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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Couldn’t agree more. Every time I hear this song, I think of our production trip to the Black Belt of Alabama to do a story on Rural Studio.

 mhisadj:

Emmylou Harris - Red Dirt Girl

Still one of my favorite albums of all time.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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The Definition of Sustainability Expands with Vocation
Krista Tippett, host

Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly “eat your spinach” tone. We’re steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice, and penance. But in all my conversations of recent years, I’ve been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/majoracartergroup/3929362653/Innovation in sustainability often begins, I’ve found, with people defining what they cherish as much as diagnosing what is wrong. I think of Majora Carter. The remarkably ambitious project she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, began when she and the people of that borough started to reclaim their riverfront for refreshment and play.

I think also of Barbara Kingsolver, finding in a year of sustainable eating that when it comes to food, the ethical choice is also the pleasurable choice. I’ve been energized by her insistence that as we all face the grand ecological crises of our time, one of our most important renewable resources is hope. We simply have to put it on with our shoes every morning.

Rural Studio and an Architecture of DecencyOur visit to the Rural Studio is an immersion in hope. This project is at once an architectural adventure and a social experiment. It offers beauty as an antidote to the ruins of history and the death of imagination. It began with the singular vision of the late legendary architect Samuel Mockbee, who left a lucrative private practice to follow his sense of architecture as a “social art.” He partnered with Alabama’s Auburn University architectural school, joining his vision with the energy and ideas of the students being trained there.

"Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor," he taught them, "not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul."

Dog ShelterThese days, the Rural Studio is creating more public spaces than private houses and sometimes recycling entire buildings — preserving history and memory while creating something new. In everything they do, they aspire to “zero maintenance” construction. As the current director Andrew Freear puts it, this is sustainability with a small ‘s’ — focused not on what is cutting-edge, but on what can be maintained by real people with limited resources over time.

And because of the care that goes into this — an application of social as well as professional intelligence — something larger than architectural integrity emerges. In the lives and projects of the Rural Studio one finds real community, a fierce sense of the dignity of human life, and a creative, responsible, ongoing encounter with the natural and material worlds.

The writer Frederich Buechner has said that vocation happens “when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I’m beginning to see the work of sustainability as an unfolding vocation — not merely a response to problems, but an invitation to possibility and a way to strengthen moral resources such as delight, dignity, elegance, and hope.

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Taking the Pulse of Our Blog

Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Antioch Baptist Church
Trent films one of Rural Studio’s projects, Antioch Baptist Church. (photo: Mitch Hanley)

As noted in this week’s broadcast of "An Architecture of Decency," our production trip to the Black Belt of Alabama in October 2007 was the birth of our staff blog, SOF Observed. Since then we’ve offered many different types of posts under the guidance of our senior editor, Trent Gilliss. As we’ve experimented with various levels of tone, length, personal disclosure, and multimedia elements, we’ve done so with an overarching philosophy to pull back the curtain, share our production experiences, and highlight what we are seeing in our big world of “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.”

What captures your interest informs us, and sometimes surprises us. Rossini’s “Meow” by “The Little Singers of Paris” (fun) and Spiritual but Not Religious (reflective) had distinctly high responses. We’ve kept our eyes out for thoughtful perspectives on headlines, such as Hendrik Hertzberg’s commentary on the Catholic abuse crisis. Guest contributions (want to be published?) like Chelsea Roff’s entry on the meaning of sacred space have also grabbed your attention. We’ve focused on visuals, Purim Around the World, and sound, Forgiveness and Revenge, A Call for Music Ideas, and good behind-the-scenes stories: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is “Mad About Mango”.  

So, we thought this was a good occasion to ask you: How are we doing? What are your impressions of SOF Observed? What would you like to see more of?

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One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Treasure

by Colleen Scheck, producer

I was watching television news on the couch with my 10-year-old nephew last weekend and was captivated by a segment that profiled the work of Dan Phillips, a 64 year-old man from Huntsville, Texas who builds low-income houses out of trash. Yep, trash.

The segment has stuck with me in a few ways during this week’s production activities. Phillips’ work reminds me of the kindred efforts of Rural Studio (one of my all-time favorite programs), and it has resonance with our upcoming program with environmentalist Bill McKibben, specifically around the theme of human vitality and community in our changing natural world.

