Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: Andrew Freear

Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: Andrew Freear


All right, hi. I’m Andrew Freear. I’m absolutely
honored to be here in this rather intimidating
center of learning. And I’m blown away to be
amongst this group of Loebs. I’ve completely fallen in
love with them all, apart from the French guy, of course. So today for me is a
little bit of an experiment so I stay on track and I don’t
blather on for 4 and 1/2 hours. I’m actually going
to come to Harvard, so I need to get a
bit of discipline. So I’m trying to
get some discipline. So I’m actually scripted
today because, as you can see, it’s a disaster if
I go off script. And so here we go. And in some respects,
it’s out of respect to you all and also to my colleagues. I got to kind of
keep this short. So I was born in the
rural north of England, got an architectural education,
predominantly in London. I went to live and
work in Chicago. And then some 18
years ago, I returned to my rural roots in, of
all places, West Alabama. So I come to you
today from Newbern in Hale county, a town with a
population of 178, most of whom I know. I’m a designer, a
builder, and a teacher. I try to be a gentle
nudger as an activist and a subversive advisor to
local communities with policy and planning. I direct Auburn
University’s Rural Studio, an undergraduate
design build program at the School of
Architecture that immerses students in the community. We take young designers three
hours away from the ivory tower out of their urban or suburban
comfort zone to a place where there are significant
and unfamiliar challenges. They are asked to address issues
designers generally don’t want to address or simply avoid. The brief selection of
projects you’ll see today are designed and built by
small teams of young folks. They run the projects,
working side by side with community
partners, a plethora of professional
consultants, and with me standing in the background,
trying to make sure they don’t screw up too badly. Some would say that the program
has challenged the way we educate architects, how
projects are procured, and the role of the
architect in society today. Frankly, I think we’re just
doing what needs to be done. The students’
architectural education is our absolute prime
focus, and the resultant byproducts we hope will help
satisfy some of the great need around us. So I’m going to quickly
take you to West Alabama and then show you
some of the issues that I and we have
been trying to address and that I hope to
advance while I’m here. So a quick geography lesson,
this United States of Donald Trump, I’m for [inaudible]. We need the Red
Cross down there. But I live at the confluence of
the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains and a
prehistoric lake that left a band of
beautiful black soil, giving the name to the region,
the Black Belt. Newbern is also in the heart of the American
Civil Rights heritage, and we live with the legacy
absolutely every day. Downtown has three
fragile institutions that are at the heart
of the community– on the left, our
School of Architecture; in the middle, a little white
post office; and to the right, the mercantile store. The School of Architecture
just feels like [inaudible].. You have to really love
your work to survive. We try to encourage the public
to engage with us with events like Halloween. They participate and judge. And with Halloween, we
have a little twist. On the same day, we have
a public review or jury. So here indeed are three toilets
talking about their very, very serious architecture project. The point is that
we take the work very seriously, but
ourselves not too seriously. The rest of downtown houses the
two other fragile institutions. Thanks for laughing,
[inaudible].. I’m needing your help. The post office’s opening
times are recently reduced to four
hours a day, making its use just about inconvenient
enough for it to fail. The mercantile store
is the only place for 10 miles to buy gas, orange
juice, and of course, Colt 45. GB Woods recently retired
after 39 years and 10 months, and we thought we’d
lose this institution. But thankfully, a young
couple took it over, and they’re making a go of it. These institutions are
at the absolute heart of the community, and I fear
if they die, the town will die. In Hale County,
religion is everywhere. The weather is unpredictable. We live in Tornado Alley. Making a living is tough. You can drive two hours to a
poorly paying service sector job, or you can farm. The key for our local
farmers is diversification. Their most recent
venture is into catfish. I actually ate Vietnamese
catfish here the other day, and it was terrible compared to
our catfish, I could tell you. That beautiful black soil
that gave the place its name was eroded by years of
cotton monocultivation. What is left is expansive red
clay, difficult to grow in and actually even more
difficult to build on. But you can dig a hole
and shape it into a pond. If you then supersaturate
the dirt around the pond, it can hold water. And then you can raise catfish. Off the back of slavery
at one point in history, this was one of the wealthiest
places in the world. These timber antebellum mansions
are a vestige of that time. Alongside are the frugal
vernacular farm buildings. This one’s a beauty. African slave carpenters
constructed this seed barn on a local plantation, the
big protective cantilevering roof displaying great common
sense at a time of absolutely no sense at all. We’re surrounded by
extraordinary people who impact their communities in the world. Teresa Burrows hid Dr. King in
her home from the Ku Klux Klan two weeks before
