Auburn University’s design team at Rural Studio has achieved the lofty goal of building affordable houses for somebody living below the poverty line. Here’s how: The team did so by completing two pilot project houses priced at $20,000 apiece. Materials for the homes totaled $14,000 each.
The Design Challenge
For over a decade, architecture students at Rural Studio, Auburn University’s design-build program in West Alabama have worked on a daunting problem, reports FastCompany. “How do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want—while also providing a living wage for the local construction team that builds it?”
This January, following years of design prototypes, the Rural Studio students finished their first pilot project. Partnering with a commercial developer outside Atlanta, in the small community of Serenbe, they built two one-bedroom houses.
Called the 20K Home, the Rural Studio team is targeting the design and build of homes for poverty level citizens.
“We can spend four days discussing where a refrigerator goes,” said Rural Studio’s 20K House product line manager Marion McElroy. “That’s because, unlike other design firms, Rural Studio students have been perfecting a series of radically affordable, well-designed 550-square-foot houses for nearly a decade—and they’ve been building them exclusively for residents of impoverished Black Belt Alabama.”
“The 20K Home project began in 2005 as an ongoing Rural Studio research project to address the need for affordable housing in Hale County, provide an alternative to the mobile home, and accommodate potential homeowners who are unable to qualify for commercial credit. The 20K Home project gets its name from the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain. The objective of the Rural Studio students is to design and build a model home that could be reproduced on a large scale by a contractor and built for $20,000. Rural Studio has designed seventeen versions of the 20K Home with costs of approximately $12,000 for materials and $8,000 for contracted labor and profit.
“20K Home Product Manager Natalie Butts-Ball, a Rural Studio alumna, is currently working to move from 20K Project to 20K Product. While continuing to research the target clients and how to deliver the product to them, she is taking steps to move the projects out of the research area. This includes activities such as conducting complete architectural reviews, including code review and FHA compliance; discussions of the need, placement and method of completing model homes; and a branding and marketing plan.”
In a modern era of tiny homes and apartments, Rural Studio’s design template is a perfect fit.
“We’re in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we’re really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public’s hands,” said Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio. “Really this first field test was to find out all the things that we didn’t know, and to find out all of the kind of wrong assumptions that we had made, and really find out how we had screwed up, honestly.”
The 20K Home Projects web page provides a glimpse into the designs which are being explored and tested. As reported by FastCompany, one of the biggest challenges is ‘fitting a house that’s completely different from normal into the existing system of zoning, and codes, how contractors do their jobs, and even mortgages.”
“The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they’re really high-performance little machines in every way,” said Smith. “But the problem is your local code official doesn’t understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit, simply because the code officials didn’t understand it.”
The house foundation uses cantilevers, seesaw-like joists that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. But the design isn’t in the usual guides that code officials consult, so the architects had to go back and explain how it worked.
Expect changes to take place in building departments around the country. However, these wanted changes will come more slowly than desired.
All Photos: Jessica Ashley Photography