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.
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.
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."