Four Auburn students recently concluded their year-long project of designing and building a house, Buster’s home, from start to finish for a Hale County resident.
As architecture students at Auburn; Olivia Backer, Carley Chastain, Ben Malaier and Janine Mwenja, had to choose from a conventional thesis-style project in Auburn, a project with Urban studio in Birmingham or a project with Rural Studio in Hale County. The students chose to study for their fifth year of the curriculum at Rural Studio.
“I decided to go to the rural studio because it was this amazing opportunity to build and work in a completely different environment than what we’re used to,” Backer said.
Rural Studio is a design-build program that gives Auburn students a more hands-on educational experience while assisting an under-served population in West Alabama. Rural Studio offers various projects students can choose from including renovating or remodeling public buildings.
Once there, the students chose to partake in the studio’s 20k project. The project began in 2005 with the concept of how much a person living with government subsidies can afford to pay every month toward the mortgage, said Xavier Vendrell, acting director of Rural Studio.
The studio gives the students full autonomy over the project from start to finish. They conducted research on previous homes in the 20k product line, consulted their professors and the studio and designed and built the house while managing the schedule and budget.
“All due respect to our levels of intelligence, but if yo-u give four 22-year-olds the project of building a house, things have to get pretty simple for it to be an achievable goal,” Chastain said. “There was no handholding. We had to set our own schedule. We had to manage our own budget and different things like that.”
The students quickly learned how difficult it can be to build the desired standard of house while staying within the budget. Chastain recalled their professor’s instruction on the first day of the project.
“Make me a gourmet meal with only rice, salt and peppers,” Chastain said.
The students came away with a deeper understanding of the issues facing people living below the poverty line.
“You learn that it’s an all-encompassing problem, more than just a basic design problem. But, the really cool thing about the studio is that we’re allowed to explore those problems as well,” Backer said.
“A lot of people are not aware that architecture can play a social role in our society,” Vendrell said. “The architecture that really affects people is the everyday architecture. We all live in a house. We all go to schools. We all go to the market. We go to work. We all go to these places and they’re very important.”
The real-world experience brought what they had learned in the classroom to life.
“I would have all these moments where I would be doing something and I went, ‘Oh. This is what that drawing meant.’ When I look at a set of drawings now, my understanding is on a different level,” Chastain said.
The learning was a constant throughout the project for the students. Chastain said building a home requires learning something every week. Skills differ for each task requiring a different skillset for concrete, framing, running wire, installation and plumbing. Chastain said with every task, you learn a new set of skills.
The students believe all the skills and lessons learned will be applicable to their future endeavors in architecture. “There’s a breach between the people who are building the houses and the people who designed the houses. This could be architecture in general, it doesn’t have to just be houses. I would love to be working with a team who strives to bridge that gap,” Chastain said.
Chastain also thought the team approach of the project was beneficial because of the rarity of teamwork in school. Chastain said that with architecture being a profession where people work in a team, learning to work creatively in a group is a whole new ball game.
“On the architectural level, it was really awesome to be able to see this thing that you conceptualize, to create it and have ownership on it,” Backer said. “But on the other level, we had this really amazing client. And to see how excited he was about us making this thing for him and how much he appreciated it feels great because it’s us not learning for the purpose of gaining more knowledge, but it’s us learning in a way that helps someone else.”
“What I’ve been told by a lot of the staff at Rural Studio is that we won’t get the full effects for the next few years, almost,” Chastain said. It might not be until years down the road at another job will I realize how much this experience taught me.”