Upcycled Architecture and Design Challenge at Auburn University

cardboard pod at auburn's rural studio

To say that I’m a fan of the Rural Studio at Auburn University would be a huge understatement. I’ve been aware of their program since I heard a presentation of their work back in 2001. As the name suggests, the studio is in rural Alabama, and I never had the opportunity to visit. That is, until this past week.

Several months ago I received a phone call from Jerrod Windham, a faculty member in the Industrial Design program at Auburn. He was trying to get a hold of someone from TerraCycle for a while and was finally put through to me after a former student had interned at TerraCycle.

He was planning his annual 24-hour design challenge and wanted to focus on materials to upcycle, and he had stumbled upon the perfect upcycling source: TerraCycle. We identified three materials that we had in surplus, including wine corks, nylon tent fabric and leather scraps. We also decided that I would come to the college for the Design Challenge kick-off, and after the kick-off, Jerrod graciously offered to be my Rural Studio tour guide.

After a talk about TerraCycle and the cork, tent and leather materials that were to be used in the challenge, the students came up to gather as many materials as they could hold. As students started their 24-hour brainstorming session, Jerrod and I set out for Hale County, Alabama.


Students brainstorming with tent material

We started our tour at the Rural Studio main campus where many students live and also where a lot of the project conceptualization takes place. This program was created to give Auburn’s Architecture students a hands-on education where they build a physical structure to support the community in West Alabama’s under-served Black Belt region. The rural studio was founded by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1993. Many of the structures have an influence of recycling and repurposing, particularly in the early years of the program. This was the work which I was most familiar with.

As we walked up, students were hard at work, building part of the frame of one of their 20k buildings. Several students even live in pods built as class projects from previous years. A few students took a short break from hammering to show us around the campus.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

Student pod build from shredded cardboard

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

Campus bathroom tiled on the outside from reversed license plates

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

A solar greenhouse framed with decommissioned mint oil drums

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

Students building a portion of a housing frame

After a visit with the Rural Studio Program Director, a map of completed projects, and some suggestions on what not to miss, we headed out. Our next stop was the Samuel Mockbee memoriam located near the campus.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

Samuel Mockbee Memorial with Jerrod Windham, Professor of Industrial Design at Auburn University and also my Rural Studio tour guide

Then, we were off to the Lion’s Park skate park and playground where the playground was created from those same metal mint oil drums as the campus greenhouse.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

A repurposed playground helps visitors to reimagine items typically considered scrap.

Next, we headed to Mason’s Bend, a community of four extended families. Several homes and a chapel were part of the early works from Rural Studio.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

The Butterfly House, a home for one of the families from the community

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

The Glass Chapel made from tiling car windows with other materials

After that we made a quick stop in Greensboro to take a look at the 20k houses – a house built with a $20,000 budget to bring affordable (and well-designed) housing to the community. You can even donate and help to fund a future 20k housing project where your donation can support any part of a house that you wish from the windows, to a porch, and even down to a gallon of paint.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

The 20k house series — a house made with only 20k dollars in resources

As the sun was lowering in the sky, we made one last stop at Perry Lakes Park. The covered bridge leads the way to three restrooms that were created so visitors could have a restroom “experience” in the middle of the forest. These buildings were selectively positioned so you could get down to business and look out into the wilderness at the same time. This was our last stop on the Rural Studio tour and the perfect ending to a very inspirational day.

upcycled architecture at Auburn Univeristy

The restrooms at Perry Lakes Park blend well with the scenery.

The next day, after 24 hours of laboring, the students were ready to present their work. Students were judged on usefulness of their product, use of material and project presentation. The presentation included a project overview and sketch and process sheet. As I walked into the room and looked around, I was blown away by the entries and the level of work put into the projects in just one short day. Auburn’s Design and Architecture students are clearly a dedicated bunch led by great instructors.

First place went to Team Green for their collection of dog gear made from upcycled tent material. This team was comprised of Elaine Boone, Kathryn Klebenow, Ricardo Rico, and Marek Moffet. Nice use of the TerraCycle logo, team green!

Second place was a bike pouch created from tent material — a great waterproof solution for protecting your gear during a bike ride!

Swinging in at third place was a working hammock made entirely from an upcycled tent. Even the cording that held up the tent was made from leftover tent scraps braided together.

upcycled design at Auburn Univeristy

First place: Dog gear system from upcycled tent material and leather scraps

upcycled design at Auburn Univeristy

Second place: Bike pouch made from upcycled tent material and leather scraps

upcycled design at Auburn Univeristy

Third place: The “TerraMock,” a hammock made with upcycled tent material

The entire experience was truly an upcycled inspiration. I look forward to seeing more amazing design and designers coming out of Auburn University.

6 Responses

  1. abcmodular says:

    The building concept is really interesting. It is based on the construction of blocks or pieces that can now be called modular construction. This is how prefabricated houses steel, concrete or wood that can be found throughout the world are made. You might think that is a very new system, but actually takes us centuries. What's really new is the concept of industrialization. That is, use previously manufactured elements for coupling with each other and organize them by giving them a home use. This is the reason why manufactured homes are so intimately linked to sustainability and respect for the environment.

  2. Michelle Reynolds says:

    I LOVE this and love Samuel Mockbee's legacy!

    • kellysmtrimble says:

      Visiting the Rural Studio and getting to know so many Auburn architecture grads was one of the highlights of living in Alabama. There are so many talented people committed to fair, affordable and innovative design.


About Tiffany Threadgould 


I am a design junkie who gives scrap materials a second life and the head of design at TerraCycle, a company that collects and creates products from waste. My ...

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