By Thelma Paulsen

Hale County,Alabama, south of Tuscaloosa, shares the dark, rich soil of the Black Belt with its next-door neighbors. Although not actually carved into a county from the lands of those nearby until two years after the end of the Civil War, in the antebellum days of the cotton plantations, the area reflected regional wealth. Not any more.
Parts of rural counties of west-central Alabama are deemed by some to be a “third-world” sector of a poor southern state existing within the world’s wealthiest nation.
Nearly a third of the residents of Hale County — named for Confederate Lt. Col. Stephen Hale, who perished in battle — live below the poverty level; some don’t have running water. The region can, despite its ethereal beauty, seem like the land of the forlorn and forgotten.
And it’s been that way for awhile. Back in 1936, six years into the Great Depression, Fortune magazine sent photographer Walker Evans (who’d previously documented conditions there for the Farm Services Administration) and writer James Agee, to Hale County and nearby areas to collaborate on a story. It never ran, but Evans and Agee used that work to collaborate on a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that made them famous and Hale County infamous.
Fast forward thirty-odd years and native son William Christenberry, born in Tuscaloosa the year Walker Evans visited, followed his lead, photographing the abandoned and disappearing landmarks of the same community where his extended family lived and where he’d spent boyhood summers.
Christenberry, who’d obtained a Master of Art in Painting from the University of Alabama, was influenced by Evan’s work and met him while living in New York. When Christenberry began a professorship at the Corcoran School of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., in 1967, photographing fading landmarks became a mission of his annual trip “home.” In 1973, two years before his death, Evans accompanied Christenberry on his pilgrimage back to Hale County.
That was during the next to last academic year for an architecture student at Auburn University by the name of Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee. A native of Meridian and a fifth generation Mississippian, Mockbee was aware of the disparate conditions among residents of Hale County, Alabama, and any number of similar counties in his home state next door. Taking his architecture degree back to Meridian, he went into the business of designing buildings, which he did for nearly twenty years. Then his alma mater came calling, and he returned to teach where he’d been taught. And that is where our true story begins.
Collaborating with Dennis “D. K.” Ruth, then head of the architecture program at Auburn, he set about to create a real-world, design-build program for their students. The charming, bearded, bear-like Mockbee thought and spoke about the social responsibility of architects and the need and right of the soul to live in harmonious, well-designed surroundings.
“Everyone deserves good design,” he was quoted as saying. He thought he knew of a place where a kind of even exchange could occur, architecture students getting profound, start-to-finish, hands-on opportunities and a community getting much-needed housing for some of its most distressed citizens: Hale County, whose seat, Greensboro, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Auburn.
It was in Hale County, in 1993, that Mockbee’s Rural Studio was born. Twenty years later, more than 600 “citizen architect” students from Auburn’s five-year program have moved through it; and more than 150 projects have been designed, built and completed by it, reaching into neighboring counties, as well. The program has received accolades, awards and international recognition.
In the early years of the Studio, Mockbee searched out clients, scouring the bucolic landscape for suitable prospects. The first he found were in a snug hamlet called Mason’s Bend, home to multiple generations of four families. There the Rural Studio student architects designed and built the Hay Bale House, the Smoke House made of stacked, broken and discarded concrete “stones,” the Butterfly House with a roof cut at angles that made it appear ready for for fluttered flight, a basketball court and the Glass Chapel community center. Interspersed with these projects were numerous others including the Yancey Tire Chapel in Sawyerville , the Akron Pavilion, and new buildings on the Morrisette House campus of the Studio located in Newbern (population 185), nine miles south of Greensboro.
Because donations or raised funds are required for the actual construction of the projects, in the first years especially, the Studio utilized locally sourced and recycled materials. To a lesser but still significant degree, this policy continues. The early building materials included tires covered in stucco, bales of shredded, waxed cardboard used to construct a student-housing pod on the Newbern campus and a chapel roof made from car windshields, $25 for the whole roof full.
For those who have suggested that the architecture program might be taking advantage of the community it serves, Mockbee would say, “Come on down!” The student architects-in-training gain a depth of insight, real-world problem-solving and design experience, and hands-on learning from inception to completion. They actually get to build, in architecture school, a big deal. Students even tend to the upkeep of former projects. The houses have been donated to the in-need clients and observed for design effectiveness, pleasure and durability. These houses change lives.
Sam Mockbee received recognition and numerous awards for his work, including the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2000. In late 2001, he passed away due to complications from the leukemia he’d been diagnosed with three years earlier. Stepping up to the helm of leadership behind Mockbee was Andrew Freear, a U. K. architect who’d joined the program the year before.
Freear has guided the Rural Studio projects toward what some might see as a more pragmatic path in design and choice of materials. Mockbee was an artist-architect; he challenged his students to push the boundaries of design. And although many designs emanating from the Studio today continue to have a modernistic bent, as well as being built with locally-sourced materials, there has been a renewed recognition of and return to traditional vernacular design.
