“All architects expect and hope that their work will act as a servant in some sense for humanity–to make a better world. This is a search we should always be undertaking.” —Samuel Mockbee

Remember when cameras used film? In the early 1990s, on visits to my sister in Alabama, I would load my 35mm camera with black-and-white film and roam rural roads and small towns in search of the quintessential image to document my experience. I would only take photographs of the built environment—from humble roadside shacks to extraordinary antebellum mansions—capturing places steeped in history, tradition, and a deep sense of community.

Around the same time, Mississippi-born Samuel Mockbee, an architecture teacher at Auburn University, co-founded the Rural Studio with architect D. K. Ruth. The Rural Studio brought design and architecture directly to the citizens of Hale County, Alabama. Mockbee's vision was to develop low-cost, innovative housing for people in a poor, rural community, while providing hands-on experience to university architecture students. Since its inception in 1993, the Rural Studio has designed and built more than 80 residential homes and community buildings, and its program and designs have influenced architects around the world.

It was uncommon for the Rural Studio to produce drawings. This rare sketch describes the Anderson and Ora Lee Harris family house in Mason’s Bend, Alabama. Signed by Mockbee and torn from his sketchbook, the design is titled “Butterfly House” due to its sharply pitched roof structure, which channels rainwater for reuse. The roof covers an open porch, a central design element since the family spent much of their time away from the house's heat in the relative cool of the outdoors. Ramps and wide doorways allow for the elderly Mrs. Harris’s wheelchair. Low-cost materials and recycled wood from a nearby 105-year-old church kept the building's cost to $30,000.

I plan to return to Alabama soon. I will visit my sister and, camera in hand, meet some of the current Rural Studio students to see how Mockbee’s vision “to make a better world” continues.

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