Skip directly to content

Rural Studio Debuts the Newbern Town Hall Project

Newbern Town Hall interior photo

On February 23, 2013, the Town of Newbern celebrated the opening of Newbern Town Hall. A small town built around a traditional southern main street (now a busy highway that connects two larger towns), Newbern, Alabama’s downtown is the center of community activity that recently lacked a formal gathering place. In 2010, the Newbern Town Hall project was identified as a way to fill this need. Rural Studio student design team Brett Bowers, David Frazier, Mallory Garrett, and Zane Morgan began to work with the Town of Newbern, Mayor Woody Stokes, the Town Council, and the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department to develop a civic campus.

As only the second new building planned for Newbern since the early 1900s, it was natural to use an adjacency to the Fire Station to organize a public space. Sited to the north of the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department (2005 Rural Studio Project), the walls of the Newbern Town Hall and Fire Department create north-south boundaries to define a civic square. The east boundary is demarcated by a covered barbecue pit and vegetated screen wall that also functions to hide site parking beyond. The Town Hall, as the primary community and civic building in Newbern, will function as a meeting place for the Town Council, provide a place to teach community classes, become a voting location, and will be available for other miscellaneous community events.

To provide the Town Hall with the gravity and scale of a civic building, the design team created a wall system using eight-by-eight inch old growth bald cypress timbers (all harvested from the Alabama Delta Region). The heavy timber cypress members comprise the entirety of the building shell, serving as exterior and interior finish, and providing insulation. The roof structure includes forty-three trusses sized to provide deep overhangs to protect the walls, while the roof’s open gable ends assist with building ventilation. In the main entry, the timbers form a clear span of twenty-eight feet over the entry doors and large glass windows—accomplished by gluing and bolting the timbers together tightly, creating a laminated heavy timber beam. To ensure the longevity of the timbers and to prevent air infiltration, students spent approximately two months preparing each timber with a routed drip edge and a spline for timber stacking connections that, along with an added foam gasket, will also act as an air barrier for the building.  

The cypress timber skin, although providing design economy with a serene and simple beauty, by its very nature provided the students with opportunities for design innovation. For instance, over time the timbers dry and may shrink in size. Shrinking timbers make window, door and roof framework connections challenging, may create issues with interior wall construction, and can threaten an airtight building envelope. As a result, every detail in the project had to be designed to adapt and prevent failure if the cypress timber shrinkage is significant. Floor to ceiling length threaded rods occur at every four feet throughout, and ratcheting plates were placed at the top keep the walls tight, even as they shrink. Windows and doors are mounted either fully inside or fully outside of the timber walls, and slotted bolt connections holding the metal frames to the timber walls can accommodate up to four inches  of shrinkage. A necessity of construction, the final effect strongly enhances door and window openings in the building.

Professor Rebecca O’Neal Dagg, attending as a representative from Auburn University at the opening remarked:

The Newbern Town Hall project is timeless and contemporary, primitive, and progressive. The design encompasses the history of the Primitive Hut, but its detailing is current, precise and of a contemporary architectural lineage. While the new courtyard space for Newbern speaks to the students’ deep knowledge of the community and of the power of architecture to contribute to bringing people together, the building itself is beautiful, flexible, and thoughtful to the needs of the community and the Rural Studio’s long standing partnerships there.

We are so proud of this team for committing themselves to this endeavor. The twenty-eight foot span out of heavy timbers is a testament to the students’ boldness. The students and faculty have literally raised the Rural Studio bar to a new level.

Project consultants Joe Farruggia, Xavier Vendrell, and Dan Wheeler also praised the students’ design and contribution to the community, and Andrew Freear, Director of Rural Studio said:

This team has been an inspiration to us all. Even with the fatigue of 920 days of designing and building the Town Hall—eating, sleeping, dreaming, and living the project—they never stopped asking or searching for the answers to the questions that they posed to themselves. They took this opportunity to make everything a design decision, and it shows. The Town Hall is beautiful and extraordinarily rigorous but, above all, it is a mature piece of architecture. Both the Town of Newbern and Rural Studio are very proud of its new center of democracy.