What You Can Learn From a Trailblazer’s Use of Social-Justice Architecture


We’ve all heard the saying, “everything old is new again.” At our place, we’ve challenged ourselves to find inventive ways to repurpose materials that might have otherwise left behind. As a result, our ceilings, parts of our deck and even our conference table are crafted from wood that would have otherwise been left at our Florida projects.

Never have I seen a truer personal example than in Sam Mockbee, a pioneer in pragmatic design whose biography I recently received. He made turning old things into something unique and usable his life’s passionate work.

Sam or “Sambo” as he was known to his friends, understood the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” concept long before it became a slogan for sustainability and doing things right. He created the Rural Studio Program at the Auburn University School of Architecture, where students repurpose ordinary and recycled materials into houses and useful buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama. His creations take care of basic needs and in the process provide rays of hope.

Sam would tell his students that the places they create have got to be warm, dry and noble. He spent the last 10 years of his life building those spaces for many and that legacy continues. Using salvaged materials like lumber, bricks, discarded tires and hay bales, the Rural Studio produces inexpensive structures in a style that Mockbee described as “contemporary modernism grounded in southern culture.” As noted in this Metropolitan Magazine article, the process gives students hands-on experience in designing and building something real, extending their education beyond paper architecture.

Our Stewart Perry headquarters have always reminded me of Sam Mockbee’s work and about half way through the building process I found out why. I learned that Tommy Goodman, who designed our place and is now a professor or architecture at Mississippi State University, was Sambo’s business partner. The influence of the Rural Studio is woven all through our campus. We removed coal tailings from the lake and used them to repave parking area for a neighborhood church. Our hardwood floors are refurbished from a tobacco plant in Virginia. I feel our folks are always thinking of ways they can lower our environmental impact.

Are there opportunities to do similar things around your office, home or construction site?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

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