Throughout its celebrated 22-year history, Auburn University’s Rural Studio has never, not once, strayed from home.
Well, at least not more than 25 miles from its longtime home of Newbern, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it burg (two churches, a post office and that's about it) in the heart of Alabama’s deeply impoverished Black Belt region. In fact, the social justice-minded design-build architecture program, an extension of Auburn’s College of Design, Architecture and Construction founded by the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, works within just three small Alabama counties with a collective population of less than 50,000: Hale, Perry and Marengo.
Guided by Mockbee’s mission to “simultaneously demystify modern architecture and expose architecture students to extreme poverty in their own backyard,” Rural Studio has planted its roots in Alabama’s Black Belt. And it has planted them deep.
It comes of something of a surprise then to learn (hat tip to Curbed) that Rural Studio has embarked on its first outside-of-Alabama project as part of the 20K House initiative. Since the launch of the 20K House program in 2005, 17 smart, efficient, resilient and highly replicable abodes, each new iteration a bit different than the one before it, have been built by Rural Studio in Hale County and environs. True to the project name, the total construction cost of each home rings in at $20,000 or under, not factoring in the cost of land.
All things considered, the location of the new 20K House isn’t that far from west-central Alabama — just one state over, in Georgia, and less than 250 miles from Rural Studio HQ. You could drive there in under 5 hours, pit stop for lunch at the Dreamland BBQ in Montgomery included. It’s not in South Dakota or the Aleutian Islands or something.
Despite the non-extreme geographic distance, suburban Atlanta is indeed a world — and then some away — from the Alabama Black Belt. And the site of the new 20K House, the blissfully bucolic community of Serenbe, is certainly no Newbern.
The Hunter Boot-clad grand dame of New Urbanist communities in the South, Serenbe functions as a kind of antidote to Atlanta’s reckless and homogenous suburban sprawl. Centered around a 25-acre organic farm in lieu of a golf course or strip mall and maintaining a deep focus on environmental sustainability and “farm-to-table living,” Serenbe is the kind of place where Oliver and Lisa Douglas would both feel right at home: there’s mud, bugs and almighty quiet but there’s also a carefully curated down-on-the-farm glamour to the place with its Bon Appetit-heralded locavorian restaurant, day spa, artisanal bakery and wine tasting-holding General Store. It’s fancy. It’s rustic. It's a utopia. It’s a fancy rustic utopia. And it’s not exactly cheap with 2-bedroom townhomes starting at over $425,000.
While the site of the 2012 HGTV Green Dream Home may seem an unlikely place for Rural Studio to make its maiden appearance outside of the Heart of Dixie’s dustiest, most down-and-out corners, Serenbe is actually a kindred spirit. It’s also a strategic move for Rural Studio as part of a larger push to transform the 20K House project into a full-on product line that can be mass-produced — same price tag applicable — by large-scale builders outside of Alabama.
Given that Rural Studio's partnership with Serenbe is essentially a field test, this particular 20K House will not be built by Rural Studio students but by local contractor Simon Shell. Thus far, the experience of handing off building duty to an outside professional has “provided extensive learnings for Rural Studio" reads a recent press release.
“We are thrilled to celebrate this innovative partnership to continue our affordable housing research," says Rural Studio associate director Rusty Smith. “This is the first collaboration of its kind for Rural Studio, and we are eager to learn from skilled developers that can document permitting, costing and help flush out issues to clarify plans for the general public to build. Rural Studio and Serenbe have a shared design philosophy where connections between people, nature and the arts are nourished.”
That last bit, the arts, is important. The modest one-bedroom abode just broke ground at Serenbe’s Art Farm, a 40-acre artistic and cultural hub for the community that’s “deeply rooted in process, education and creating multiple platforms for creativity.” The Serenbe Institute hosts a limited number of yearly artist residencies at the community through its AIR Serenbe program. The 20K House will be used as a live-work artist cottage for resident artists.
Construction on the 20K House at the Art Farm is due to wrap up this November. Following its completion, the dainty digs will be open for public tours as well as short-term residences for Atlanta-area artists. AIR Serenbe’s formal resident artists — recent and upcoming 2015 residents include landscape painter Sally Bradley, scenic designer Adam Koch and cellist/visual artist Paul Rucker — will commence living/working/creating in the new structure starting later in 2016.
In addition to Rural Studio’s 20K House at the Serenbe Art Farm, work on the newest of Serenbe’s four “hamlets” (read: neighborhoods) is currently underway. Dubbed Mado, it will join the Selborne and Grange hamlets — each emphasize the arts and agriculture, respectively — and cater largely, but not exclusively, to baby boomers.
With its health and wellness bent and focus on multi-generational living, Mado is positioned as a sort of anti-retirement community. Yes, there will be “garden cottage” residences specifically designed for adults of a certain age. But overall, it’s envisioned as much more an “everyone” neighborhood complete with a destination spa and wellness center, yoga studio, community pool and Montessori school along with commercial and retail space and medical offices. Like all private dwellings at Serenbe, the available residential real estate in Mado will boast EarthCraft certification. Residents of these homes will also enjoy, with the help of the good folks at Bosch, geothermal heating and cooling.
Toto, we're not in Hale County, Alabama, anymore.