project teaches students to become responsible architects, understanding the environmental and social impact of humans on the planet. It teaches how to design sustainable buildings together with zero mile meals, and how to produce and conserve energy.
The students are charged to design and build, in five years, all the infrastructures needed to establish the Farm. Currently they are designing and building a Solar Green house, a passive construction, that produces heat, vegetables and collects rain water. It will be the first of our facilities to produce our own food, in the winter months.
The food production at the Rural Studio Farm exposes students to the whole food cycle from seeding, planting, harvesting, cooking, and finally to eating as a social act. The building material production, will expose students to the wood cycle from cutting trees, to debarking, milling, ripping and finally building with local wood.
CATALYST: Have you seen a growth in these types of design-build university-based programs that focus on creating an architecture that is more socially responsible?
EB: I feel there is a growing movement in architecture that takes the social, economic and environmental impact of buildings as a challenge and a civil responsibility. At the same time I feel there is an increased interest from architectural students in the design and build programs; and there is a growing interest in community service.
At the Rural Studio every year we have 20 to 25, 3rd and 5th year students, from Auburn University and a group of four outreach students from abroad.
Traditionally the youngest students were charged to design and build charity houses in the Rural Studio’s immediate community. Since last year the curriculum has changed to a multi-phase project to strategize, design and build the Rural Studio Farm.
Concurrently, 5th year students work in teams running large community projects, working on both public buildings and open spaces. The Outreach students investigate affordable housing prototypes, every twelve months, designing and building, a new evolution of the ‘20 K House’: a home for everyone.
In the last seventeen years the Rural Studio has designed and built over one hundred and fifty projects in a twenty-five miles radius of Newbern, in Hale, Marengo and Perry County: becoming a public servant for the communities. Its experimental and sustainable architectures are renowned worldwide.
The students’ projects are constantly supported by local, national and international consultants together with visitors and guest lecturers. Professionals, who help to frame the projects, make sure they stand up, perform well and last longer.
We have structural engineers from Chicago and London, Joe Farruggia and Anderson Inge. Our environmental engineer, Paul Stoller is from Atelier 10 in New York, and our landscape architect, Xavier Vendrell is a Catalan architect from Barcelona, based in Chicago.
Recently, Scott Peacock, the famous local chef from Atlanta, has been included in our team helping the Rural Studio to increase its food culture.
At the same time Hale County Extension Office has been helping us to plan the Rural Studio Farm crop-growing calendar.
CATALYST: What do you think about shelter problems in these emerging economies?
EB: Two years after Samuel Mockbee died, the Rural Studio’s new Director Andrew Freear, started a renewed course for the Outreach students focused on the design of a twenty thousand dollar house: a prototype designed to be affordable, beautiful, durable and sustainable. The project costs $10,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor.
The 20K House is a clever response to a real problem. Locally, it is possible, for low income families, to access to a $20,000 federal loan, but there is no available model houses for this price. Before the 20K House project was started, 7 years ago, there was no housing solution for this part of the population.
“The 20K house is for everyone and impacts a much larger portion of the community.”
Academically speaking it is a very important project because it introduces architecture students to all the general issues related to social housing.
At the same time, it starts to fulfill the need for affordable housing in places like Hale County, where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.
In this sense the Rural Studio took on a big challenge, answering year after year the same question: is it possible to build a beautiful, durable and sustainable, 500 square foot house, for 20,000 dollars? The answer, after 10 evolutions of the same prototype, is yes! And it can be built by a local contractor!
The 20K House has a completely different approach to the charity house, originally built every year by the Rural Studio students, for one individual family. Each house was unique, as houses designed for rich people usually are.
The 20K house is for everyone and impacts a much larger portion of the community. It focuses on two goals: to establish an affordable housing model and to create a building prototype able to help develop the local wood frame building economy. It proves that a local contractor can build a house in three weeks and make a living!
To support the lack of housing, as well as the low incomes, in fragile rural settlements such as Hale County, is the strength of the 20K House. Generally the most successful projects, are the ones that give a model to the community that allows it to be self-managed. A tool to help the locals to become self-sufficient.
We are currently finalizing three different typologies of the twenty thousand dollar house: a Shot Gun model, a Modified Dog Trot and a Square House. Last month we celebrated the first house built by a contractor. We gave him the drawings and he built it!
CATALYST: Is the intention of this prototype to be built even where the Rural Studio cannot be present?
EB: The principle of the 20K house is to be applied anywhere. However, it has been de-signed for this particular region and climate with the clear intention to minimize expenses and maintenance costs. The last model we built, ‘David’s house’, costs only 35 dollars per month to run utilities.
It is very popular at the moment to go to the ‘Third World’, build temporary houses, give an answer to an emergency and go back to the first world. The Rural Studio is completely different; we live in Alabama all the time, year around. We take responsibility for what we do project after project. We learn together with the community how to make it better and more appropriate for this place. Without living here, it would be impossible. The 20K house project is the result of this site-specific approach to architecture.
CATALYST: Is that because you are rethinking already what is sustainable for those communities?
EB: The 20K house is based on the idea of minimizing the resources, labor and materials together with the bills, to accomplish and run a house. This is what we intend as sustainability in Hale County.
CATALYST: You spoke about wanting the communities to be self-sufficient. What are the strategies or methods you use to encourage people to be self-sufficient?
EB: Together with the 20K house that suggest another way of living, the Rural Studio farm project is intended to become a prototype and show another way of producing.
