Director of Rural Studio
College of Architecture, Design and Construction
Andrew Freear, from Yorkshire, England, is the Wiatt Professor at Auburn University's Rural Studio. Andrew became the Director of the Rural Studio in 2002. Educated at the Polytechnic of Central London and the Architectural Association in London, England, he has practiced extensively in London and Chicago. His teaching experiences include positions at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Architectural Association, where he was a Unit Master. Having moved to Alabama over a decade ago, he lives in the small rural community of Newbern, Alabama. Aside from directing the Rural Studio, his main role is advising fifth-year undergraduate architecture students on the design and construction of their thesis projects. Rural Studio is a hands-on architectural pedagogy that not only teaches students to design and build charity homes and community projects, but also improves the living conditions in rural West Alabama.
1. Tell us about Rural Studio. Where it is, and what is its purpose?
Rural Studio is based in Hale County, in the heart of West Alabama, and about three hours west of Auburn University. Part of the School of Architecture and originally conceived as a single studio, Rural Studio has evolved into three programs. It allows students to come to a different type of classroom, where they have the opportunity to design and construct buildings. They come not only to study the things that architects do, but also to build them. Typically an architect just designs a project, but at the Studio, students also get to engage very closely with the local community. With our situation we get to be on site every day and interact directly with the community and clients.
2. Tell me how students evolve and change during their time there.
We have about 30 students at a time and about half a dozen staff members. Students include both third-year and fifth-year (or thesis) Auburn undergraduate architecture students as well as Outreach (non-Auburn) students. The third-year students come out for a semester and live behind an old antebellum house in what we call the "Pods". These are buildings constructed by previous students in order to house third-year students for a semester; that way, they would not have to find somewhere to rent. Students live on our campus and interact with the locals every day. The thesis students stay here for nine months to two years. They are challenged to think critically and also physically build structures as well as to become better communicators and good designers; it is a good example of the balance between a healthy body and healthy mind. They get an opportunity to go to a site and build. There are much easier ways to get an architectural education than coming out and working at Rural Studio; it is not a closeted education, expectations are very high. I think it is a fantastically rigorous and inspiring opportunity. I would have given an arm and a leg for this kind of education. We are doing projects that matter; they are not just "throw away" paper projects.
3. Tell me about how this model was developed for the $20,000 house.
We started coming up with the idea of a local and affordable house for everybody, which would act as a competitor to mobile homes. The first year we designed one everyone said, "This is it! Let's build it all over the United States of America!" and I responded, "Hold on a second. We have learned so much this year, I bet we can keep doing one every year." So for the last six years, that is what we have been doing. With these small houses, because they are an experiment, we watch how our clients live in them and respond in the following years with even better designs.
4. How does the $20,000 house have potential outside of West Alabama?
We came up with the number $20,000 because it is the amount people on government assistance could actually afford to pay – the mortgage is only around $100 a month. Also, the homes would be an investment for the person, appreciating in value over time. We are trying to get these houses to be built by a contractor, so it is actually about $12,000 in materials and about $7,000 to $8,000 in labor and profit. That was the challenge we put to ourselves. When the house shown in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit was appraised, it was actually valued at more than $40,000; that is not a bad return. This house can actually be run for $35 a month. It is a relatively small house: about 500 or 600 square feet, one or one-and-a-half bedrooms, 10-foot ceilings, and a porch; but it is very well built. Our hope is to have the house replicated with regional and climactic adaptabilities.
5. What does it mean to be in this exhibit "Small Scale, Big Change" at the Museum of Modern Art with only 11 projects?
It is amazing that the work of undergraduate students in Hale County can have such a profound effect on the profession of architecture. To be included in the "Small Scale, Big Change" exhibit legitimizes the work we set out to do. There is an incredible amount of serious and earnest work in the exhibit as a whole. To essentially represent the United States in the exhibit gives me goosebumps. You see so many designs in magazines that claim "affordable housing" and then you look at them and there is no way I could afford one of those houses. It is huge for the university, for Rural Studio and for the School of Architecture. There are no other student projects or schools of architecture featured in the exhibit.