It also sparks thoughts about education and vocation raised during Krista’s interview with Mike Rose (to air in January). In that last way, I was struck by the difference in approach between Phoenix Commotion (Phillips’ initiative) and Rural Studio. Rural Studio trains highly educated architecture students to build homes from salvaged materials; Phillips employs unskilled laborers as apprentices and teaches “anyone with a work ethic” how to build. The result is the same: affordable homes made from recycled materials that are both functional and artistic, sustainable and unique.

I dug around for more info on Dan Phillips, and found a great slideshow of his work, as well as more photographs via Flickr. This is the kind of tangible activity that gives me hope, for our planet and for our humanity. My nephew, whose face was buried in his iPod Touch during the entire TV segment, looked up at the end and said “That’s cool.” I didn’t know he’d been listening.

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Martial Arts Meets Ethical Living

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer 

I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.

Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.

As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.

I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.

(Photo by tanueshka) 

What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.

When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.

In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.

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Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should Trent Gilliss, Online EditorBeing a homeowner who has gutted and rehabbed a number of residences now, I’ve come to learn that materials really do have their place. Asphalt shingles work great on a pitched roof, but place them on a porch’s shed roof with a shallow incline… well, you’re begging for those newly laid floors of reclaimed Douglas fir from your upstairs attic to cup and bend. Wood putty is fine for those nail holes on an interior door. But, try to close the gap on those weathered storm windows — the first spring rain bubbles the paint and makes them look worse than before. Lessons learned.And, as you can see from the picture above, what worked beautifully as a retaining wall treatment in the Yancey “Tire” Chapel (1995) failed miserably on Tracy Shiles’ house. The stepped approach to the front entry hasn’t borne foot traffic well, and it wasn’t covered either. The flaking stuccoed tires reminds me of something Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio, told Krista in our anchor interview for SOF’s upcoming program, “An Architecture of Decency.”He views sustainability with a small ess. Instead of searching for “green” products with the proper FSC stamp or building structures that are LEED certified, Rural Studio emphasizes vernacular materials that require zero maintenance. The stuff has to be readily available, reusable, and understood by the owners so that it can be easily fixed. Their clients are scratching out a living and extra time, says Freear, needs to be spent making additional income, being with their families, or simply just resting from a hard day’s work.After all, this isn’t so hard to understand. How many of you have an uncle, grandfather, or dad who gripes every time he opens the hood of his Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Prius or even a Ford Taurus because he can’t make simple repairs because of all the electronics being used? The same idea applies here. A Dutch-produced prefabricated cementitious fiberboard may be “green” and durable, but if it gets damaged in a storm, the owner can’t replace it. But, use corrugated sheet metal and the owner can find a piece at any scrap yard or vacant, tumbledown building in the tri-county area for the repair.

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Being a homeowner who has gutted and rehabbed a number of residences now, I’ve come to learn that materials really do have their place. Asphalt shingles work great on a pitched roof, but place them on a porch’s shed roof with a shallow incline… well, you’re begging for those newly laid floors of reclaimed Douglas fir from your upstairs attic to cup and bend. Wood putty is fine for those nail holes on an interior door. But, try to close the gap on those weathered storm windows — the first spring rain bubbles the paint and makes them look worse than before. Lessons learned.

And, as you can see from the picture above, what worked beautifully as a retaining wall treatment in the Yancey “Tire” Chapel (1995) failed miserably on Tracy Shiles’ house. The stepped approach to the front entry hasn’t borne foot traffic well, and it wasn’t covered either. The flaking stuccoed tires reminds me of something Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio, told Krista in our anchor interview for SOF’s upcoming program, “An Architecture of Decency.”

He views sustainability with a small ess. Instead of searching for “green” products with the proper FSC stamp or building structures that are LEED certified, Rural Studio emphasizes vernacular materials that require zero maintenance. The stuff has to be readily available, reusable, and understood by the owners so that it can be easily fixed. Their clients are scratching out a living and extra time, says Freear, needs to be spent making additional income, being with their families, or simply just resting from a hard day’s work.

After all, this isn’t so hard to understand. How many of you have an uncle, grandfather, or dad who gripes every time he opens the hood of his Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Prius or even a Ford Taurus because he can’t make simple repairs because of all the electronics being used? The same idea applies here. A Dutch-produced prefabricated cementitious fiberboard may be “green” and durable, but if it gets damaged in a storm, the owner can’t replace it. But, use corrugated sheet metal and the owner can find a piece at any scrap yard or vacant, tumbledown building in the tri-county area for the repair.