At the same time we are proceeding with what we call ‘Thinnings Project’, exploring new ways to use the local round wood known as “thinnings”. In this case the Rural Studio attempts to suggest another way of building. In response to the recent forest industry crisis our students are currently testing innovative structural systems to utilize the small round wood produced by the management of the forest, usually sold as fire wood. It is a very clever idea based on the acknowledgement of the strength of wood when used in tension and compression.
The “Thinnings project” is run by the Rural Studio in collaboration with the Talladega Forest, one of the main national parks in the south of the United States.
This year a group of four 5th year students is in the process of designing and building a bath house as the first new facility for the public inside the camping area of the park.
The ‘Thinnings” is another project we use to encourage the local industry to become more self-sufficient and diversify their production.
“Rich or poor does not really matter as long as you challenge them!”
CATALYST: In Latin America the economy is not so strong. So, designers and architects are just thinking about how to make more money. They are not thinking about how to improve the communities, lives of poor people or the country itself.
EB: Whether your client is rich or poor does not really matter as long as you challenge them!
CATALYST: Are there other models or disciplines that Rural Studio uses for inspirations? You talked about energy, sustainability, farming, economics, construction, and are there other sources for inspiration?
EB: Yes, we are currently improving the art and craft of the studio. Being able to teach the students how to become good craftsmen is very important. The pedagogical model, in which Rural Studios is rooted, is tied to the concept of “learning by making”. At Rural Studio the practice of building is very much associated with the perspective of the artisan, who from his own professional ethic demands high quality, a work of art executed with intelligence, manual skill, and knowledge. It is very important for the Rural Studio to teach the understanding and expertise to use tools, combined with the ability to create beauty. At the same time it is important to transmit to the students the civil and social obligation to work to the best of their abilities.
This attitude is central to the practice of Rural Studio, constantly tasked with the search for a sustainable architecture with a small “s,” to appropriately respond to the climatic, economic, social, and cultural conditions of Hale County.
In the last two years we started two new courses: the Wood Shop and the Drawing Class. The Wood Shop instigates the culture of wooden craft, teaching 3rd year students, the principles and the techniques needed to reproduce famous Modern Movement chairs.
At the same time the Drawing Class teaches, 5th year students, the craft of hand drawings. The students dedicate 3 hours per week to design and make beautiful full scale hand drawings. Whether they are building a construction, a chair, or a drawing, the attitude should be the same – find the best tools, use the best skills, and do it beautifully!
CATALYST: Have you seen transformations in the students in your programs?
EB: The Rural Studio is an atelier kind of class. Everyone is participating and working towards a common goal and part of the same process. The students gain a full experience and it becomes part of their lifestyle. When they come here they are aware of, and committed, to this collaborative process. They arrive enthusiastic, wanting to be part of the community and building it. All of them gain a deep understanding of the process by living in it.
“I think the time of object-building is over. The future should focus on the materiality, the social, economic and envi- ronmental impacts of architecture. “
CATALYST:Do you think that in the future architecture and design will re-imagine the whole process, and center the attention on more than just object making?
EB: Yes, absolutely without doubt. That is the task of the architect in the third millennium. I think the time of object-building is over. The future should focus on the materiality, the social, economic and environmental impacts of architecture.
For example if you go through the history of the design-build programs we can easily understand what should be the focus of the third millennium architecture. The first design-build program was the Bauhaus and was about revolution, using architecture and industrial design to provoke a social revolution. The design-build programs in the 1960s-1970s were very politically oriented, focused on activating and involving the users, in the design process of their cities. Today the most important design and build programs teach the environmental and social responsibility of architecture!
CATALYST: What advice would you give to young, idealistic designers? At the Rural Studio you have been able to implement all these ideals in an economically and environmental sustainable way.
EB: Come and work with us!
I think the key is working in teams. The Rural Studio wouldn’t exist if we did not put so much effort into team work. Then, find a place that you like and stay there.
I don’t think the current model of moving to China to make money is really sustainable. I think it is much more interesting to find a place where you feel well and day by day incrementally build it up.
It will not necessarily be about making easy money, but it is gonna last longer!
Designing flexible prototypes that are self-sufficient enable greater impact.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Become a public servant for communities
Build tools to make the community self sufficient
Take responsibility for what we do
Learn together with the community
Challenge your clients
Understand the process by living it
Work in teams
About the Contributor:
Elena Barthel Architect & Studio Professor at Rural Studio of Auburn University Today: Elena Barthel is currently Assistant Professor at the Rural Studio running the Third Year Design Studio charged to design the Rural Studio Farm which is a five-year project focused on the redesign of the Rural Studio campus. It is an opportunity to experiment with the production of food, energy and building material.
The aim is to live off the land and instigate a new style of life for the Rural Studio students and its community. Eating, building, and living are intended as parallel symbiotic systems driven by the same holistic ethic: challenged by using the land creatively as a precious resource. The Rural Studio Farm is intended as a prototype to pursue sustainability towards a better quality of life and a privileged opportunity to answer an important question:
What can the future of farming be in a contemporary rural setting?
Previously she taught the Second Year Studio at the Rural Studio as Visiting Assistant Professor of Architecture. For 16 years, the Second-Year Studio at the Rural Studio has focused on designing and building single-family homes. In 2008-2009 her studio took the opportunity to design and build Rose Lee’s house, in Footwash, a small community near the Rural Studio.
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