4. New Rural Design and Architecture

The Rural Studio, Alabama
The Rural Studio, Alabama

New Rural Design and Architecture

The economic, environmental and demographic factors impacting on rural areas are changing landscapes and human settlement patterns in the countryside that offer new creative opportunities and challenges for architects and designers.   The cumulative effects of the public response to climate change, increased urban migration into the countryside, and CAP-related changes in agriculture, are combining to create demands for innovative architecture, new forms of housing and work-spaces, and environmental solutions to design.

Accommodating rural change

Architects were instrumental in developing the revolutionary post-modern urban aesthetic which opened the way to culture-led post-industrial urban regeneration and the recognition of the role played by the Creative Industries.  There is no reason why, 40 years on, designers and architects should not do the same for the rural sector.  The suggestion is that they should have a similar role to play in formulating a new (post-agricultural) rural aesthetic in support of culture-led rural regeneration.  A new way of thinking about buildings and design in the rural context would allow countryside planners and policy makers, in partnership with rural communities, to accommodate and manage the changes in their environment.

New Rural Design Economy.

Architects and designers are already contributing to the creative rural economy by developing value-added rural designs, innovative marketing campaigns for rural tourism and recreational facilities, and creating experimental built forms in the countryside.   They are also designing new applications for traditional construction skills and natural materials such as farm-sourced sustainable timber, stone, earth, and and wool for insulation, for eco housing and landscape schemes in both rural and urban contexts.  Engineers and architects are also involved in designing agricultural machinery (tractors, harvesters, tools), farm buildings, barn conversions, and work-spaces, as well as agri-engineered land forms, cropping systems (precision farming), effluent management systems, and food processing plants

Egloo ‘designer’ hen house
Egloo ‘designer’ hen house

Two such examples of the new rural design economy in agricultural contexts are, the Omlet Company ‘Egloo’ project, led by two ex RCA design garduate who spotted a niche in the urban backyard ‘hobby farming market’ with their engagingly ‘designer’ hen house projects and, at the other end of the spectrum perhaps, the Massey Ferguson Tractor company who pioneered high-end design and ergonomics in tractor and farm machinery design.

Farm tractors sales also attract as much marketing interest design-wise as do urban motor car enthusiasts
Farm tractors sales also attract as much marketing interest design-wise as do urban motor car enthusiasts

Rural social housing and community design.

The demographics of rural change (problems with second-home ownership and rising land prices, the influx of migrant workers and urban life-stylers) are putting pressure on existing housing stock  and services, and in some instances eroding the capacity of traditional illage communities to absorb the influx.  Architects have a significant role to play in providing more affordable, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive rural housing.

Other examples of advanced design for successful and affordable rural community housing are the Rural Studio in Alabama, where architectural students and staff have worked alongside low income rural residents to design and construct affordable housing of the highest quality and design standard. In the Scottish Highlands the Rural Design Architectural practice have been producing award winning rural housing and museum designs of international standard.

Designing-in rural environmental sustainability

Farming is is one of the core contributors to methane and CO2 emissions in the environment, but also has the potential, through carbon sequestration, promotion of biomass energy systems,  ‘green’ effluent disposal, and energy efficient methods, to mitigate the impact not only of its own activities but also to a certain extent those of the cities.  Here too, where farmers are increasingly diversifying into new non-food~am, fibre, and energy crops, architects and designers are under challenge to invent and produce new and more sustainable processing, field cropping and energy-processing systems.

Lemna Coro water treatment
Lemna Coro water treatment

Two examples of visionary designer/engineer/artists who have very successful built up international consulatncies in designer-ledsolutions to agricultural an durban waste treatment systems, and in inculcating design-led environmental sustainability solutions in farming and urban contexts are; David Thackrey of Designs on the Times (DOTT) and the extraordinary gifted Vietnamese/American artist/engineer Viet Ngo, whose LEMNA (duck weed) water treatment -as-landart projects have provoked wonder and admiration.

Towards a sustainable rural design vernacular

Thus there is already a revolution taking place in design in the countryside.  Some of the work has been documented in the trade journals but much remains to be done by way of disseminating and promoting instances of good practice.  In addition to offering new opportunities and challenges to professional designers and architects, a new urban/rural partnership approach to design for environmental sustainability could be opened up.  A useful precedent for this would be the DOTT 07– Designs on the Time design  and sustainability project funded by the Design Council and ONE RDA in Newcastle.

Examples of pioneering rural architecture and design

New rural/urban landscape and cultivation schemes

New built forms in the countryside

New rural mansions

Affordable rural housing

The pioneering Rural Studio programme, University of Auburn, Alabama

New housing design projects for migrant workers – Design Corps project North Carolina

New rural design economy

New fields for professional action and research

What is needed now is a study of the range and scope of current new rural design and architecture projects in the countryside plus a list of similar initiatives under development internationally, to be published in the form of a handbook or discussion paper

New Rural Design forum or symposium

The Rural Design study could also help to bring designers and architects together with rural and farming leaders to discuss future options and collaborative projects.  It might help to take some of these interesting new rural design initiatives forward if the Design Council, CABE, RIBA, RIBDA (Rural Industrial Building Association) with the Arts Council and Crafts Council could meet with DEFRA and the Commission for Rural Communities, to discuss launching a pilot New Rural Design R&D project.

It is also possible that one of proposed future International Rural Biennales could be devoted to showcasing the best of British and international new rural design and architecture, with an accompanying publication, and a conference on the same subject.