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Welcome to Alabama

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

We arrived in Greensboro on Tuesday afternoon and headed straight up to Antioch Baptist Church (see image below) to see if there was any information on services during the week. We were hoping to gather sound of the church’s congregation, perhaps speaking to members who had seen the previous incarnation. Cruising down the 1.5 lane highway at a healthy speed, we eyed this tiny sign pointing down a gravel road (driveway) “Antioch Baptist Church.” The grass between the tire tracks was quite tall, giving me the impression that this church might not get used at all. As we walked up to the structure we knew immediately that this was a Rural Studio project, it was like no other church in the area (except for the other RS chapels).

Alongside the church is an elevated graveyard with headstones dating back to the early 1800’s. The juxtaposition of these old tombs looking upon the modern chapel below was striking, as was the fact that the only windows along the long walls of the church were the narrow strip which looked directly out at the graves.

As we walked along the grounds, which were surrounded by thick forests of pines, you could hear an old hound dog howling in the distance interspersed with long stretches of eerie silence. This combination seemed to say, Welcome to rural Alabama!

We left Antioch to head back to Greensboro and again, at highway speed this dog seemed to come out of nowhere. At least, it seemed like a dog, minus one ear. This German Shepherd was standing next to the side of the road waiting for us to pass, standing alert with its one good ear. Sorry, it was just too strange for us to want to get out and snap a photo.

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Just Give It a Little Gas…Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer Amid a day full of interviews and site visits, our tour guide Dan Splaingard took us over to his former landlady’s place so he could deliver a delicious Icee fresh from the gas station.  Theresa’s two dogs, whose names I cannot recall, came running out to greet us as Dan went inside.  These dogs were very sweet and all I can say is that I am glad this car was a rental.  It was as we were leaving that we learned the “game” these dogs love to play:  Car Chase the Dogs!  We had the hardest time getting out of the driveway, these dogs were right behind us, when we drove out to the main street they ran right in front of us.  Dan said, just give it a little gas and they’ll get out of the way.  Here’s a pic of one of them, having just gotten out of the way…

Just Give It a Little Gas…
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Amid a day full of interviews and site visits, our tour guide Dan Splaingard took us over to his former landlady’s place so he could deliver a delicious Icee fresh from the gas station. Theresa’s two dogs, whose names I cannot recall, came running out to greet us as Dan went inside. These dogs were very sweet and all I can say is that I am glad this car was a rental. It was as we were leaving that we learned the “game” these dogs love to play: Car Chase the Dogs! We had the hardest time getting out of the driveway, these dogs were right behind us, when we drove out to the main street they ran right in front of us. Dan said, just give it a little gas and they’ll get out of the way. Here’s a pic of one of them, having just gotten out of the way…

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Establishing Roots to the PastTrent Gilliss, Online EditorThe foundation has been laid and now the heavy lifting begins for second-year students at the Rural Studio. They completely dismantled St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (circa 1854) last year and cataloged all its elements — from mortise & tenon beams to cut nails. Then, they loaded up the truck and relocated the structure near its original location in Cahawba, the first capital of Alabama.The effort is painstaking, but history teaches lessons. And Jason Coomes, the instructor for this project, says it awakens the eyes of his young students and town citizens alike. The quality of craftsmanship and ingenuity of construction contributed to its longevity.Beams used for floor joists weren’t nailed to the foundation. Taboo nowadays perhaps, but a feature that allowed the building to move enough so that it didn’t collapse under stress and strain. Now that they’re assembling the salvaged floor, they’ll date-stamp the contemporary substitutions to provide a legacy for the next generation trying to figure out how the church was built and rebuilt.In so doing, they preserve our cultural legacy, teach the next generation of architects what it means to design buildings that last, salvage wood that most likely would have deteriorated or been scrapped, and sustain the geography of place that was once washed away by the floodplain of the Cahawba River. This seems like sensible sustainability, one that sates the curiosity of generations to come.

Establishing Roots to the Past
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

The foundation has been laid and now the heavy lifting begins for second-year students at the Rural Studio. They completely dismantled St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (circa 1854) last year and cataloged all its elements — from mortise & tenon beams to cut nails. Then, they loaded up the truck and relocated the structure near its original location in Cahawba, the first capital of Alabama.

The effort is painstaking, but history teaches lessons. And Jason Coomes, the instructor for this project, says it awakens the eyes of his young students and town citizens alike. The quality of craftsmanship and ingenuity of construction contributed to its longevity.

