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Epicenter: Rural and Proud

Green River, Utah circa 2012

The allure of the American West brought Jack Forinash, Maria Sykes, and Rand Pinson to Green River, Utah (pop. 953), after graduating from Auburn in 2008. They were idealistic Southerners schooled in the ethical responsibility of architects by APLA’s pioneering initiatives such as the Rural Studio, DESIGNhabitat, and the Interior Architecture dual degree. The trio aspired to the role of  “citizen architects,” designers who sought to serve the underserved. The traditional corporate architecture world was uninteresting to them, and with no sign of non-profit architectural firms with a boldness to tackle “public interest design” in rural America, they struck out on their own.

MCP Alumni Jes Laing with other Global Shapers in Chicago

One layer of the built-environment assessment of the
entire town of Green River by Epicenter

To begin, they focused on the essential service of connecting local Green River residents to resources from absentee social service and housing agencies. After months of civic engagement, the need for a permanent facility surfaced leading to the purchase of a century-old vacant building. After raising over $100K, the three renovated the building and co-founded Epicenter. They called it “Epicenter” because they saw their practice as a focused effort radiating positive change through their community.

MCP Alumni Jes Laing with other Global Shapers in Chicago

Epicenter's building before the renovation (interior)

Along with being co-founders, Jack and Maria currently serve as Principals at Epicenter and Rand Pinson as a Board Member. Their work is an alternative model of professional design practice. The traditional corporate architectural arena has been stymied by recession, slow to realize its own self-mutilation. By serving just the top 5 percent, architects have caused their own marginalization and become, as Samuel Mockbee described them, “house pets to the rich.” Instead, Epicenter expands the availability of affordable housing, instigates economic growth, and provides access to arts in a town that faces a poverty rate of 27.5 percent, with 58 percent of residents registering at the HUD-determined “low-income” level or lower. To accomplish this work, Epicenter has pulled together diverse resources from private donations, grants, social entrepreneurship, and in-kind partnerships. As a true model of public interest design, Epicenter has matured into a real-world example of the power of architecture and design.

MCP Alumni Jes Laing with other Global Shapers in Chicago

Epicenter's building after the renovation (exterior)

It is often hard for outsiders to see what drives Epicenter and what keeps collaborators lining-up to participate. Epicenter’s staff live at or just above the poverty rate alongside the clients it serves, resulting in earnings of just 26 percent of the typical first-year intern architect, an earnings gap of $34,000 in year one and up to a annual $46,000 gap as compared to a fifth-year associate architect. However, the benefits of working at Epicenter emerge quickly. Personal financial gain becomes irrelevant, and the sense of pride and purpose easily replaces the pay. Inherent in each project is an ethic of social responsibility, of a belief in Green River, and the power of just getting things done. Today, Epicenter capitalizes on its ingrained idealism, enthusiasm, and subversion to nurture community-led projects and programs that underscore Green River’s rural pride and pioneering spirit.

Epicenter’s major successes include renovating a century-old building, design/building the first Habitat for Humanity house for over fifty miles, establishing the Frontier Fellowship and hosting over forty artists-in-residence, creating an award-winning “Fix It First” program that has performed nearly thirty critical home repairs for low-to-moderate income households, executing a built-environment assessment of the entire town of Green River, and completing the first ever housing plan for Green River.

MCP Alumni Jes Laing with other Global Shapers in Chicago

The first Habitat for Humanity House in Green River

Epicenter continues to attract current students and recent graduates of Auburn University’s APLA programs. Most recently, Epicenter hired Orion Stand-Gravois (Master of Community Planning, 2014) for a year-long AmeriCorps VISTA position and Ellise Gallagher (Fourth year Auburn Architecture student) as a summer intern. Other Epicenter/Auburn APLA alumni include Matt Mueller, Aimée O’Carroll, Mark Porth, and Richard Saxton.

For more information on Epicenter, please visit ruralandproud.org. To make a tax-deductible donation to their ongoing efforts, please contact Maria Sykes at maria@ruralandproud.org or (435) 564-3330.