In a recent article written by Nick Kaye and published in the online newsletter, TheBitterSoutherner.com, Freear talked about the wisdom in the functional design of local antebellum houses “… built 150 years ago. They all had big roofs and big overhangs. They all had tall ceilings. They all had good cross-ventilation. They all had porches. And they survived, right? …They were smart and the things have lasted, so why not learn from those?”
As the Rural Studio has evolved and matured, still young yet old at 20, it no longer seeks out customers. Instead, projects come to them. While the Studio continues to build houses, it has increased its focus on community-oriented projects that benefit larger groups. Its clients include churches, youth and civic groups, municipal and recreation programs, museums, and non-profit organizations. They’ve brought innovative and affordable design and construction to parks, a town hall, a library, a fire station, an animal shelter, playgrounds, ball fields, a home-grown civil-rights museum, a farmers’ market and more.
Under Mockbee, then Freear, the program and its citizen architects have been particularly skilled at blending in, being good neighbors, becoming a part of the locale. Third and 5th year architecture students attend the Rural Studio. The agenda of the students at the Studio has transitioned with the program. Currently, the dozen or so third year Design Studio undergraduates collaborate on a multi-phase, food and gardening project on the Rural Studio Farm, located on the Newbern campus, where they reside in student-designed-and-built “pods” during their stay.
According to the Rural Studio website, fifth year, or thesis students, work on community projects that “…are typically completed in 18 to 24 months and are built by teams of three to five students.” These final-year students collaborate with local municipalities and advisory boards and typically stay a year beyond graduation to see their assignment through.
On the Studio’s Morrisette House campus in Newbern, student teams have designed and are building a solar greenhouse using recycled 55-gallon drums. And since 2005, the Rural Studio has taken on a project known as the 20K House, which had a particularly interesting genesis.
In 1999, Mockbee established the Outreach Program “as a way to bring students and collaborators from outside Auburn University into the fold of the Studio.” Four placements are available in the program per academic year and preferences are given to those with architecture or design backgrounds. Outreach fellows pay full tuition (around $12,000), as well as locating their own housing and covering other personal expenses.
In 2003, an Outreach fellow named Pam Dorr arrived in Hale County from her home state of California, and never left. Following a successful 20-year career as a designer and product developer for Victoria’s Secret and Baby Gap, she was searching for more meaning and purpose in her life. Although she would never meet Sambo Mockbee, she’d read about and been inspired by his vision and his works. The historic town of Greensboro, with its beautiful but often abandoned buildings, and the surrounding community, with its impoverished population, called to her. Here she might have something to contribute. And she did.
The year Dorr studied and toiled as an Outreach fellow, Freear gave them the assignment to find a need in the community and then design a project to address that need. It took her a bit. At first she she explored a gardening project that met with only marginal success among those it was designed to assist.
Yet she became aware of another problem, a recurring scenario she encountered when she reached out to people in the community: elderly widows on a very low, fixed income, living in substandard housing, who had applied and qualified for USDA rural housing loans. There was only one catch: the amount of loan money they qualified for was only $20,000, based on monthly Social Security income of less than $700.
A desire of the Rural Studio, and other housing-related programs that would develop in Hale and adjoining counties, was the elimination of substandard housing in the area. Providing houses as alternatives to trailers, which depreciate and slowly disintegrate around the occupants living in them, had always been a program priority.
Can a house be built for $20,000?—Dorr began to ask, receiving a nearly-universal no. But Andrew Freear, who also expressed doubt that it could be done, was willing to have the Rural Studio give it a try.
The Rural Studio 20K House Project was born with a goal to design a model home that met FHA standards and could be reproduced by a contractor in the real-world marketplace for clients, many of whom never believed they could own a home.
“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.” Karrie Jacobs wrote in Elle Decor about the development of the 20K Project and the clients it serves.
The first houses, designed and built by the first students given the challenge, were planned with $10,000 allotted to materials and $10,000 for cost of building (once the prototype become marketably viable). That formula ultimately shifted to $12,000 for materials and $8,000 labor.
At the end of her year in the Outreach Program, Dorr went to work with for Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, HERO, a non-profit formed in 1994 as a social service and community development organization. Dorr would head up a new program there, the Housing Resource Center.
She had found her calling, one that related in some manner to an early piece of her history which she has vaguely and emotionally referenced in talks and presentations: the need for a home. At Rural Studio and HERO she learned to write grants and develop housing programs, with a goal of home ownership for the recipients.
The first 20K house, Elizabeth’s House, was designed and built by Rural Studio students in 2005. With sleek lines and modernistic angles, it’s a design winner but was ultimately deemed too trailer-like in shape and appearance. In the ensuing nine years, 20K models have continued to be designed and built by the Studio, first third-year students, then Outreach Program fellows. In 2011, a 20K Manager was hired with the goal being to take the 20K house from project to product. They now have a line of viable model homes which meet their goals. Joanne’s House is one.
