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Sweet home Alabama

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Students Lucy Begg and Robie Gay tossed out their textbooks and headed to the Deep South to create the AJ Small Projects Award-winning Ola Mae porch

Slick, elegant, expensive. These are the epithets that have applied to several of the highly deserving previous winners of the AJ Small Projects Award. This description has been particularly appropriate to some of the house extensions that have won prizes.

This year's winning project is also a house extension, but it is not slick, it is not elegant and it is not expensive. It does not even have any working drawings. And although many of the winning architects have been at a relatively early stage in their careers, none have been as young or as inexperienced as this year's winners, Lucy Begg and Robie Gay.

Their project, which they not only designed but also built themselves, is a porch extension to a trailer home for Ola Mae, an elderly woman living in rural Alabama, one of the poorest areas in the United States.

Hale County Alabama is the home of Auburn University, where the late Samuel Mockbee set up his Rural Studio, a worldfamous institution that teaches students by encouraging them to design and construct real buildings for their neighbours.

Begg, who is now 24 and has an architecture degree from Cambridge, spent a year out working for Eldridge Smerin. She felt that she wanted to be involved in something more hands-on, and heard about the Rural Studio Outreach programme. She was given a place on the course in September 2002, the first year that the course was broadened to include sculptors, photographers and painters as well as architects. On one of her earliest assignments, Begg met 27-year-old Gay. He completed a five-year bachelor of architecture degree at Auburn University in 2000 and subsequently worked both in Auburn and Denver Colorado. At the time that Begg came to Auburn, Gay was freelancing in the area and became involved with some of the Rural Studio projects.

In Hale County, 30 per cent of the population lives in trailers and, with no enforcement of a planning code, people continuously add to their trailers.With a climate that is usually warm but often wet and mosquito-ridden, a porch is an important addition. 'It's a hugely important part of social culture, ' says Gay, explaining that it can be used for play, for meeting friends or for supervising children.

Gay and Begg decided this was what they wanted to build, and went looking for a client. They found Ola Mae through her brother Amos, who runs a small restaurant attached to his home and hence knows everybody. 'He was this amazing patriarchal figure, ' says Begg. 'We became friends.'

The next step was design, which took about six weeks, talking to Ola Mae about her needs and doing sketches, models and drawings. 'This was people to people, there was no textbook architecture here, ' says Gay.

'The client-architect relationship becomes fuzzy, the architecture is almost secondary.'

Construction was surprisingly demanding. 'I thought, fiit's a porch, how hard can that be? fl' says Begg. 'I thought it would take a month and we'd do it with a thousand dollars.' In fact, it started on site in mid-February and finished in September, costing £3,600.

There were several reasons for this. For one, it was impossible to work in the humid afternoon heat. Rain would fill the foundation holes with water and the team would have to start again. The porch was supported on the steel chassis of an old trailer home, which was warped so that all the joists had to be cut individually, and the whole structure had to be jacked up to keep it clear of the damp.

'Plus, ' says Begg, 'the pace of life was so slow.'

But, she adds: 'The reaction made it all worth it. Ola Mae was so happy, we're going to go back and see her soon.'

At present the two are living together in a house share in north London. Begg is having a third year out, working for Simon Conder - a previous Small Projects winner with an archetypal, beautifully detailed extension - but she fully intends to knuckle down to Part 2 in September. Gay is working for David Adjaye, where he is finding the exploration of materials very interesting, but will return to the US at the end of the summer.

'We will see what happens, ' he says, talking of both his personal and professional plans.

They are very different people, Begg ebullient and Gay more serious, but both were evidently affected by the experience in Alabama. 'The way we lived the architecture was amazing, ' says Begg, 'and the romance of the Deep South was intoxicating. We would go into Amos' restaurant, some blues music would start down the road, and the old men would put the world to rights.'Gay, who is a native of Alabama, says: 'I saw my home through new eyes. It made me look at things differently.'

Begg has documented the whole experience beautifully, with photographs and drawings. For both of them, it has evidently unleashed a level of creativity and imagination that may prevent them being square pegs in the squarest holes of architecture, but, once they find their niche, it should allow them to make an individual and unique contribution.

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