Building Community and Breaking Down Barriers at Rural Studio

An Unexpected Find

Junior Livia Barrett has found new passion and perception through her work at the Auburn University Rural Studio. Livia Barrett working on-site

Barrett grew up in Hoover, Alabama. She calls herself a “hippy child,” and said she always felt uncomfortable living in the South.

“I felt like I saw a lot of cruelty and injustice when I was little,” Barrett said. “People didn’t respect each other, and I saw a lot of that. I always thought I wanted to get out of the South.”

As she researched options for career paths, she realized that architecture married her love for physics and art perfectly. Auburn’s ranking as Design Intelligence’s eighth in the country for undergraduate architecture was hard for Barrett to resist.

Courses in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture focus on sustainable design, the history of architecture, building science and studio drawing.

Service Learning

Third years in the school, like Barrett, have the opportunity to work at one of the two design-build practice studios the university works with, Urban Studio in Birmingham or Rural Studio in Hale County.

Rural Studio, founded by Auburn professors Dennis K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee, is a space for students to practice their skills while serving the community members of the second poorest county in the state.

Students are challenged to break traditional opinions of materials and design–even using old tires or stacks or carpet samples–and open their minds to a human-centered design approach.

A bulldozer clears space for a new 20k HomeThe studio began researching in 2005 how to build beautiful, affordable, durable homes known as “the 20k Home” product line. The goal is to design a home that appreciates in value for residents who are unable to qualify for credit. Contractors can build the product line houses for the amount of money a government loan allows.

Barrett’s team of third-year students are working on a version 10 20k Home for a woman named Ree, who has lived in a trailer home for 44 years

Barrett and her peers started by diagraming several home designs to compare the advantages and disadvantages of each. They interviewed Ree and documented how she lives.

A New Perspective

Working with Ree at the Rural Studio is more than a school project to Barrett.

“It’s a really humbling environment in general,” she said. “Rural Studio showed me there’s so much good going on right here in the state and so much to do to help rural Alabama.”

Design-build architecture works closely with the design and on-site work. Helping through design is a major focus of the field, which Barrett has fallen in love with.Livia Barrett works with the team of third-year students

“You just see how some people live and how they deserve more,” Barrett said. “They’re poor, or may have fallen into hard times, but they still deserve a lot. It’s so eye-opening.”

A New Dream

Barrett hopes to work for or start her own design-build firm in rural Mississippi. Her dream is to help improve the conditions in Pass Christian, a coastal town working to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

“These poor, rural communities are going to come under a lot of stress as people move towards cities,” she said. “There are whole industries that support the people down here. This is where the truck drivers live that bring us materials we need. I had no idea there were such great people who came from here.”

Barrett recommends having “confidence and exploring,” to anyone interested in architecture.

“We’re definitely a tight-knit group,” she said. “We really support each other and the professors become your pals. They’re people I can go and talk to about anything. I’m just so glad this is my life.”

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