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Andrew Freear, director of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, has been awarded the 2023 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture. Sponsored by the University of Virginia and Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1966, the prestigious annual award has recognized exceptional individuals in the fields of architecture as well as law, citizen leadership, and global innovation. Previous awardees in the architecture category include Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, Jane Jacobs and, in more recent years, David Adjaye, Francis Kéré, Kenneth Frampton, and Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.

The Newbern, Alabama–based Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by the late architect Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth as an intensive design-build field study program within Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Since then, over 1,200 students have passed through the program, which emphasizes on-site, community-centric design focused on the needs of rural populations in Hale, Perry, and Marengo counties in Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region. “It’s quite extraordinary that a modest undergraduate program in West Alabama can be mentioned alongside giants in our field,” said British-born Freear, who joined Rural Studio in 2000 to serve as “teacher, designer, builder, advocate, and liaison between local authorities, community partners, and students,” according to an announcement.

“We are deeply humbled to have been selected for this distinction not just for the honor, but for the light that it shines on rural America and society’s role in ensuring equitable, dignified communities,” Freear added.

Alongside the tangible, small-scale architectural endeavors that Rural Studio has developed for the communities that it works within—student-developed projects include a playground and skatepark, library, fire station, churches, and other civic anchors—the program has made affordable housing a core part of its mission. In 2004, Rural Studio kicked off its 20k Home research program with the initial goal of designing a market-rate modular home that could be constructed for $20,000. In 2020, the faculty-driven Front Porch Initiative was founded as an extension of 20k Home; that effort seeks to develop models for energy-efficient and affordable homes in high-need areas, with addendums that facilitate home ownership and stimulate local building economies. 

The farm rural studio

The Farm in Newbern, Alabama, produces 7,000 pounds of food annually for Rural Studio and the surrounding community. Photo © Timothy Hursley

“Andrew Freear and Rural Studio’s hands-on architectural pedagogy…has significantly improved the living conditions for residents in rural Hale County, Alabama, and continues to support long-term wellbeing and regional sustainability in the area,” said Dean Malo A. Hutson, dean of the UVA School of Architecture, in a statement. “We are inspired by Rural Studio’s commitment to cultivating students who are both local architects and citizens of the world—and its ability to help aspiring young architects address the ethical responsibility for the social, political, and environmental consequences of what they design and build. 

In addition to his new status as a 2023 Jefferson Foundation Medalist in Architecture, Freear—and Rural Studio—has received numerous honors and accolades including the 2020 President’s Medal from the Architectural League of New York and the 2022 National Design Award in Architecture / Interior Design from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Freear will present a lecture on the work of Rural Studio on April 13 at UVA’s Old Cabell Hall. More details on the free public event can be found here.