Last June I attended a barbecue dinner behind a storefront in downtown Greensboro, the capital of impoverished Hale County, Alabama. Most of the guests were graphic-design students, do-gooders from out of town who were renovating a nearby building. We were planning to eat at a long, makeshift table set up behind the offices of the HERO Housing Resource Center. Someone was supposed to be making mojitos, but we didn't have any fresh mint. None could be found at the local Piggly Wiggly. So, Pam Dorr, the executive director of (which stands for the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), volunteered to fetch some from her own garden. I walked with her across a ghostly, semi-abandoned turn-of-the-century Main Street to the glowing, white antebellum manor that is Dorr's home.
Dorr showed me around the 1820 house, which had been empty for half a century when she bought it and gut-renovated it into two pristine, loftlike rooms, one upstairs and one down. She deftly plucked sprigs of mint from a little patch in her front yard and we walked back to the barbecue. It was an otherworldly lifestyle moment that made me feel as if I were in a quaint Italian hill town or maybe in Dorr's native California instead of hardscrabble Alabama.
If you've heard of Hale County, it might be because it's the catfish capital of Alabama or because James Agee and Walker Evans visited white sharecroppers here during the Depression, when they researched . But most likely it's because of architects Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee and D. K. Ruth, who, in the early 1990s, established as an offshoot of . Rural Studio is a hothouse for architecture students who build sophisticated homes for desperately poor, typically black clients -- people who are so cut off from the economic mainstream that the subprime mortgage mess couldn't even find them.
Dorr, who used to do product development for and, before that, designed for , came to Rural Studio in 2003 from San Francisco. She was looking for something more meaningful to do with her life. Like most people, she'd initially been drawn to Hale County by powerful photos of Rural Studio projects. But when she enrolled as an outreach student, she discovered truths the pictures don't reveal. She began to see the magnitude of the economic and social injustice in Alabama's Black Belt (the name actually refers to the color of the soil, but it also describes the region's demographics). At the end of the school year, she decided to stay.
Rural Studio outreach students are often not architects. They don't receive academic credit -- unlike the studio's regular students, they're not enrolled at Auburn -- and some years they don't even get to build anything. Birmingham architect John Forney, who has taught at the Rural Studio, explains that Mockbee, who died of leukemia in 2001, created the outreach program because he "wanted to have more people stirring more pots in west Alabama."
Dorr, with her sunny northern California demeanor, wearing good cheer like a coat of armor, arrived in the Deep South at the beginning of one of the school years in which Mockbee's successor, , a transplanted Englishman, had decided that it would be better if the outreach students did something different. "They asked us to get to know the community, to see what was needed and build a project around what we saw," Dorr recalls. It took months of crisscrossing the county for Dorr to figure out her project.
"I had been helping elderly widows repair their homes. They were living in really tough circumstances," Dorr says. She tried to patch the leaky roof of a shack with no running water that belonged to an 85-year-old woman. "As we went to do it, the whole house was swaying. It was pretty clear there was no way to repair the home." But finding a solution was complicated. The woman's husband had died without leaving a will, and so under Alabama law -- which has since been changed -- the property belonged to the woman's children. Because she, like many elderly widows, didn't hold title to the property, there was no way she could get a loan to fix the house or to build a new one. Dorr encountered variations on this situation again and again. "Does it make sense that they would have no help at all?" she asked herself. "And so I just set out to find what help was available."
Eventually Dorr discovered that some of the widows had, in fact, applied to , a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, for loans to help them buy a new house. "Their applications were getting approved," says Dorr. "There was a stack of them in our local office. And they were just sitting there." The problem, Dorr learned, was that although the women were deemed good credit risks, their incomes were so low -- typically, $637 a month from Social Security -- that they could afford to repay only a $20,000 loan. And everyone knows that there's no such thing as a $20,000 house. "Well, there wasn't at the time," Dorr says with a laugh.
She began to frequent conferences about affordable housing and to ask the architects she met if they could design a $20,000 house. "And they were like, 'Uh, no,'" Dorr reports.
Ultimately, Freear was persuaded to adopt Dorr's 20K house quest, and he handed it off to the outreach students. He established rules: design a house that could be built with $10,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor. Says Freear, "It's all about the cost of every nail and every stud." Because these houses are supposed to be replicable prototypes, big architectural flourishes of the sort that might be laboriously fabricated by highly motivated students but not by ordinary contractors were discouraged.
