Drawing the Obvious to See the Hidden: Fall Semester at Rural Studio


Fall semester at Auburn University’s Rural Studio is a busy time. In the third-year architecture studio, students recently presented their ideas to their client, Ophelia. Each year, the third-year students build a house for a local community member. As part of their architectural design education, the students analyze the site, interview the client, and study the three designs available to build. Through this month long process, the students determine which house is most suitable for the client and her property. This year they will build a version of Joanne’s Home, one of the 20K Product Line Homes.

The opportunity for an architecture student to work with a client is rare. This is one reason Rural Studio is unique. Typically, students learn about architectural design using a hypothetical client with a design problem developed by their professor. Design problems address particular architectural building types, structural systems, site conditions, building programs, or material conditions. Design studio clients are fictional; Rural Studio clients are real. This is one of the secrets to the success of Rural Studio. But, what is this process like? How do students work together and with their client to make the best design decisions?

Students in the third-year design studio learn about the client through interview and drawing. In a new assignment this fall, students are drawing the obvious to see the hidden. Using classic methods of representation, they are learning about contemporary socio-political issues surrounding poverty and affordable housing. They measured and photographed Ophelia’s existing home to draft elevations, site renderings, interior elevations, and plans. Textures and shadows, classically rendered in pencil, depict material, passage of time, the resourcefulness of the client, and the important of everyday objects. A page of Arches hot-press watercolor paper provided a precious surface to study proportion of the trailer and practice composition on the page. When drawn in this light, students are able to recognize and relate their own personal values to Ophelia’s way of life.

Through meticulous documentation of the obvious, students learned hidden things about Ophelia. They were able to anticipate her needs in a new house and design modifications for her lifestyle. Students recognized similarities to their own routines and forged bonds with their new client through empathy.

In addition to building a house for Ophelia, the students are also designing and making her a quilt. The quilt blocks, designed by the students, are inspired by their renderings of her existing home. The blocks depict a pattern in her life they observed through drawing. The goal of this process is to teach students alternative ways to understand their clients so they can be better architects in the future.

I am looking forward to participating in the upcoming 9th Annual National ReFrame Conference. I’ll share more about Rural Studio and the projects we do in our community. I’m also excited to share my knowledge about the 20K House Project and affordable housing details we are developing for the Front Porch Initiative. 

Emily McGlohn is an Assistant Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. She teaches 3rd Year Design Studio at the Rural Studio. Emily earned her Master of Architecture degree from the University of Oregon. Emily’s interest in building and affordable housing stems from participating with Mountain T.O.P., a ReFrame member in Tennessee, as a youth. Learn about the sessions that Emily will lead at ReFrame Conference here.