Auburn University's Rural Studio students have been perfecting a series of radically affordable, well-designed houses for nearly a decade.

They've also been building them exclusively for residents of impoverished Black Belt Alabama.

Now, in the program's 20th year, Rural Studio is looking to finally put its $20,000 house out on the larger market.

Rural Studio started making the 20K house in 2005, keeping in mind the assumption that $20,000 was the total cost of housing someone living on Social Security could afford to pay in monthly mortgage installments.

Since then, students have built 12 houses for their rural neighbors. This fall, Rural Studio is hosting a fundraising competition to build eight more 20K houses and work with design firms to get student drawings up to professional quality.

2013-11-05

Co.Exist

This Impeccably Designed $20,000 House Could Soon Be Yours

For years, students at Auburn University's Rural Studio have been building cheap houses for impoverished locals. Now their designs are going mass market.

Ask anyone at Auburn University's Rural Studio about what makes the architecture program's housing designs unique, and someone will proudly tell you about the refrigerator. "We can spend four days discussing where a refrigerator goes," explains 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.

Now, in the program's 20th year, Rural Studio is looking to finally put its $20,000 house out on the larger market.

Tim Hursley

If you've heard the term "social justice architecture" before, it's probably owed to the work of Sam "Sambo" Mockbee, who founded Rural Studio in 1993. By creating a program where architecture students would use reclaimed wood or other materials to design houses for low-income residents of Hale County, Mockbee established a discipline in which students ripped from the Ivory tower would have the opportunity to float their designs for real people.

Rural Studio started making the 20K house in 2005, keeping in mind the assumption that $20,000 was the total cost of housing someone living on Social Security could afford to pay in monthly mortgage installments. Since then, students have built 12 houses for their rural neighbors, with each design building off the knowledge and real-world experience of the last. The last 20K house built included passive heating and a safe-room in the shower, after the Moore tornado ripped through Oklahoma and killed 23 people earlier this year.

Tim Hursley

This fall, Rural Studio is hosting a fundraising competition to build eight more 20K houses, and beyond that, project manager McElroy is working with design firms to get student drawings up to the professional snuff needed to roll out a mass product. For its 20K City Challenge, Rural Studio is attempting to raise $160,000 by December 6, asking donors from different cities to compete to reach fundraising goals. The cities that are first to reach $20,000 and raise the most money will each have 20K houses named after their locales.

"We see the 20K house as a moral obligation," says Rural Studio director Andrew Freear, adding that free student labor and an unmatchable learning opportunity had created what was essentially a cheap, custom-tailored design service for Hale County.

"We also wanted to get serious," he adds. "In 2010 we said we could continue to be academics playing around with this as an idea, but what happens if the rubber meets the road? We said, let's start talking to bankers about this, let's start talking to builders about how they could be built."

But that's where the 20K house gets tricky. Its most desirable attribute also happens to be a bit of a curse. Unlike mobile homes, which, like cars, depreciate in value, the 20K houses have been appreciating sharply. The last 20K home they checked, McElroy tells me, was worth $42,000, after being built for $20,000 a little less than a year before.

"It costs the same amount to underwrite a $150,000 as a $20,000, so there's always pressures to raise the cost of the house, whether it's from the bank lending the money, whether its from the builder looking to make a profit, whether it's from the real estate agent," Freear says. In order to keep the 20K house at $20,000, Rural Studio is looking to partner with nonprofits that will help make sure their good design stays affordable.

In the meantime, Freear says it's a bit difficult for him to let the nit-picked, hyper-optimized 20K designs loose in the world. "My anxiety is always that we find a better solution each year," he says. "We've designed this thing to an inch of its life."

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186 Comments

  • Diane Vierra

    yes I spoke to Ms. McEtroy very nice lady. I was hoping to hear back from her concerning buying the 20 thousand dollar house. my question id when will the public be allowed to purchase this home? As I desperately need this home built very soon. Thank you Diane. Vierra. lkld, Fla. Ddlightfuldiane@aol.com

  • Jan Bammel

    I wonder what constitutes "impeccable design". I agree about the bathroom. But no one has brought up the so-called kitchen. If there is nowhere to prepare food, you will have to eat out. And aren't these homes designed for low income? These look like empty train cars. These people deserve better.

  • pleisch

    My concern is accessibility. People's needs change and very quickly sometimes with age. We need designs that offer accessibility and meet ADA requirements too. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it does require planning. No one else mentioned this and it isn't clear that there is a priority given to accessibility. Just a thought for consideration.

  • Zoann Murphy

    Just out of curiosity, who funds the land that the buildings sit upon? I have been interested in the tiny house idea for years, but it seems to me that the designers & organizers forget about the cost of the land involved.

