Student helps design, build rural studio's 'Lucy house'

'Most difficult' project proved to be last for late founder of Auburn University studio

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 way.

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,” Tate said.

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 roof.”

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 carpet wall.

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 product creates.

“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 Christmas break.

“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 said.

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.”

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