March 31, 2023

CIRD Spotlight The Mississippi Delta: Sharing the Blues, Literature, and now Rural Design! —Lessons from Delta Design Build

Stephen Sugg
Emily Roush-Elliott (center) and the Delta Design Build team on location for a workshop. Photo courtesy Delta Design Build.

When the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) team speaks to thought leaders in rural design across the country, there is unanimous and emphatic praise for Emily Roush-Elliot’s work over the last decade in the Mississippi Delta. In short: Emily and her team at the Delta Design Build Workshop (Delta DB) are designing, building, and rehabilitating affordable homes and neighborhoods, designing community spaces, and setting the bar for place-rooted rural design in a region known for its disproportionate contributions to American art and literature along with persistent poverty that spans generations. Emily and Delta DB treat communities and low-income people as clients—i.e., “the boss,” as Emily clarified—and the results garner national attention.  

In an interview with CIRD’s Stephen Sugg, Roush-Elliot was quick to acknowledge the nuances and challenges of design work in the Mississippi Delta while underscoring that any perceived lack of capacity in the region is due to structural forces, including a housing finance infrastructure ill-suited for rural Mississippi’s realities and scale. Delta DB’s homegrown construction crew - all hailing from Greenwood, MS, with tenures of 9, 7, and 6 years respectively are a testament to the Delta’s inherent capacity if human potential is tapped and nourished. Throughout her interview, Roush-Elliot was quick to credit Delta DB’s design and construction teams, national and regional funders, and local partners—especially clients—as the collective force behind the organization’s success.  

National Accolades

“I won!” Roush-Elliot said, when describing her journey from early experiences in corporate architectural offices to a Rose Architectural Fellowship placement in Greenwood, MS, a town and region she had never visited. But Greenwood’s description and opportunity resonated, and Roush-Elliot hasn’t looked back. After more than ten years, the Delta is her home; the region’s arts and culture infuse her practice and Delta DB’s output.  

CIRD’s conversation with Roush-Elliot focused on takeaways, particularly those relevant to practitioners, to inform the national rural design conversation. The following links are a glimpse of recognition that both Roush-Elliot and the firm have earned.

  • AIA’s Young Architects Award went to Roush-Elliot in 2022 as well as the AIA’s Citizen Architect Award in 2021.
  • The Housing Assistance Council tapped Rory Doyle to profile Delta DB as part of photography exhibition backed a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Award.  
  • Emily began her work in Greenwood, MS via a Rose Architectural Fellowship in 2012-2015. Emily remains engaged with the program, and from 2018-2020 Delta DB became a fellowship host for another Rose Fellow, Michelle Stadelman.
  • With support from USDA, Delta DB helped Rutha, a great-grandmother and retired schoolteacher, with home repairs that would have been impossible to take on without assistance. Home repair grants have become a core part of Delta DB and the team has completed similar efforts to Rutha’s repairs at over 90 homes since 2018. Thanks to a recent HUD Healthy Homes Production Grant award, Delta DB aims to double their pace of housing preservation over the next 3 years.
  • Katie Swenson’s “Design With Love: At Home in America” chronicles 20 years of Rose Architectural Fellows’ work across the country in photographs, including Emily Roush-Elliot.  

Place is Everything

“We believe that responsible community development work requires a deep understanding of place. We are committed to living in the places where we work, or partnering with people who are full time residents, to avoid imperialistic pitfalls and generic responses.”

“You have to be invited; don’t swoop in,” Roush-Elliot told CIRD when asked about her principles for engaging a community. She shared examples of well-built and aesthetically pleasing projects of little utility to a community (i.e., rarely used) as a consequence of design processes that lack authentic community engagement—which takes time, she added.    

Connection to place, Roush-Elliot said, requires skillsets that aren’t necessarily taught in architecture school. A mentor taught her the value of time spent at coffee shops or in making small talk with mayors and code enforcement officers, one small town at a time. She also emphasized that finding shared interests and objectives as crucial to building trust across the political spectrum, and across the Delta’s vast, well-documented demarcations of race and class. Delta DB’s in-house, place-rooted construction crew is an example of an initial heavy lift in hiring and training that has paid off over the years. “We have zero turnover,” Roush-Elliot said, noting a broader regional and national shortage of skilled labor.  

“Who’s agenda is it?” is Roush-Elliot’s litmus test when evaluating whether to take on potential design projects. “And if it is (my agenda), then I’m making a mistake.” Projects that pass Roush-Elliot’s litmus test bring her work to the “granular” level—an adjective that pleased Roush-Elliot when architect and author Katie Swenson used it to describe Delta DB’s approach.  “I want to work in a granular way because that is how you make a difference; you know who has bought the house and I can have a chat with that person five years later and see if there’s any way I can support her,” she added.  

