How these Alabama architecture students are improving lives with low-cost home designs


JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Discussions about
affordable housing often focus on big, expensive cities, like San Francisco and New York. But what about rural America, home to about
one-fifth of the U.S. population? John Yang reports on a program improving housing
in a remote town in Alabama. It’s part of our ongoing series on poverty
and opportunity, Chasing the Dream. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN, Rural Studio Client:
Welcome to my house. JOHN YANG: Ree Zinnerman was born in this
tiny West Alabama town of Newbern, and, for her, it will always be home. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN: It’s a peaceful
place, and I just like sitting here watching it and listening to the quiet. JOHN YANG: Soon, for the first time, she will
move into a real house of her own. For more than 40 years, she lived in a mobile
home. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN: That’s what I was
living in. JOHN YANG: Zinnerman’s house comes courtesy
of architecture students in Auburn University’s Rural Studio program. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN: Words can’t describe
it. I couldn’t believe it. After all these years, something I have always
wanted was a house. And I was going to be blessed with the house
of my own. JOHN YANG: Since 1993, Rural Studio students
and faculty have been working, studying and living in Hale County, Alabama. Some call it a lesson in social design, using
architecture to serve the greater good. Rural Studio’s director is Andrew Freear. ANDREW FREEAR, Director, Rural Studio: There’s
this sort of feeling that everybody deserves good design, and whether they’re rich, poor,
black, white, pink, or green. JOHN YANG: Zinnerman’s house is part of the
studio’s 20K Project, launched in 2005, with the goal of producing residences that would
cost $20,000 to build, 20K. More than two dozen different homes have been
designed, constructed and given to residents. Most are one-bedroom, about 500 square feet. Each design is named for the recipient. There’s Johnnie Mae’s House, Buster’s house,
and next to Ree’s House, Geraldine’s House. That’s Zinnerman’s younger sister, Geraldine
Braxton. GERALDINE BRAXTON, Rural Studio Client: The
day he gave me the keys to the door, I couldn’t even open the door, I was shaking so. I was happy. JOHN YANG: Braxton has lived here for two
years. The retired school cafeteria worker loves
her kitchen GERALDINE BRAXTON: I like everything about
it, the way it’s set up. I like my island in the center of the kitchen. JOHN YANG: Braxton’s new energy-efficient
house puts less strain on her wallet. Her previous home was poorly insulated, it
cost her hundreds of dollars a month to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. GERALDINE BRAXTON: I was spending like about
$350 on gas in the winter every month. JOHN YANG: Three hundred fifty dollars a month? GERALDINE BRAXTON: Every month for gas. JOHN YANG: While Rural Studios is helping
improve the lives of local residents, the main focus is on training a new generation
of architects whose social consciences are as strong as their aesthetics. ANDREW FREEAR: What we’re trying to do is
design a home that is easily built, and, again, easily maintained. You know, our goal is to offer it up at some
scale down the road, but we’re determined to do it quietly and slowly and carefully. JOHN YANG: The idea is to give students a
hands-on experience working with an underserved community in the heart of the South’s Black
Belt. Hale County is one of the poorest in the state
— 24 percent of all residents live below the poverty line, compared with about 13 percent
nationwide. For African-Americans in the county, the rate
is even higher, more than 35 percent. And in an area short on jobs, the population
is dwindling, dropping 6 percent from 2010 to 2017. Since the students live full-time in Newbern,
some 140 miles from Auburn’s main campus, they’re seen not as outsiders. They’re seen as neighbors. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN: I think it makes
a difference by them being part of the community, because they have really improved it. JOHN YANG: And they ask their neighbors to
suggest who could use a new house. GWEN MELTON, Mail Carrier: And it was just
sad for anybody to be living in those conditions in these days and times. JOHN YANG: Who better to ask than Gwen Melton,
who delivers mail to 483 homes in the Newbern area every day? For 10 years, she’s quietly suggested potential
clients to Rural Studio. And how does it make you feel when you go
deliver the mail to that new house, knowing what they had lived before? GWEN MELTON: Makes me feel great. JOHN YANG: The 20K Project began with lofty
goals. Rural Studio associate director Rusty Smith
oversees the project. RUSTY SMITH, Rural Studio: We thought we were
going to work for a year or two or maybe three, and it would solve all the problems of housing
affordability in the United States. JOHN YANG: It didn’t take them long to realize
the hurdles to doing it on a bigger scale. RUSTY SMITH: We’re in charge of the financing,
and we’re in this place where we live, and we have got student labor to do it and the
faculty oversight. The challenges to scale, to kind of do this
outside of our kind of operational footprint, are many. JOHN YANG: Still, they want the project to
focus attention on the issues facing rural areas, not just in America, but around the
world. ANDREW FREEAR: It’s absolutely a Trojan horse
for a whole bunch of issues about rural living that we’re very interested in challenging
and being a voice for. JOHN YANG: For instance, cell service in Newbern
area is spotty. The town’s new library, designed by the Rural
Studio, is the only place high-speed Internet is available to the public. BARBARA WILLIAMS, Librarian: It makes you
feel real good to be able to say that we have a library. JOHN YANG: Librarian Barbara Williams says
that when the nearby high school closed five years ago, the town lost a community hub. BARBARA WILLIAMS: What the library is trying
to do is to try to meet some of the needs of the community that are being left, I guess
left unmet with the closing of the high school. JOHN YANG: Across the street is Newbern’s
fire station. Built by the Rural Studio in 2004, it was
the first new public building in the town in a century. Pat Braxton lost his job in 2013 when the
factory where he worked the next town over went out of business. Now he’s a volunteer firefighter and Newbern’s
handyman. Before, the nearest fire station was 15 minutes
away. PATRICK BRAXTON, Handyman: By having this
truck right here in Newbern, we saved a lot of houses. We saved a lot of people’s lives. JOHN YANG: And saved Newbern homeowners a
lot of money, reducing insurance premiums. Like all of Rural Studio’s projects, style
also has function: There are no fire hydrants in Newbern, so the fire trucks carry their
own water, and have to be kept from freezing in the winter. ANDREW FREEAR: It’s not just it looks funky
and it look cool. It’s very much about making sure that those
fire trucks don’t freeze and that that space is temperate throughout the year. JOHN YANG: Ree Zinnerman gave students free
rein to design her house, except for one detail. MARGARET “REE” ZINNERMAN: A red door. And my momma always loved red. JOHN YANG: For Zinnerman, the greatest relief
is simply having a well-designed, well-built house to live in. For Rural Studio, it’s about more than just
solving a housing problem. RUSTY SMITH: Solving problems sort of imagines
the future as broken and it needs to be fixed. I don’t think there’s anything broken here. But there’s some really significant purposes
that need to be served. JOHN YANG: A lesson for students in helping
an underserved community and helping the community learn how to better serve itself. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang in Newbern,
Alabama.

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