his assassination. And later she was
imprisoned for simply marching for the right to vote. In 1990, she established
a small museum for the lesser known
royal foot soldiers who were the founders and real
heroes of the civil rights movement. [inaudible],, who produce
extraordinary works of art, sitting, chatting,
drinking sweet tea on their front porches with
absolutely no knowledge of the modern art world. And Amos Kennedy, who
calls himself a humble Negro printer– of course, I can’t
call him that– is a provocateur and commentator
with a great sense of humor. Come on. Someone’s got to laugh at loud. Come on, Tau. Lead it, baby. So much of Alabama is owned
by people and big business who don’t live there. When we try to raise real
estate taxes to directly support education, the lobbyists go
to work and frighten people. So it becomes a vicious circle. Poor education is absolutely at
the root of Alabama’s malaise. Sorry, I didn’t calculate
this in this time, tearing the paper out. OK, so we’ve built around 200
projects of different scales over the last 25 years
inside a radius of 25 miles and across four counties. Successes and failures are
immediate and apparent. Being a neighbor, we get
to hear about our failures, as you can imagine. Above all, it’s an incredible
learning experience to see firsthand whether
the fruits of your labor are in any way successful. We started out with
off-the-radar frugal, often idiosyncratic,
one-off single family homes of scavenged and
recycled materials– here, straw bales and
broken concrete curbs. Another had 72,000 hand-stacked
carpet tiles that became a home for Lucy Harris– and one-off community buildings,
this one [inaudible] local dirt topped with windows scavenged
from Chevrolet Caprice automobiles. So I got frustrated
with the fact that as an academic
institution, we weren’t building on our
knowledge year after year, capitalizing on what
we were learning and using the privilege of
the opportunity to help build resilience in our community. This frustration coincided
with cries for help from local municipalities
who started to understand us as a
neighbor they could trust and as a resource. So we asked ourselves
some questions that relate to housing,
community building, and food and rural communities. When I showed up in Hale
County 20 years ago, there were the archetypal
wooden shacks and dirt floors. These shacks have been
replaced, frankly, by something far worse. This is rural housing today. They’re a magically sealed
tin can, a trailer home, financed like an automobile and
sized not for humans to live in but to be towed down the road. Like a car, I can get my
dream home delivered tomorrow. It’s absolute genius, right? The problem with this product
and its kind of financing and the associated
interest rates is that when I do finally own
the trailer after 20 years, I may have actually paid
three times what it was worth. And of course, they’re
poorly constructed. So after 20 years, it’s
likely fallen into the ground, representing zero equity towards
the great American dream. So frankly, it’s both
genius and criminal. Excuse me. I need someone to
do this for me. OK, so we decided to come
up with a competitor, not a replacement, a house
for anyone and everyone. We asked, what could
everyone afford? We found that someone on income
support or social security could probably afford
around $100 a month, the equivalent of a $20,000
mortgage over 30 years. It was important that the
project was an economic engine. The one thing we as the
designer could have some control over was the quantity, and
therefore, cost of materials. We set 13K as the
materials budget and set aside the rest
to labor and profit. When materials brought
the local hardware store, the goal, with a
three-week timeline, is a house built
in the community by the community
for the community. So most importantly,
the resources stay inside that community. Since 2006, we’ve
built 20 prototypes, each learning from the last. We have three models
we think are worth– shit. Sorry. Don’t go off– OK, we have three
models we think we like. It’s just irresistible
sometimes. I have to get naughty words
in there occasionally. Each one’s a one-bed house, and
each roughly 500 square feet. They are simple
essays in what you can do with a pile of
sticks worth $13,000. Now they ended up as
vernacular typologies, frankly, not deliberately. It’s just at the
end of the day, it turns out it’s the most
efficient use of the lumber. Dave’s is a shotgun
with a porch, tall ceilings, good
cross-ventilation. And we allow ourselves exactly
two doors and six windows. Mike’s house has the
entrance on the side, on the long side, a modified
dogtrot dividing day and night. Joanne’s square house
tested the premise with the same linear
perimeter footage of all of the other houses. You got a greater
interior square footage. Keeping the material cost
at $25 a square foot, we’re in the process of rolling
out the model as a product. We’ve had several tests with
contractors and housing groups, and we have some
large institutions potentially on the hook. We need to find the time,
the resources and partners outside our small
academic program to design the procurement
and communication package for this product. As for building
community– whoops, shit, I blew my punchline there. As for building
community resilience, we have tried to establish
long-term relationships with local municipalities,
supporting their endeavors and looking at
need, particularly in the area of health
and welfare of the youth. We try to bring a
positive attitude towards the public realm
and raise expectations. It’s important in a place where