On Rural Architecture and Design

When pressed by CIRD to share suggestions for how to boost interest in rural design, Roush-Elliot turned the tables, noting that there is great capacity and interest across the country among established and in-training design professionals. The key is tapping what exists, she said. She shared examples of architecture students, including a Delta DB intern last summer from Mississippi State (where Roush-Elliot guest lectured), expressing clear interest in rural work. She pointed out the names outstanding female-owned architecture firms dotting small cities across the south. “But they’re hard to find, often,” she said, “It’s a question of how do we elevate the rural firms and make sure that they’re sharing their stories and that people can be connected to them to work with them.”  

Roush-Elliot recounted a conversation with a peer who worked in a large city, encountering inevitable layers of bureaucracy in carrying out design work. “Here, we go straight to the mayor. I have the cell phone number of 9 mayors and the local code enforcement officers,” she said, noting a contrast that gave her urban counterpart a bit of envy.  

When asked to share how CIRD, specifically, can elevate the rural design dialogue, including highlighting the unheralded but excellent design work taking place in rural communities, Roush-Elliot paused, then said, “It is just to elevate individual stories—one story at a time.”  

Emily Roush-Elliott (right), co-founder of Delta Design Build Workshop, saws trim board with the help of Ashante Odogun-Williams, outside a remodeled home in the Eastmoor on Sept. 2, 2020. Photo by Rory Doyle, There is More Work to be Done

Housing at the Center

For Roush-Elliot, housing—affordable housing, especially—is at the core of her rural design practice, calling housing “conjoined” with broader rural design. A dearth of affordable homes creates downward spirals in the Delta, with effects that extend community wide. The lack of affordable homes also thwarts wealth generation in the Mississippi Delta, leaving too many families mired in poverty across generations. With growing inflation, appraisal gaps -are forcing Delta DB to focus largely on rehabilitation of existing homes instead of new construction in recent years. Appraisal gaps - a long-standing issue that is growing in severity, especially in rural areas- impact homebuyers of all income levels. “The cost of construction far outstrips the appraised values. And so we’re at a dead end, a roadblock. We’ve got to figure out how to reverse the spiral.”  Roush-Elliot pointed to her work on the local housing authority board and her role on several coalitions attempting to find appraisal gap remedies at the federal level as steps that she takes beyond her day job to help address community needs.  

Poorly built homes are an anathema to Roush-Elliot, who equates them with predatory loans that exploit vulnerable people. But materials and labor, whether for rehabilitation or new construction, are expensive. Roush-Elliot described how Delta DB makes choices with available data, working at the neighborhood scale whenever possible. One example is in Eastmoor, where the firm worked in consultation with clients to ensure that homes maintain value and that upkeep and utility costs remain reasonable and predictable throughout the life of a home. Close ties with the community and Delta DB’s commitment to evaluating the social impacts of their work first and the financial bottom line second also help to keep costs down while maintaining quality.  

Role of Arts

“As an architect, I consider myself an artist,” Roush-Elliot said when asked to describe how the Mississippi Delta’s rich arts heritage intertwines with her work. “I think just bringing the value of design and talking about it matters. The power to impact the built environment is such a cool thing.”

Roush-Elliot said that teaching youth programming at local arts organizations enhances her connections with the community. She also mentioned encountering folk art at the homes where Delta DB works and the ever-presence of Blues music. Blues riffs inspired a bridge rail project of Delta DB, a reminder that music has a way of influencing the built environment.

Food culture, from eating on a client’s front porch to savoring the regional cuisine of James-Beard award-nominated painter-turned-chef Taylor Bowen-Ricketts’s Fan and Johnny’s, is prominent in Roush-Elliot’s broad take on how the arts and artists connect community in the Delta. Insider tip from Emily: The plating at Fan and Johnny’s is “gorgeous” and worth a trip to Greenwood. It is also a reminder that arts—whether culinary or musical—have a way of influencing the local aesthetic.  

Delta DB’s Rural Design Essentials—A Checklist

  • Build relationships—and set aside time for doing so. It isn’t overnight. “Get out from behind the desk!”
  • Rural design (and designers!) “Have to be invited”—without exception—in order for projects to work
  • One approach fits one town—even if the towns are close in distance and demographics, they are unique
  • Arts matter. Architects are artists. Rural design and rural housing are conjoined.
  • Building poorly is the “equivalent of a payday loan.”
  • Rural America is rich with great architects and designers. The key: hire them and elevate their work
  • The Community is the Client—no matter the income level

Photos are by Rory Doyle, part of the online exhibition There is More Work To Be Done © Copyright 2021 by Housing Assistance Council