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June 23, 2009   Email to Friend 

AU RURAL STUDIO CHANGING LANDSCAPE AND LIVES
Debra Davis

Auburn University Rural Studio Director Professor Andrew Freear talks to local merchant George B. Woods in front of the Newbern Fire Station that was designed and built by AU architectural students.
Many architectural students who graduate from Auburn University leave with more than a degree in a demanding field of study. They depart knowing they've made a difference in the lives of some of the state's poorest families.

That's by design thanks to Auburn University's Rural Studio in Newbern in Hale County.

It had been almost 100 years since the tiny town, population 231, had seen the construction of a new public building until Auburn students, through the AU Rural Studio, designed the Newbern Fire Station. The students not only drew the plans, they also raised money for the project and actually built the unusual structure on main street. It's a daily reminder to residents like George B. Woods, who owns and operates Newbern Mercantile Co. across the street, of what the Rural Studio has meant to the area.

"I think the Rural Studio is a good thing," said Woods, who is a lifelong resident of the town. "It's helped out a lot of people and done a lot for our community. If it wasn't here, yeah, we'd have a fire station, but it'd probably be made from concrete block or just a metal building. But our fire station isn't like any other in the world."

The fire station is just one of many unique projects students from across the country helped design and build in Hale, Marengo and Perry counties.

The Rural Studio is a "design-build architecture studio" run by Auburn University and directed by Professor Andrew Freear. It was founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth.

In an average year, Rural Studio students build about five projects -- a house by second-year students; three thesis projects by groups of three to five fifth-year students; and one or more outreach studio projects. In all, Rural Studio has built more than 100 homes and civic projects in the Black Belt. But the studio is more than just a hands-on leaning experience for students, it teaches students social responsibility, Freear said.

"Architects can sometimes have a reputation for being a bit stiff and stuffy," Freear said with his strong British accent. "As students, we want them to learn to think and build and be creative, but we also want them to understand, that as professionals, they have a social responsibility for the greater good. It isn't just about making a lot of money or building the biggest building. Architecture is about people's lives. It's about community."

Those ideas are clearly visible in such projects as Lions Park, a joint project of the city of Greensboro, Hale County, the Lions Club and the Rural Studio. It's a 40-acre park being developed in several phases. Some, already complete, include a soccer field, little league baseball fields, basketball courts, a pavilion, public rest rooms and some of the most unusual entrance gates anywhere.

The most recent phase includes a skate park, designed and built by three senior students from Auburn University; Brett Jones of Moody, Carrie Laurendine of Baton Rouge, La., and Evan Dick of Anniston.

On a hot spring day in May, the trio were digging holes, leveling posts and getting ready to pour concrete. Already, a smaller skate ramp built as part of the overall project was in use by a local high school student. For Jones, he said he's learned one of the most satisfying parts of being an architect.

"We've all grown to love this town and the people here," he said. "You can learn a lot by actually doing the work. Here, you get every experience you could possibly get as an architect. One of the biggest things you learn, though, is the social aspect of being an architect. Doing projects like this, you learn about being good members of your community."

Public projects like the park show students how their work affects a community. On a more personal note, homes they've built in the area teach students they can change the life of an individual or a family, Freear said.

"The Black Belt is one of the poorest areas in the state, actually in the country," he said. "Our challenge is to try to build a model house for $20,000. In reality, not too many architects are going to spend much time on a project of that dollar amount. But here, we've got these smart young minds, and we've got free labor to put those ideas into place to see if they'll work."

The goal, Freear said, is to build a home that will appreciate in value, withstand 100-mph winds and is economical to maintain and operate. The aim is to build the house for $12,500 in materials with the rest of the $20,000 going to labor and profit to a contractor.

This year's house is a 450-square-foot home designed and being built by three seniors, Charity Bulgrien of Detroit, Mich., Ian Cook of Buffalo, N.Y., and Obi Elechi of Nigeria. It's future occupant, an elderly man who currently lives in substandard housing, will move into his home in a few months.

"It's good knowing you're helping make someone's life better," said Bulgrien. "That's what this is really about."

Even though they graduated in spring, the three agreed to stay on and finish the project. Freear said that's typical of most students.

"Most of the time, the academic requirement (for seniors) is for them to stay here a year," he said. "But I'd say 99 percent of the time, the students stay until the project is completed. Sometimes that's as long as another year."

Students often return to the Black Belt to visit former projects. Some say it helped them change their outlook of their profession, Freear said.

Featured in international magazines, and on numerous television shows including the likes of Oprah, AU's Rural Studio is as unique as many of the buildings constructed by rising young architects.

"There's not another program like it in the world," according to Freear. "Money is always an issue, and we are always looking for donations to help build our projects. But what we're really building here is good citizens, not just for the students who come here, but for the residents who live here. I think it's good for the young people here, too. They look at our students and see that people outside of their town are interested in making the world a better place."

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For more information about AU's Rural Studio, go to www.RuralStudio.com.


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