It isn’t even lunchtime yet and the plumber’s decided to go duck hunting, the cat’s crawling over the chop saw, and we’re $5,000 short on our budget—but we’ve already finished framing the first wall. It’s turning out to be a pretty good day.
This is the Design-Build Masters Program, at Auburn University. For the past year my three teammates and I have been estimating, fund-raising, procuring materials, and finally, designing and building a house and studio for a quilter in rural Waverly, Alabama. We have backgrounds in architecture, business, journalism, and interior design. Most students enter the program with some construction experience, and each na-turally assumes leadership for the tasks in his or her area of expertise.
Only in its second year, the Design-Build Masters Program attempts to reconcile education and practice. Headed by D. K. Ruth, a co-founder with Samuel Mockbee of the famed Rural Studio, the program shares a similar ethos with its Hale County predecessor but differs in that it is at the graduate level, is located on the Auburn campus, and has to deal with all the permits and inspections required by the strictly enforced Lee County building code. This project is in many ways more similar to work than school; we’re dealing with subcontractors and suppliers, and are on-site every day with no other classes for the last semester. But in an architecture or a construction office we would never have this level of hands-on involvement in every aspect of the project, nor be able to do this type of nonprofit work.
Mozell Benson, an internationally recognized quilter who lives just outside Auburn, learned the craft as a necessity and is still surprised that people see it as art. A professor who contacted Benson to use her quilts as visual inspiration for an architecture class subsequently proposed building her a house and studio. Though she visits local schools regularly to teach quilting workshops, Benson has never had a place where she could quilt, teach, and display work. She received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, and one of her quilts hangs in the American Folk Art Museum, in New York, yet she gives her creations away almost as freely as the fruit and vegetables from her plentiful garden. “The summer is for gardening, the winter for quilting,” Benson says. Last October she planted sweet potatoes from seeds that had been in her family for decades—squarely in the planned path of the concrete truck. (We saved them.)
Having to defend a sweet potato patch was a reminder that a site is not a conceptual construct but holds memories and attachments, and the white plane of paper on which you begin a drawing bears no resemblance to the actual plot that awaits your intervention. I earned my undergraduate degree at Cooper Union, in New York, where—under John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, and Lebbeus Woods—we read Derrida and poetry, studied Lacan’s mirror and Bentham’s panopticon. A former coworker once parodied the typical Cooper Union approach this way: “Study the seagull’s tracks in the sand; now go make a project.” At Auburn there’s barely time to pick out the plumbing fixtures, let alone discuss the poetics of water.
A Cooper project starts as far away from architecture as possible and struggles toward form, while a design-build project tries to synthesize a comprehensive vision out of disparate pieces, from the client’s desire for a window above the kitchen sink to an unexpected donation of shingles. I find myself conceptualizing things that occur from expediency. When we buy too much green paint and use the extra on the corner trim of the exterior, I tell myself that it visually echoes the green of the studio’s pressure-treated wood columns, making color a symbol of support. It’s a balancing act, trying not to compromise the idea behind a decision while accommodating day-to-day realities.
We started the design phase with one gargantuan roof covering both the 1,000-square-foot house and the 400-square-foot studio. But because the design had to accommodate the schedule of undergraduates we collaborated with, we broke the project into two separate structures. For the quilting studio we provided the foundation and roof structure, while a class of third-year and fourth-year architecture students built the walls and interiors. The negative space between the columns and walls expresses this division of labor.
I came here to learn construction, and it turns out that it’s both very difficult and very easy to build a house. It’s difficult in that each decision impacts everything else—you need to know the wall finish in order to set the electrical boxes, which you need for the framing inspection—and easy in that, well, you start hammering in the morning and you’ve got a wall by night. It turns out that I’ve learned as much about design as construction. We realized that the best way to serve our client was not to deliver a grand architectural gesture but a livable, practical space. We changed the footprint from rectangular to square to shrink the perimeter while maintaining the area, thus reducing the amount of concrete block required. Our 73-year-old client has lots of grandchildren who come to visit, so not only does the house have to be simple to maintain, it also has to be safe. Everyone raved about the views to the garden, but Benson didn’t want sweeping expanses of glass, which would be too easy to break and too hard to replace. She asked for concrete floors instead of hardwood because they are less demanding to clean.
Working on a nearly nonexistent budget demands that we use whatever materials we can get our hands on; “Reinvent, don’t just reuse” is Professor Ruth’s mantra. Throughout the year, he invokes the metaphor of the quilt, taking scraps and creating a new cohesive whole. Hence doors salvaged from demolition sites became a wall, we cut the heart pine rafters of Benson’s old house into interior trim, the metal roofing off a neighboring barn now acts as exterior siding, and scraps from a textile mill make up the fabric ceiling panels.
There have also been plenty of missteps along the way. Building a solid door out of scrap 2×4s is a good idea—until you need three people just to lift it and four industrial-size hinges to hang it. We intended to use donated engineered wood I-joists, splicing two together to create each roof rafter, but found out at the last moment from an engineer that we would need 118 screws at each splice. At that point there wouldn’t have been anymore wood to screw into—or time to screw—which is why our roof is now made out of trusses.
This process, with all its problems and frustrations, is as important as the finished product. As a designer you learn the consequences of your decisions—when you have to construct what you create, it can change your approach. As a builder you learn that sometimes a creative solution can beat standard practice. In the end even this most practical of programs has a conceptual foundation: to produce architecture that answers the reality of construction as part of its premise, not as a concession.
What I didn’t expect to learn here is the importance of the personal. Unanticipated gestures are what keep us going: a neighbor offering to help, a donation coming through, Benson feeding us watermelons and muscadines, and most of all, the feeling that you have made someone’s life just a bit better by providing a measure of stability and comfort, and giving her the space to create. It took an enormous leap of faith and hundreds of hands from students, professors, families, friends, donors, and volunteers to make this small house on a backcountry road. “It’s going to be a monument in the community,” Benson said optimistically at the start of the project. But the results are even better: it has created a community.