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Newbern, AL
Rural Studio: Design Build From The Heart

By TJ McCueSunday, October 19, 2014
3D Design, Architecture

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A person’s character is revealed when you drop in on them unexpectedly. The character you want to experience is a gracious one, as both Gayle Etheridge and Brenda Wilkerson demonstrated, when you stop by unannounced as we did when visiting Rural Studio in New Bern, Alabama last week.

Sure, I sent an email saying the 3DRV would be in town and could we stop, but I didn’t really give them much notice and I felt sheepish about stopping, until a local person we met in the nearby town of Greensboro told us that, of course, they would be happy for us to stop by and visit for a while. Country charm, to be sure, but in fact, each and every person that we met at this Auburn University program shared kindness, patience, and joy with us like we were old friends that happened by on a summer afternoon.

I am pretty sure that’s what Samuel Mockbee intended when he co-founded the Rural Studio program with D.K. Ruth over 20 years ago, but it is what remains and stands strong as his legacy: “we hope we have been a good neighbor and friend to the community.” Even community that just shows up. Director Andrew Freear continues that tradition and spent time with us explaining how the program works and serves this small region of Alabama.

Like many architecture programs, students learn to use a variety of design software, including AutoCAD, but here at Rural Studio they get out into the community and put that design thinking to almost immediate and complete use. Students come here as part of their undergraduate degree, but they are here in New Bern to do what is known as design/build, in the fullest sense of that term. In most circles, that means you get involved with the building contractors or you serve as a general contractor.

Here, design/build means you get deeply involved in the community and you help build residences, a playground, a firehouse, and a town hall. All of which could, and sometimes does, make it onto the pages of a national magazine or into award-winning exhibits.

Here in New Bern, design/build means you do it all. And I do mean ALL. You design the project, you find the materials and you get them donated or you find the funds to purchase them, and then you actually do the construction yourself, with your classmates, until it is done.

I should add that these projects are done in a place that truly needs them. These architecture students get a hands-on educational experience while assisting an underserved population in rural Alabama. To date, Rural Studio has built more than 150 projects and educated more than 600 “citizen architects.” There are only 186 residents in New Bern, so they've reached a good portion of the community (to be clear, I'm not saying they've fixed homes for 150 residents). 

We spent some time with students and went out to the memorial to Samuel Mockbee, the Subrosa Pantheon, which we laser scanned, then gave the file to the students to import into Autodesk ReCap. We talked about 3D printing and how they don’t yet have one at this campus. And we talked about the many apps that would let them photo-scan (123D Catch) and do some of the exterior of the Subrosa.

As I explained at the start of this post – a person is gracious and joyful when someone shows up unexpectedly, or a person is grumpy for the intrusion. I’m glad that Rural Studio exemplifies the former and gently reminded me that I need just a little more grace and a lot less grump, in me. 

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