Friday, October 28, 2011

Design and Social Change in Hale County, Alabama

20k house
Last year, I took a trip to Hale County, Alabama.  My goal was to connect with Pam Dorr, the director of HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization).  We arrived one spring day just in time for lunch, and she suggested we get some catfish at the local gas station, Mustang Oil. Soon, the four of us has ballooned into 10 people.  We ran into the local judge, and some long term and short term locals soon joined us, including a filmmaker from Maine, and a psychiatrist from California who has set up a live-in farm as an alternative to an institution.  Heading into the gas station, it seemed like catfish and oil would make strange bedfellows.  But, I was quick to discover it was a good one, and that Hale County was full of such unlikely combinations.
Greensboro and Hale County are world famous within the architecture community because of the presence of the Rural Studio, an offshoot of Auburn University’s School of Architecture.  With whimsical forms, strange materials, and gung-ho idealistic students, the Rural Studio has transformed many lives through a modern vernacular.  But, while folks from Asia, Australia, and Africa have come to visit their works, many residents of Hale County don’t even know it exists.

One unique project that, up until recently, had been a partnership between HERO and the Rural Studio is the 20K house.   The idea came from a federal loan for $20,000 that was given to residents to help them build a house.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have any other money to do it, so while Pam was an outreach student, she began to wonder if a respectable house could be built for $20,000.  Most other architects told her no.  But, she has proven them wrong, as they have now finished eight houses, each built for $10,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor. 
After the first one, they were accused of reinforcing the look of poverty and creating “third-world housing.”   The favorite material of many architects, corrugated metal, was clad horizontally over the entire house. This is a material is that is often used in barns, and other farm buildings.  Interestingly enough, Pam said that using a painted version of it makes a big difference. But, newer 20K models have addressed that concern and offer a striking variety in terms of forms and materials.   Their size allows them to be built on otherwise unbuildable sites, and they tread lightly with minimal footings.
20k house under construction.  It is designed for additions.
Early 20k house
2008 20k house
 Over time, the loan sizes have changed, and Pam + crew are now working on 40K, 60K, and 80K, houses, trying to not only create a more diverse neighborhood in terms of income, but also ensuring homeowners can generate some wealth from their housing.  And let’s face it, living in a 400 square foot can be a difficult thing.  But, it can also be a great thing.   One resident has gotten a much better paying job that would afford her to move to a bigger home, but she has decided to stay.

Beyond the 20K houses, HERO is doing some pretty awesome work.  They have deeply integrated many components to serve as incubators for the community.  They have recently opened Pie Lab, a collaboration with Project M, to serve as a community hub, and also a small business incubator.  Pecan roasters is one of the first businesses coming out of it.  Much of the housing that HERO builds is through Youthbuild, training at-risk youth, many of whom are dropouts, to develop a marketable skill and finish their GED.  Yet, going even further, these youth are also designing the housing, a la Rural Studio.

But, this approach seems to go one step further, truly allowing architecture to serve as a catalyst for social change.  Training local youth to be responsible designers/builders has the potential to be truly transformative, much more so than educating university students.  This is not to discount the effect of the Rural Studio.  I would have loved to have had the education many of these students have had.  Walking under the supershed in Newbern, they were many works in progress, including a beautiful truss for a footbridge.  Many of the projects are lived-in and have an age about them that is hard to come by, as most of the published images are right after projects were built.   

Yet there remains a tension between the spirit and determination of individuals to drive projects and the capacity of the community to embrace them and support them longterm.  Andrew Freer, the current director describes addressing these challenges as sustainability with a small ‘s’, meaning the buildings need to be maintained and supported by the local community over time.   In order to get poor blacks folk into quality housing, the structural challenges extend far beyond ensuring a building will stand up.  Change is slow to come to Hale County, and many have an interest in maintaining the existing social/class/race structure, which is reinforced by the many powerful institutions and individuals.  Most banks will provide loans to blacks at exceptionally high interest rates, and some local business owners would rather keep storefronts boarded up and vacant than renovate them for fears that a black person might open up a business on Main Street. 

Rural Studio outreach project
But the strength of the Rural Studio seems to be in its ability to attract committed, innovative, and creative people to area, both directly and indirectly.  Hale County is not that big, but its needs are.  You would not expect to find such an innovative non-profit developing youth and housing; a bunch of graphic design kids selling pies and promoting small business; and a farm, serving as an alternative model to mental institutions.  But these folks have made Hale County their home and they are investing a lot in it.  There is a lot of good stuff happening there, extending far beyond the rural studio.  It remains to be seen whether there is enough room for all these innovative programs and young do-gooders who are wanting to change the big world to do just that in the small community Hale County.  And how much of it does Hale County need, or even want?