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Rural Studio

"Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor, not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul," said Rural Design Studio founder Howard Mockabee. In 1993, Mockabee took that vision to rural Hale County, Alabama, one of the poorest areas of the United States, in the form of his visionary Rural Studio. An off¬ campus design¬ build program of Auburn University.

Mockbee’s founding philosophy was simple: move students out of the studio, into the community, and let them serve. Mockbee believed that design could be about balance. It was naïve to think that the rich and the poor weren’t different – but design was a tool to serve all of humanity, rather than just being in service of the interests of the rich.

In its early days, the studio became known for recycling and reusing – at a time when the word ‘upcycling’ didn’t exist. However, the work contained an intrinsic environmental responsibility and budgetary constraints often forced Mockbee and his students to be creative.

The Rural Studio’s projects have become increasingly complex over the years and often feature multiple teams of students working semester after semester. Students work together with community members to find projects, design solutions, fundraise and ultimately build. The program is notable for teaching students the entire process of social design, including outreach and grant ­writing. Students spend their entire fifth year in Hale County working on a project and then often stay a year after graduation to finish construction. In addition to housing, the Studio has produced a number of community projects such as a town hall and an animal shelter, to name a few.

The Studio undertakes serial projects as well, and is well known for its 20K house project. The project is actually a full line of houses – 21 have been built so far. The project’s ambition is to create a line of houses which can be designed and built for twenty thousand dollars, which can then be added to a contractor’s product line.

To date, the Studio has completed over 170 projects and educated over 800 students. Through its work, the Rural Studio has actually served as a template for public ­interest, design/build education, inspiring dozens of imitators at universities around the world.

In 2010, Sam Wainwright Douglas captured the work in his documentary Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio.