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Rural Studio Immersion Program Enriching Students, Reviving West Alabama’s Black Belt

At Auburn University’s architectural-training program, “housing is health.” Associate Director Rusty Smith asserts: “As architects, we have a professional responsibility. It's not only an ethical or moral responsibility; it's a professional responsibility, as well, to act when we see people in crisis.”

Rural Studio at Auburn University is one of nine organizations selected as part of Shaw Industriessustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program, which recognizes a diverse slate of organizations that are innovating to support the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Shaw’s Troy Virgo recently interviewed Rusty Smith — Associate Director of Rural Studio at Auburn University School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture — to learn more about how this venerable institution focused on community need and incorporated ‘healthier materials’ thinking, giving architecture students a hands-on educational experience while assisting under-resourced communities of West Alabama’s Black Belt.

TV: Tell us about Rural Studio.

RS: Rural Studio is an off-campus part of the architecture program housed at Auburn’s School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning. It’s located about three hours from campus — in a region that is known as the Black Belt. Rural Studio is place-based, focused on the work and the needs of our neighbors in that small service area. Our students have designed and built over 200 projects in our five-county service area.

Rural Studio is an immersion-based program in which students come and live and work with us anywhere from one semester of their five years of undergraduate study, to up to two years — or maybe even more, depending on when they come to us and what projects they might be engaged in. The program was founded on a handful of simple premises: The first is that Rural Studio believes that the best way to learn how to do things is by doing it. So, we're extraordinarily hands on. Through that engagement and experience-based activity of designing and building real projects — for real people, with real budgets, on real sites, and hopefully, with real impacts — the students begin to transfer what they've learned on campus, and through that engagement and experience, into what we just refer to as ‘know-how.’

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As part of the students' work with us, and as part of their architectural education, they both design and build all kinds of community infrastructure — everything from single-family houses to much larger projects like fire stations, town halls, libraries; lots of parks and recreation work, healthcare work, and educational work. You name it. We've been around almost 30 years; and over that period of time, we've had more than 1,200 students come through the program.

TV: Can you please talk a little bit about the community that Rural Studio works in?

RS: Our work happens in a place that's considered to be persistently impoverished — a federal designation that simply means that 20 percent of the community members have lived consistently and persistently in poverty for 30 years or more.

There are roughly 380 persistently impoverished counties in the United States, and about 85 percent of those are rural. So, this problem of persistent poverty is particularly rural in nature. What’s important to know about these counties is they are historically, geographically, geologically and culturally different from each other; but they all share a history of extraction where — for decades and centuries, resources have literally been taken out of the ground and no resources ever put back.

Working here is really complicated. We have learned that, besides just learning how to do things by doing them — when you're faced with complex and difficult things that you don't know how to do, it's important to do them together.

We work with community partners, neighbors and stakeholders, as well as a lot of other partners and consultants. We live and die through our partnerships. We believe that access to good, healthy, dignified places to live and work is a human right — and that folks have that right, whether they can afford it or not, no matter what their circumstances are. As architects, we have a professional responsibility. It's not only an ethical or moral responsibility; but it's a professional responsibility, as well, to act when we see people in crisis.

Image credit: Rural Studio

TV: Can you share some of your projects?

RS: The very first project Rural Studio engaged in was a house for a couple named Shepard and Alberta Bryant, who were living in a tough situation. Some faculty in the architecture program at Auburn — Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth — saw a need in a community and decided to work with students to address the challenge.

The fact that Rural Studio started with just one house is important, because we are a housing- and food-first organization. One of the things that folks don't know about Rural Studio is that we're really food-oriented. Our students live and work on a working farm; and we produce about 50 percent of our own food. Rural Studio is in a food desert, which most folks think are urban conditions; but a lot of persistently impoverished places are food deserts, as well. If you get people adequately housed and decently fed, you can then begin to address a lot of the other issues that our communities and neighbors face.

We have also expanded over the last couple of decades to do a lot of larger infrastructure projects, like the fire station. A group of students were working on issues of housing affordability and realized that houses were burning down at an inordinate rate. And it turns out that homeowner's insurance is unobtainable without fire protection. Without homeowner's insurance, you can't get a mortgage. And without a mortgage, no matter what we do as architects, it's never going to make a home more affordable or attainable for one of our neighbors.

These issues of equitable access and affordability are not just brick-and-mortar problems. There are these larger, systems-based problems, and you have to really begin to address the whole system simultaneously. That's what we try to do at Rural Studio: Understand the system, reveal the invisible systems that these complex situations exist within. It's through that revealing of the system, and potential changes in the system, you really can begin to move the needle a little.

More details about our projects can be found on our website — as well as information about a new effort, our Front Porch Initiative. It helps expand our footprint around the Southeast US — sharing the housing that our students have designed and built; and all our technical knowledge about how to deliver those homes in an affordable and efficient, high-performing way. We share not only the obvious construction and inspection documents, but also important workforce development program components, energy modeling and monitoring, consideration of health outcomes and understanding how to finance homes like these.

Image credit: Rural Studio

TV: Where do health and wellbeing and material health in particular fit into your priorities?

RS: Questions of why we are where we are, and the health and wellness focus of the program, are nested together. It's taken us a little bit of time to figure it out, but the health and wellness of our community members is really job number one. We didn't have language around the social determinants of health 30 years ago. Now we understand the role that the environments that we live in, and the impact that they play on our health and wellness long term, far outweigh the medical responses to our health and wellness outcome.

Historically, we've thought about health and wellness as disease prevention. But now we know that housing is a fundamental component. Housing is health. Housing is medicine in some ways. Where we live is the single, by a factor of 10, strongest determinant of our long-term health.

Through the lens of the pandemic, we know that West Alabama has been disproportionately impacted by COVID. It's rural, poor, elderly, and by and large, Black. If you look at a map of persistently impoverished counties versus a map of the disproportionate impact of COVID, they almost map directly against each other. Something we inherently knew 30 years ago has become crystal clear. COVID is primarily a respiratory disease; and comorbidities of the respiratory illnesses that exist in these communities come predominantly from the substandard housing and the unhealthy environments that our community members often live in. This last year-and-a-half has really been eye-opening, clarifying the role that building and housing and design play relative to health and wellness. It's become an explicit understanding now and is an important part of our work.

TV: What’s next for Rural Studio?

RS: We're always looking over the horizon. We try not to invent anything; all of our work comes right out of our community. But a lot of our work continues to expand. Rural Studio would historically be recognized as an outreach program — and outreach is important. We are better understanding that our role as researchers in these spaces has become increasingly important. There are things that we've learned from being in a place for 30 years that are shareable and useful for others. We are starting to reckon with the fact that we’re a think tank, because we do a lot of research. We're also a ‘do tank’ — we do a lot of applied research. And quite honestly, closing the gap between what we know and what we do about it is important.

We are focused on housing affordability, issues of food sovereignty and food security. There is a tremendous amount of work in building performance around durability, resilience, energy efficiency, those sorts of things. And we are tilting into a lot of work around wastewater and thinking about where our water comes from, and where it goes. So, broadly we are beginning to address these larger systemic issues of health and wellness, energy efficiency, durability and resilience, and really thinking about how all of those things really work together to make our communities more resilient and strengthen our community networks. But we're going to continue to do that by designing and building buildings.


This article is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.

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