Loft House – view the interior here:
This little yellow house, left-middle looks like a HERO Habitat house with a Rural Studio-ish porch. Top right is Pattern Book house, under that pic and to the right is Bridge House:
If you’ve heard of Hale County, it might be because it’s the catfish capital of Alabama or because James Agee and Walker Evans visited white sharecroppers here during the Depression, when they researched Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But most likely it’s because of architects Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D. K. Ruth, who, in the early 1990s, established Rural Studio as an offshoot of Auburn University. Rural Studio is a hothouse for architecture students who build sophisticated homes for desperately poor, typically black clients — people who are so cut off from the economic mainstream that the subprime mortgage mess couldn’t even find them.
Dorr, who used to do product development for Baby Gap and, before that, designed for Victoria’s Secret, came to Rural Studio in 2003 from San Francisco. She was looking for something more meaningful to do with her life. Like most people, she’d initially been drawn to Hale County by powerful photos of Rural Studio projects. But when she enrolled as an outreach student, she discovered truths the pictures don’t reveal.
Rural Studio outreach students are often not architects. They don’t receive academic credit — unlike the studio’s regular students, they’re not enrolled at Auburn — and some years they don’t even get to build anything. Birmingham architect John Forney, who has taught at the Rural Studio, explains that Mockbee, who died of leukemia in 2001, created the outreach program because he “wanted to have more people stirring more pots in west Alabama.”
Eventually Dorr discovered that some of the widows had, in fact, applied to Rural Development, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, for loans to help them buy a new house. “Their applications were getting approved,” says Dorr. “There was a stack of them in our local office. And they were just sitting there.” The problem, Dorr learned, was that although the women were deemed good credit risks, their incomes were so low — typically, $637 a month from Social Security — that they could afford to repay only a $20,000 loan. And everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a $20,000 house. “Well, there wasn’t at the time,” Dorr says with a laugh.
She began to frequent conferences about affordable housing and to ask the architects she met if they could design a $20,000 house. “And they were like, ‘Uh, no,'” Dorr reports.
Ultimately, Freear was persuaded to adopt Dorr’s 20K house quest, and he handed it off to the outreach students. He established rules: design a house that could be built with $10,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor. Says Freear, “It’s all about the cost of every nail and every stud.” Because these houses are supposed to be replicable prototypes, big architectural flourishes of the sort that might be laboriously fabricated by highly motivated students but not by ordinary contractors were discouraged.
But Dorr’s insight — someone who can afford only a $20,000 mortgage should be able to buy a $20,000 house — has changed the culture of Rural Studio. Freear is determined to keep building prototypes until they find one a bank and a regular contractor can embrace. “For me, it’s a fantastic counterpoint to the other things we do out here,” he explains. So maybe Mockbee and Dorr, who never met, are two halves of a single equation. After all, the 20K house — and also the fresh mint — arrived in west Alabama because Mockbee wanted more people stirring more pots. And Dorr, as it turns out, is a world-class pot-stirrer.
My friend Jessie studied architecture at Auburn and was a Rural Studio student — I think she worked on Music Man’s home — she now lives on the Gulf Coast doing important work for disadvantaged people. Her website is here and when she decides to share her artwork with the world, she puts it on Etsy (nothing on right now, but her meat & three paintings are the best!).