The first three 20Ks, designed and built by outreach students between 2004 and 2007, were simple as pie. One resembled a mobile home, one was based on the traditional shotgun house and one was dogtrot style, a chiefly Southern design for a house with a covered passage. All three used corrugated-metal siding, a material that is fashionable among architects, but to many people signifies poverty. The shotgun, known as the Porch House, has no interior walls. Its owner, Frank Harris, reportedly found it very peculiar that his toilet was standing out in the open.
The four newest 20Ks, which were nearing completion when I arrived last June, are, by contrast, spectacularly cute. Situated in the Yerby Branch subdivision, a former trash dump that HERO is redeveloping, they look less like affordable housing and more like vacation cottages in Seaside, the upscale New Urbanist community in Florida. Rural Studio's class of 2007/08 designed and built them -- not just the outreach students, but also the fifth-year thesis students, the hotshots who customarily work on the school's large-scale community projects.
David Buege, the director of the architecture program at , spent the 2007/08 academic year as interim director of Rural Studio while Freear was on sabbatical. It was Buege who oversaw the development of the quartet of 20Ks. When the project began, Buege read a letter to the editor printed on the front page of the local newspaper. It "was scathing in its condemnation of the work of the Rural Studio and more specifically the work that Pam Dorr was doing," he says. "Our citizens are not of a third-world country," argued the letter's author, alleging that the 20K houses looked like "storage buildings."
The students reacted to the criticism by crafting a series of architecturally ambitious miniatures. The new 20Ks are very small -- 300 to 600 square feet -- and highly refined. The most dramatic is called the Bridge House, an angular, shedlike structure supported by two big steel trusses and cantilevered over a ravine. The Roundwood House, constructed from an elaborate frame of pine logs, looks a bit like a funnel, with a roof that slopes downward from the front of the house to the rear. The tall, skinny Loft House and the cedar-sided Pattern Book House are stylish variations on the simple box, with pitched roofs.
Buege believes that these houses have won over irate neighbors. And Dorr observes, "Now that people have moved in and are planting gardens, the houses are homes. I have heard only positive comments." One of the new homeowners is a young woman who works at the local hospital but hopes to go back to school. Another works at Crispy Chick, a fast-food restaurant. The other two homeowners are a disabled woman and her granddaughter living side by side in two of the houses. Each of them pays $60 a month on a mortgage.
However, the best thing about the newest 20Ks is also their problem. Architecturally speaking, they are gems, every bit as distinctive as the best houses in the Rural Studio pantheon. But it's not clear that they represent a replicable prototype, a house simple enough, as Forney puts it, to be erected by "three guys with a Skilsaw."
Upon his return from his sabbatical, Freear had the newest crop of outreach students conduct a study of the seven existing 20Ks, rating them on such criteria as efficiency and how quickly they were built. Based on the students' analysis, Freear is poised to take the 20K project to the next level. "We're working with a very big Southern bank," he says. "We actually presented our latest version to them, and they're kind of cock-a-hoop about the whole idea."
And just which house did they decide to take to the bank? "Oddly enough, it's a version of the shotgun house, with some different materials and a closed-in toilet," Freear replies.
In a way, Mockbee's and Dorr's approaches to housing impoverished Alabamans couldn't be more different. Mockbee and Rural Studio built their reputation by doing a spectacular end run around a system that has abandoned those least able to help themselves. Dorr, on the other hand, is trying to find ways to force a broken system to work. She spends much of her time preparing low-income clients for home ownership and helping them get mortgages. Over the past year, HERO has built 65 houses, most of them more conventional than the 20Ks. Her dream is to build a subdivision near the center of Greensboro with prototype houses for a range of families and incomes: a 20K model, a 30K model, a 40K model and so on.
But Dorr's insight -- someone who can afford only a $20,000 mortgage should be able to buy a $20,000 house -- has changed the culture of Rural Studio. Freear is determined to keep building prototypes until they find one a bank and a regular contractor can embrace. "For me, it's a fantastic counterpoint to the other things we do out here," he explains. So maybe Mockbee and Dorr, who never met, are two halves of a single equation. After all, the 20K house -- and also the fresh mint -- arrived in west Alabama because Mockbee wanted more people stirring more pots. And Dorr, as it turns out, is a world-class pot-stirrer.