A low-income family in Southern Alabama moved into a new home
in 2002, The Lucy House, an ambitious project by Auburn University’s
Outreach Rural Studio that pushed the limits of construction materials
and, in the end, became a memorial to the Auburn University instructor
who founded the program and led the team of students—one
of them a Texas A&M environmental design graduate.
Former student J.M. Tate ’02 was a member of the 2001 Rural
Studio team directed by the program’s late founder, Samuel
“Sambo” Mockbee. An architect who had committed his
life to teaching and public service, Mockbee lost a battle with
Leukemia in December 2001 while the Lucy House project was under
Tate completed his Bachelor of Environmental Design from Texas
A&M as an “extern” member of the Rural Studio
team. He enlisted at the urging of professors Robin Abrams and
Jerry Maffei, and Tom Regan. dean of the Texas A&M College
of Architecture since 1998. Regan, an Auburn graduate, also served
as dean of Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and
Construction for three years prior to coming to Texas A&M.
The Rural Studio, conceived as a method to improve the living
conditions in rural Alabama and to include hands-on experience
in an architectural pedagogy, began designing and building homes
under Mockbee’s direction in the fall of 1993.
“The Rural Studio program provides architecture students
an opportunity to push their ideas and talents to the limit by
creating something real and beneficial to a rural community,”
Originally conceived by Mockbee, the Lucy House was a collaboration
of the Rural Studio and Interface Americas, the world’s
largest commercial carpet manufacturer.
The house, now the home of Anderson and Lucy Harris and their
three children, was built of carpet tiles salvaged from office
buildings throughout the USA. Since the tiles are all older than
seven years, they have minimal “off gas” and are protected
from the elements by the Rural Studio’s trademark “big
The 1200 sq. ft. house has two main pieces: a “family room”
and the main bedroom for Anderson and Lucy.
The “family room” contains three children’s
bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and living area. It is completely
contained by carpet-tiled walls built from 72,000 individually
stacked tiles that are held in compression by a heavy wooden ring
beam. The carpet does not take the roof load, which is transferred
to the foundation through structural metal posts hidden in the
The main bedroom is housed in the crumpled form that sits atop
the family’s tornado shelter, which also acts as a mediation
room and family TV room.
One of the most interesting and ingenious aspects of the construction
of the Lucy House is the development of a carpet wall system in
which waste carpet tiles were stacked like bricks to form a solid
mass. The carpet tiles, with 18-inch cross-sections, had extraordinary
absorption and heat radiation properties that provided insulation
for the home.
Carpet for the wall system and funds for construction were provided
by a $30,000 donation from Interface Carpet, a company that was
looking for ways to reuse the incredible amounts of waste their
“As the semester began we spent much of our time in the
Mason’s Bend community where our clients lived, developing
an understanding of the context of the place and what ideas would
drive the creation of The Lucy House,” Tate recalled. “We
were submerged in southern culture and taken into the daily lives
of Lucy’s family. Together we decided that the design of
the house would focus around two primary ideas, a storm shelter
and a place to pray.”
The house was built during the day and in the evening the team
focused on design development. At no point in the creation of
the house would a complete set of plans exist, Tate explained.
In fact, the majority of what existed in terms of details was
created using scaled models.
“Although this method was very unconventional, because
of the lack of enforced codes or inspections and because we were
the sole designers and builders, the methods we used proved to
work incredibly well.”
In October, Mockbee told the group that the Lucy House was the
most difficult project ever taken on by the Rural Studio. But
little did anyone realize, the most difficult aspect of creating
the house was yet to come. Mockbee died unexpectedly during the
“Here we were, a group of students with no experience beyond
the classroom, faced with the task of completing a very complex
house without anyone to turn to when times got rough,” Tate
The students had the option of abandoning the project, but chose
to persevere, in honor of Mockbee.
This is a place we wanted to be, we loved our clients, the project
and knew how much the Lucy House meant to Sambo Mockbee.”
The team returned from their Christmas break, emotionally spent
by Mockbee’s death with only the slab and concrete walls—still
in the forms—completed.
In the next phase of the project, the students researched their
idea to use carpet slabs in the home’s construction.
“We built several mockups and began to test each for structural
integrity, fire and water resistance, and as Sambo would have
emphasized, beauty,” Tate remembered.
In the process, they discovered their carpet wall would not burn,
take in water or grow bacteria. Furthermore, it could withstand
an earthquake and offered an R-value of more than 50.
With a green light from engineers, the students completed the
carpet walls and the two main rooms, leaving only the “prayer
room” requested by the family.
“We spent two semesters developing ideas for the spiritual
space and finally arrived at a solution—a rusted red tower
that aims straight up initially, then twists and torques as the
main house roof collides into the space, finally tilting back
at the top.”
The tower’s interior space maintains the same form as the
exterior, but the feeling inside, Tate said, is very different
than that evoked from viewing the exterior.
“Finished in smooth white, the interior walls play with
light and shadow as one’s eyes move up the wall and finally
to the sky, where the seemingly frameless sky-window opens to
the north star at night.”
Of his year-long experience designing a family home in rural
Alabama, Tate said, it was a “chance to design and build
something in the context of an amazing community with clients
who are ecstatic about their new house; an opportunity to push
the limits of materials, design and architecture education; and
finally, a chance to take part in the last project overseen by
a remarkable architect and human, Sambo Mockbee.”