Rose Lee’s House, in Alabama

Rose Lee’s House is the result of two semester’s work of the Second Year Studio, at the Rural Studio, in west Alabama.

Rural Studio
The Rural Studio is a Design and Build program, part of the five year Bachelor of Architecture at Auburn University in Alabama. Located in Newbern, a small village one hundred miles north west Montgomery, the Rural Studio is today the most heralded program of its type in the world. Established in 1993 by Samuel Mockbee, a well known southern artist from Mississipi, the Rural Studio has been directed since 2002 by Andrew Freear, a Yorkshireman, trained as an architect, in the United Kingdom.

At the Rural Studio each year, a group of thirty 2nd year students, design and build a charity house for the Rural Studio’s near community. At the same time, in the same area, 5th year students run large community projects, working on both public buildings and open spaces. Also, a small group of Outreach students, from all over the world, investigate affordable housing prototypes, each year designing and building, a new evolution of the ‘20 K House’: a home for everyone.

In the last seventeen years the Rural Studio has designed and build over one hundred projects in a twenty-five miles radius of Hale, Marengo and Perry county’s: becoming a public service for the large communities. It’s experimental and sustainable architectures are renowned worldwide.

The Expandable House
The purpose of the Rural Studio Second Year Studio is to investigate contemporary forms of rural dwelling. In 2008-2009 Rose’s House focused on experimentation of the Expandable House. This house expands and grows by need, and over time: it is based on the traditional local farmhouse strategy and its design is driven by the client’s priorities, necessities and lifestyle.

The Expandable House responds to the transient nature and demographic of the contemporary family. The goal is to propose a design and building strategy capable of providing a flexible home, open to different variations and future expansions. Rose’s House is the first Rural Studio attempt to design and build an Expandable House. For this first experiment the courtyard typology was chosen with all its ‘U’ and ‘L’ shape variations, to connect and guide the future alterations of the Expandable House.

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The courtyard brings natural light, weather and landscape into the centre of the dwelling, together with privacy and intimacy, and during the hot west Alabama months, becomes the ‘outdoor living room’. Experimenting with the Expandable Courtyard House reintroduces, into the housing debate, one of the main heritages of the Modern Movement and offers the opportunity to test a low-rise model as an alternative to the contemporary “Sprawl logic”, for the development of rural villages and their densification.

The site
Rose Lee’s House has been designed and built for a family in Footwash, a small black community, situated ten miles south of the Headquarters of the Rural Studio. The Footwash settlement is surrounded by dense woodlands, developed around two dead-end roads and a small grocery store. The 1/4 square miles compound is characterized by a large open area, “downtown”, dedicated to the annual Footwash Black Music Festival and a small wooden house “suburb”, with front porches that face the street.

Rose Lee’s property is a long thin plot in the middle of the “suburb”, oriented north-south. The survey and understanding of the large scale context of the site gave the Studio a very important basis to move forward.

The client
Rose Lee is a sixty-six year old woman living with her two sons, both in their mid-twenties. Theirs is a very common west Alabama family, supported by the Federal subsidy, with very poor living conditions and no running water. Forty percent of the population in Hale County still lives below the poverty line, surrounded by a local economy that relies on fragile dairy and catfish farming, together with the logging industry, which has recently been further compromised by the newspaper crises. The client’s lack of resources, their life style and Rose Lee’ sociable personality deeply informed the design of the house.

Rose Lee’s House
Rose Lee’s House is a ‘L’ shape courtyard house, with a long horizontal porch facing the street and a square patio, facing to the back yard. The porch is dedicated to Rose’s social life, in the spirit of the traditional southern front porch, while the courtyard, enclosed by a semi transparent cedar wall, provides the protection of the family’s privacy.

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The porch has a 180° open-view towards Footwash ‘Main street’, with a bold overhanging roof, delicately held by light metal supports. At the same time a variety of openings in the courtyard’s wall, provide special visual contacts with the neighbors: Rose’s mum, the nephews and the dog sleeping in the back yard. The two very different outdoor spaces help the house environmentally: the porch, facing south, shades the building in summer, and the courtyard, facing north, gives a mild outside living room in winter.

The “day” part of the house sits between the front porch and the courtyard, both accessible by large sliding doors. The 1200 square foot dwelling has been designed with a core volume called ‘The Machine’ with a perpendicular ‘Expansion Wing’ on the west side of the site. ‘The Machine’ covers the main family need: the master bedroom, a large living-dining room, kitchen and bathroom. The ‘Expansion Wing’ provides two more bedrooms for Rose’s sons. In the future the house could accommodate a young couple with one child, to take care of Rose Lee in her late years.

In order to respond to the lack of resources of Rose’s Family, both kitchen and bathroom have natural light and ventilation, the living room and bedroom openings provide cross ventilation and a clerestory in the front elevation allows sunlight to heat the house in winter. A salvaged fireplace completes the energy supply of the house with the same environmentally friendly sensibility.

The design and build process
Rose’s house has been designed and fully built by two groups of seventeen students aged between nineteen and twenty-three year old. The students built everything: from foundations to finishes, electrical and plumbing installations. The students have been lead into the project and encouraged to learn by observing, designing and building along the two semesters, working as one large team.

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The first group who spent the fall at the Rural Studio, designed and build the ‘The Machine’, the second group, who joined the project in the Spring, finished the house with the ‘Expansion Wing’ and the courtyard. The fist group design work was been focused on the typology, the site location and the form of the building; while the second group worked at details, finishes and materials choices. Both groups shared the same strategy of building a new home for Rose Lee in phases that allowing the family to keep their existing home until the new one became ready.

Structure and materials
Rose’s House is a standard wooden platform frame structure with a ‘pop up’ roof , held up by four trusses, designed and crafted by the students, with 2”X8” nominal dimension heart pine salvaged from a local old barn. The same recycled wood has been used to rap the walls in the living room and the expansion hallway, to give a hierarchy and a warmer texture to the communal interior spaces.

The freestanding courtyard wall, lifted by light metal supporters, together with the rain screen that raps the entire building, and part of the courtyard floor, have been built with cedar wood: a west Alabama resinous three, traditionally used on buildings, because of its water resistance. Rose’s House is also known as the ‘Cedar House’ reinforcing the students effort to use ‘0 miles’ materials, illustrating the clear intention to reduce the foot print of the house and the belief that architecture should support local economies.

Every detail of the house has been drawn full-scale and mocked-up to make sure each choice guarantees low maintenance and longevity together with a coherent design for the house as a whole.

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