  • Ruthie Kiser

    I think this is a really nice design and for that prices I would live in it it is only me and my two little dogs ..... but I need to be able to have a bathroom and washer/dryer stackable kind

  • TheGrittyEdge

    Yeah.... ummmm buy 20 acres next to the $500k cookie cutter McMansions and try to get permits from the municipality to build 30 or 40 of these..... yeah....

  • ian s

    Ummm so some folks just reinvented the shack and called it "great design" how is this not a massive insult to rural poverty?

  • Trisha Harms

    "i rlly just love the concept of cultural appropriation and find beauty in all kinds of oppression. actually i think poverty basically just exists for my artisitic inspiration. poverty is my muse."

  • Concerned

    This isnt a new concept..after both world wars such houseing was built..they were called shotgun houses, as in you could fire a shotgun from the from and clean out everbody all the way thru it...lots of homes such as these in southern and gulf coast cities til this day.

  • lawrencef

    It is wonderful to see architects creating shoeboxes that are of social use.

    Sadly they are still hoeboxes and therein perhaps is the next challenge. A 20k house that is not a shoebox! Not many architects ever move byond the shoebox as a concept but when they do the houses become more charming and intimate. They allow for personality to be exhibited and they beautify and inspire those who live in and around them.

    This is a great example of a house that is not a shoebox (it is intimate and quite charming in contrast) http://www.viralnova.com/tiny-...

  • costume

    Not to pile on but this looks like a shipping container type home. I can't fathom why there are so few windows or opportunities for air exchange. Especially with the stove top. That entire place will be covered with oil and smoke in no time.

    This strikes me as perfect examples of a bunch of theorists sitting around and conjuring up ideas that sound good to them but would be totally inappropriate in actual real world usage.

    I've lived overseas where it is common to live in a 400 square foot box apartment and even those give you walls and a door for the bathroom. That's just common sense.

  • Bruno_Behrend

    Why not abolish the forced apartheid of building codes and let people build this stuff where they can.

  • Isaac Marion

    This is a great idea, but like most of the efficient, innovative, ultra-affordable housing concepts popping up lately, it seems to overlook the fact that the actual house is usually a small fraction of the cost of homeownership. The big money is the land itself. I don't know what land costs in rural Alabama, but if you're anywhere near a major city, buying a livable home usually isn't significantly more expensive than buying an empty lot, and if you're already ponying up, say, 100-150k (typical cost for an empty lot in Seattle) putting a cheap cardboard house on top of it feels kind of silly. I really wanted to live in a Tumbleweed tiny home, but after seeing the expense and scarcity of vacant lots to put it on, it just stopped making sense.

    I guess this could work for remote areas where land is crazy cheap, but don't people in poverty need to be close to cities where they can get public services and assistance? I'd be curious how this plan works out in practice.

  • kayumochi

    First read about Sam and this project probably 20 years ago and have often wondered how it was going. Sorry to hear that Sam is no longer with us but heartened to see his vision is still going strong.

  • lessthantolerant

    Maaannn, somehow I hope you have some disaster befall you, so you can become poor.

    Poor naïve child I started out dirt poor and am now quite successful and financially secure. Know how I got there? Scrimping and saving while working hard to improve my station in life.

    Yes, there is laziness and also ignorance and, much as I hate to say it, stupidity figures into it sometimes. But laziness can actually mean depression and fatigue.

    These are excuses for lack of self reliance an adherence to principle. When you justify your failure you are destined to fail. Many times I wanted more and wanted to give my family more, but perseverance and desire to succeed prevented me from giving up.

    Ignorance may be the result of being in a community without the tax base to support good schools.

    I attended inner city schools with large minority populations who had very little to offer, again this is an excuse.

    Stupidity is sometimes a trick of genetics and circumstance.

    This statement is too naïve to even comment further.

    The thing is, a society that wishes to be great and humane should, I think, structure itself so that people do not need to be enterprising, knowledgeable and intelligent in order to have the blessings of a meaningful and secure life.

    OMG! Do you really mean something this ignorant? What do you think propels mankind to go to the stars or cure cancer?

    A humane and great society, a truly powerful nation, should structure itself to prevent and treat depression, prevent ignorance and even make allowances for poor genetics.

    You really mean feed the Parasites because they can't feed them selves? This is a truly sad idea.

    "let both sides join in creating a new endeavor — not a new balance of
    power, but a new world of law — where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.
    . . . .
    In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. . . . a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

    On this terrible anniversary, the call to be a nation that is worthy of the name "superpower" must be clear, strong and compelling

    Nice words from a dead idealist, but he only meant it as a way of securing votes for his liberal base.

    Get a grip on reality and grow up.