Rural Studio: A Story of Solutions

When homes caught fire in Newbern, Alabama, they often burned to the ground while residents stood by watching helplessly. With a population of 184, the small town in Hale County went 110 years without a single new public building—including a firehouse. Residents had to wait for help to arrive from neighboring towns.

Rural Studio, a community-oriented, design-build program, supported by Auburn University’s architecture program, focuses on projects that recognize the vital need for solutions to problems, like the one in Newbern.

“We got together as a community and said, ‘How can we do this?’” says Andrew Freear, program director. “Their focus was the organization, and we were able to help them with the building.”

New Bern Firehouse
Newbern Firehouse

The new firehouse relies on an innovative design using low-cost materials. This affordable structure isn’t just an architecture project, it’s a way to save lives and homes. Its success depended on working closely with Newbern residents.

“The Rural Studio is a community because we’re all working towards the same goal as a team, and Hale County is working towards that same goal as a team,” says architecture student Sarah Curry.

While the firehouse served a very practical need for Newbern residents, a lack of communal space was apparent in the small town. That’s when former postmistress and Newbern resident Frances Sullivan approached Rural Studio about building a library.

New Bern Library
Newbern Library

“The Newbern Library has the potential to be the most profound project Rural Studio ever built,” said Sullivan. Residents of Newbern understood that the library could become a social center, providing such resources as after-school programming, computer access, and the first public internet point in the community.

The Old Bank Building, part of Newbern’s historic downtown, was donated by a local family to house the new library. Rural Studio renovated and expanded the Old Bank Building to accommodate its new function as a library.

Across the country, architects are designing solutions to our most pressing problems. The I Look Up Film Challenge series aims to shine a light on these creative solutions, like the Rural Studio documentary film which beautifully demonstrates the power architecture has to transform communities.