divisions still run very deep. Over 2 and 1/2 years,
these four students programmed, designed, and built
Newbern Volunteer Fire Station. And they helped the community
raise more than $100,000 in materials donations. In the early 2000s, there were
a series of local house fires. Response times from other local
fire stations were atrocious. The consequence was that
the local home insurance rates rose very rapidly. People act if you hit
them in the pocketbook. True to form, they soon
established a volunteer fire department. They focused on building the
organization from the ground up and got grants for
the fire trucks. We assisted with the expertise
that they didn’t have– namely, designing a
warm, dry building that could ensure the trucks
that carry water to the fire don’t freeze in winter. Four years later, that
project led to a request from the mayor for
help with a town hall. Where democracy has been
historically fragile, it’s important to have a center
to celebrate it, particularly for voting. We established a book
end to the firehouse, forming a courtyard that gives
Newbern a new civic heart. Another team of four
students sourced local eight-by-eight
cypress timbers, stacked them like Lincoln logs. We wanted to offer a sense
of gravitas and solidity so anyone can see
how it’s held up and understands
what it’s made of. Windows are mounted on the
outside of the walls, doors on the inside, to deal
with the wall shrinking and to allow you to
appreciate the thickness and beauty of the wall. That led to another
project five years ago as these lovely
ladies came and asked for help with a public library. There was a desperate need
for afterschool programs, and more importantly,
good internet access. The library was to be
housed in the old bank. Built in 1906, the bank closed
in the Great Depression. Locally, everyone was very
fond of the little building. Our team designed a large
communal reading space surrounded by books
with small spaces off to the side for quiet study
and views to the courtyard. Opened two years ago,
it’s had a positive impact on our little town,
just one kid at a time. So to the final issue,
food and health, it really is shocking
not to be able to find locally produced and fresh
vegetables in a rural area. Folks drive 10 miles
to Piggly Wiggly to buy prepackaged
processed food shipped from all over the world. Or they eat $2
McDonald’s Happy Meals that sadly are cheaper
than fresh vegetables. The industrialization
of food production is having terrible consequences
on our rural landscape and its identity. They become suburban-rural, or
as my wife suggests, subrural. We lose farms. We lose jobs. And the quality of food is
going down hill for all of us. These choices are killing us. This is a three-year-old
McDonald’s Happy Meal. After three years,
it looked the same and smelled the same as
it did when I bought it. It didn’t disintegrate. No insects or bugs
wanted to eat it. So please don’t eat
this shit, please. Don’t give it to your kids. By 2030, the state of Alabama
is forecast to be 80% of beef– obese. Sorry, whatever I said,
80% beef, all right– serious, y’all, 80% obese. And you know, that
is not a problem. It’s a fucking catastrophe. I mean, 60% to 100% is
the projection for 2030. So socially and economically,
it’s a disaster. And we have to do
something about this. We have to talk
about this, frankly. So we asked ourselves why no
one was growing their own food. We analyzed our
own eating habits, which ironically enough
is why we went and did the McDonald’s study, because
we were eating that stuff. We looked at our property
and asked the question, could we become 70%
self-sufficient in food production? We established a
strategic plan and looked to turn our property to
a productive landscape. Today we seed, harvest,
cook, and eat together. We’ve started to reframe
our own eating habits. Growing is not easy. The soil is frankly terrible. We’ve built raised planter beds. And by composting, we’ve
grown our own organic soil. We built our own greenhouse
to extend the growing season and to protect plants from
the extremes of too much rain and too much sun. We designed a column of
water irrigation system to drip feed the garden. So it’s an ongoing adventure. Frankly, we’re architects. We’re not farmers. We teach architecture,
not gardening. Aside from changing
our own culture, the biggest impact of our
action in our community came when the local
town asked us for help with the farmers market. They’d actually realized, after
seeing what we were doing, that they didn’t have somewhere
to buy and sell fresh produce from the local farmers. Our staff team designed
farm stands that move down the road on a wrecking truck. We now have 13
Hale County farmers selling produce
through the summer on a new public space in town. So coming into this
amazing Loeb opportunity, I have two things
I’d like to address, and they’re really
at different scales. One, of course, is this
question of the resilience of rural communities and why– I mean, I came here
and I get on the course catalogs for MIT and Harvard. And I search the word “rural,”
and virtually nothing comes up. And that’s not–
it is what it is, but it seems to me
that we need to talk about the relationship
between rural and urban and what are the futures
of both, not just cities, not just it in our ivory tower. So I don’t know what any of
that means, but I think it’s a discussion that’s needed. And then I’d also,
at another scale, like to find some
rich guys to help me roll out this product line
of little houses in rural areas. So thank you for your
profound patience with me. [applause]

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