Over at HERO, Dorr continued to develop knowledge and expertise which she skillfully applied to ideas and programs. She moved into the position of executive director. And this is where her history of working with reclaimed materials, her passion for securing basic, decent housing for those in need, and her design and product development experience would marvelously merge. But not without some turbulence.
Back in 2001, designer John Bielenberg, based in Maine, had heard Sam Mockbee speak and, in turn, became inspired to create Project M, a non-profit with a mission to use good design to aid social change. In part, this would be facilitated through the use of design blitzes in which groups of young creatives would gather for a month in a location deemed in need of some social intervention. There they would socialize and visualize and invent.
Project M first came to Greensboro in 2007 at the invitation of HERO Executive Director Pam Dorr. For the first few weeks the youthful creatives — who were invited into the homes and churches of the locals — biked and skateboarded around town, ate fried whiting, catfish, cornbread and okra, and spun their mental wheels. It just wasn’t coming together. Then there was some kind of raucous clash of emotions and ideations, out of which finally sprang an idea — water meters.
Turns out, according to a pamphlet they designed and released on the topic, one in four households in Hale County was without access to a municipal water source, thereby exposing inhabitants to contaminated drinking water. Inspiration hit in a big way. The visitors designed a stunningly effective campaign, led by a stark, grainy, gray and white flier, printed on newsprint and photographed creased and resting on grass, which read: “Oprah has one (a scrappy, metal-sided barn is seen in the background). So does Paris Hilton (an abandoned tireless car in front of an abandoned building)…” It goes on to name famous and infamous who “have one,” then says, “You do, too (the image on this page is a water meter). Herbert Banks doesn’t have one (an African-American man stands in front of a house). Neither do Jackie and Damien Green (an African-American mother is pictured holding her toddler son).”
But it is the next statement on the next page which is the clincher, in more ways than one. In large, white letters superimposed over an image of downtown Greensboro, were the words: “That’s because in Hale County, Alabama, water is not a right.”
BAM! These kids were good, but… (Although the number of folks without access to clean water in Hale County may have been appalling, water isn’t actually a “right” in any municipality in the U.S.).
Printed by a local newspaper, these fliers had been mailed all over the country. And there was a clever website: BuyAMeter.org for people to access. The contact was Pam Dorr at HERO. Money poured in: $55,000 and nearly a hundred families had water meters installed for the first time. HERO and Project M were ecstatic — until the backlash.
Who did these people think they were! insulted and outraged locals asked, to come from the other ends of the country and tell Hale County how to run its civic affairs! Hale County is no “third world-like” place!
Many Hale Countians hadn’t appreciated the focus of Evans and Agee seventy years before, and they resented the outsider “do-gooders” bringing that focus back now, unfairly some of them thought.
Dorr tried to smooth over the fuss and believed she had done so as HERO moved forward with its agenda. They’ve developed, built and rehabbed scores of homes and buildings, some historic, including storefronts downtown. They provide education on home ownership, home repair and rental assistance. Dorr started a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
And HERO developed a number of cottage industries: a thrift store, a rag business, a day care, a restaurant, a jewelry business, a pecan busines (branded PECANS!), a bamboo bike company (bamboo grows weed-like in Hale County), named HERObike — the University of Alabama recreation program purchased a “fleet” of them — that produce income for the program and jobs for the community, as many as 50. HERO has reached out to art schools and universities for assistance in the design of their products.
Project M continued their annual month-long creative in the community and the PieLab, a kind of pie-making, coffee-brewing, ideation and gathering venue, was born to MUCH positive press. But it was in the promotion of PieLab that the creatives stirred the ire of locals once again. They created a poster that said (in a wink and nod to Marie Antoinette): “Eat pie. F#@K cake.” Definitely not a southern approach. Dorr was on the defensive again.
Throughout the ripples in the relationship between HERO, Dorr and the locals, the Rural Studio has attempted to step away. They are about architecture, education, design, Freear has reiterated. Yes, they have done “charity” projects, but they are not “do-gooders” — they are not in the business of stroking egos. Architecture will not solve poverty, Freear observes.
But the Rural Studio 20K House Product and its socially-conscious mission may change the world of architecture, bringing good basic design to those most in need of it.
It was Pam Dorr who couldn’t let go of an idea that sparked a discussion that fired up the project. She’d never met Mockbee, but certainly he would be pleased.
Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama, by Andrew Freear, Elena Barthel and photographer Timothy Hursley has just been published. How fortunate we are as a people for the visionaries, the artists, the designers, the builders amongst us who have the power to inspire others and alter the world.
“Proceed and be bold,” Mockbee admonished his students.
They are, Sam. They are.

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