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Southern comfort: the story of the making of Newbern's fire station marks a subtle shift in Rural Studio's social and architectural mission.

Now with around 60 buildings to its credit, the Rural Studio is gradually outgrowing its origins as a band of enthusiastic provocateurs and evolving into what might be described as a more focused, professional outfit. With the untimely death of founder Sam Mockbee in 2001, change was inevitable, and it forced the issue of how to take the programme of student work and education on to the next level. The Rural Studio premise will be familiar to AR readers. Every quarter, groups of students from Auburn University elect to live and work off campus in the impoverished counties of western Alabama. Working with the local Department of Human Resources, they tackle small-scale projects that engage with the unpalatable, neglected margins of American society. Now under the direction of Andrew Freear, this social mission continues, but there is also a sense that the original ethos of happy, scrappy scavengers is maturing and that the architecture is becoming more sober, durable and considered.

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This project for a fire station in the hamlet of Newbern (population 250) exemplifies the changing approach. In terms of the Rural Studio oeuvre it is a comparatively large, public building (it doubles as town hall and community centre) and is also more structurally complex (involving the rare contribution of an engineer), all of which meant that it had to be more rigorously programmed. Yet it still manifests a signature inventiveness and the story of its making illustrates the fertile reciprocity between the student designers and their 250 strong client body.

The initiative for the project came from a near disaster. Some years ago a garage caught fire and came perilously close to igniting a neighbouring historic home. Citizens were reduced to ineffectually battling the blaze with garden hosepipes while waiting for a fire truck to arrive from a nearby settlement. This event marked the founding of the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department, manned by around 30 locals and equipped with a new fire truck bought with a grant supplied from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The conditions of the grant stipulated that the truck had to be properly housed, so Rural Studio, which had been headquartered in Newbern for over seven years, offered to design and build a new fire station.

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Located directly opposite Newbern Mercantile, the ubiquitous local store, the site could not be more civically prominent. Exploring notions of modern rusticity, the students' design takes the archetype of the traditional Southern barn as its starting point and gives it a contemporary twist. With its slatted cedar cladding and expressively articulated pine structure, it might even be Scandinavian, a tribute to the general level of execution.

Set back from the street edge, the new structure continues the line of Newbern's main thoroughfare. A series of column trusses define and enclose a double-height volume capped by a simple monopitch roof. Apart from housing the fire department's two trucks, it also functions as a town gathering place, capable of hosting a multitude of different municipal and social events, from elections to barbecues. This human dimension is emphasised in the treatment of the long south wall, which is a translucent, permeable skin clad in milky polycarbonate panels overlaid by slim cedar slats. Part of the wall swings open like a drawbridge or garage door, so that people can spill out onto a hardstanding for al fresco events. The polycarbonate sheeting also acts as a passive heating and cooling system. The north facade is wrapped in rough cut pine, with a horizontal band of polycarbonate at ground level.

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Begun in August 2003, the project took two years to complete, with the construction phase kicking off on St Patrick's Day 2004. Groundwork took four months and column construction three months. Once on site, the prefabricated columns were erected in a day, recalling a traditional barn raising when rural communities pitched in to build simple rustic structures. Engineered in collaboration with Robert McGlohn, who gave his services free, the timber column trusses are braced with tubular steel to withstand 80mph winds. Along with the galvalume roof, and some of the polycarbonate sheeting, the tubular steel was donated free of charge (the project attracted material donations worth over $100,000), so Rural Studio's instincts for inventive and profitable scavenging are still finely honed.

Living and working in such a small, close-knit community fosters a particular kind of relationship in which barriers between professionals and laymen simply dissolve. As Andrew Freear describes it, 'The community cooked us dinner, paid off our bills at the local mercantile, made us honorary Newbern citizens, presented us with a plaque, made a book of photos documenting the construction process and donated countless hours of labour as well as equipment use'. Some of the project team even became volunteer firemen responding to calls.

In many ways, what Rural Studio does is a kind of architectural alchemy, conjuring up something from almost nothing. This project marks an advance in scale and level of construction that should spur its participants on to greater things and inspire wider confidence in their unorthodox methods. And though it might be a microscopic blip on the map, Newbern now has a real civic focus that honours the effort and ingenuity of those who made it and those who will use it.
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Title Annotation:process
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Words:902
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