Beams used for floor joists weren’t nailed to the foundation. Taboo nowadays perhaps, but a feature that allowed the building to move enough so that it didn’t collapse under stress and strain. Now that they’re assembling the salvaged floor, they’ll date-stamp the contemporary substitutions to provide a legacy for the next generation trying to figure out how the church was built and rebuilt.

In so doing, they preserve our cultural legacy, teach the next generation of architects what it means to design buildings that last, salvage wood that most likely would have deteriorated or been scrapped, and sustain the geography of place that was once washed away by the floodplain of the Cahawba River. This seems like sensible sustainability, one that sates the curiosity of generations to come.

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Sustainability Efforts a Ruse?

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

David Buege, the interim director of Rural Studio while Andrew Freear is on sabbatical, questions the long-term effectiveness of green building and sustainability in general. He wonders whether LEED certification isn’t just another highly profitable add-on service that some architects exploit. Long-term, land-use planning, he says, should be at the forefront of his profession. Without that, most other efforts will fail to make an impact on generations outside of our grandchildren.

People in the field he admires? Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University. They have proposed a radical plan of creating a Buffalo Commons stretching from Canada through the Dakotas right on down to Texas. This commons area would reclaim millions of acres of land and restore the prairies to their natural condition before colonial efforts seized North America. Anne Matthews chronicles their ideas in Where the Buffalo Roam: Restoring America’s Great Plains.

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Antioch Baptist ChurchTrent Gilliss, Online EditorThirty minutes north of Greensboro is a magnificent country church with a modernist flare that would appeal to most minimalists. In 2002, a century-old church standing on the site was carefully dismantled right down to the pulled nails so the materials could be reused in its current incarnation. The concrete blocks were salvaged from the women’s dorms at Auburn and serve as a retaining wall leading parishioners into the church.(photo: Mitch Hanley)

Antioch Baptist Church
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Thirty minutes north of Greensboro is a magnificent country church with a modernist flare that would appeal to most minimalists. In 2002, a century-old church standing on the site was carefully dismantled right down to the pulled nails so the materials could be reused in its current incarnation. The concrete blocks were salvaged from the women’s dorms at Auburn and serve as a retaining wall leading parishioners into the church.

(photo: Mitch Hanley)

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Consumed, and Consuming Trent Gilliss, Online EditorIrony is not a sentiment lost on us at Speaking of Faith. As we were driving from Birmingham to Greensboro, we (Mitch Hanley, the senior producer, and I) had to swallow hard and chuckle that we are symbolic of the U.S. culture, at large. As part of APM’s upcoming Consumed collaboration in November, we are producing a program on Auburn University’s Rural Studio.To collect sound and interviews and visuals, we had to travel to the design-build program’s work sites in Hale County, Alabama, from our home base in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, we ended up taking two jets and renting a massive SUV — a Dodge Durango — to carry our equipment and sundry people. We are reporting on sustainability and consumption issues. Oy vey.But, this scenario isn’t a one-off. The confessional part is that I drive an 8-cylinder, 4x4 Toyota Tundra that gets probably 14 mpg in town. And, I do a lot of trekking for childcare and other stuff. The fact is, I love that darned truck. I’ve even named it Black Thunder. My wife cringes and my co-workers laugh, and yes it’s playful and all. But the truth is I like ridin’ high and haulin’ brush and scrap. I’m guilty, and I’m riddled with guilt but I’m not willing to give it up.(photo: Trent Gilliss)

Consumed, and Consuming
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Irony is not a sentiment lost on us at Speaking of Faith. As we were driving from Birmingham to Greensboro, we (Mitch Hanley, the senior producer, and I) had to swallow hard and chuckle that we are symbolic of the U.S. culture, at large. As part of APM’s upcoming Consumed collaboration in November, we are producing a program on Auburn University’s Rural Studio.

To collect sound and interviews and visuals, we had to travel to the design-build program’s work sites in Hale County, Alabama, from our home base in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, we ended up taking two jets and renting a massive SUV — a Dodge Durango — to carry our equipment and sundry people. We are reporting on sustainability and consumption issues. Oy vey.

But, this scenario isn’t a one-off. The confessional part is that I drive an 8-cylinder, 4x4 Toyota Tundra that gets probably 14 mpg in town. And, I do a lot of trekking for childcare and other stuff. The fact is, I love that darned truck. I’ve even named it Black Thunder. My wife cringes and my co-workers laugh, and yes it’s playful and all. But the truth is I like ridin’ high and haulin’ brush and scrap. I’m guilty, and I’m riddled with guilt but I’m not willing to give it up.

(photo: Trent Gilliss)

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