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The $20,000 House

By   /  June 2, 2014  /  2 Comments

We all need a place to call home. Here’s how students and faculty from Auburn’s “Rural Studio” program are creating new ways to make homes affordable for everyone.

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Here's an example of a $20,000 house designed by Rural Studio. Rural Studio is an off-campus design-build program of Auburn University for undergraduates.  It gives architecture students a hands-on educational experience that also provides well-designed housing for poor communities in West Alabama's Black Belt region. The Studio continually questions what should be built, rather than what can be built, both for the performance and operation of the projects. To date, Rural Studio has built more than 150 projects and educated more than 600 "Citizen Architects."

Here’s an example of a $20,000 house designed by Rural Studio. Rural Studio is an off-campus design-build program of Auburn University for undergraduates.  It gives architecture students a hands-on educational experience that also provides well-designed housing for poor communities in West Alabama’s Black Belt region. The Studio continually questions what should be built, rather than what can be built, both for the performance and operation of the projects. To date, Rural Studio has built more than 150 projects and educated more than 600 “Citizen Architects.”

Looking for a house (like Kathy has been doing as she prepares to move from Loveland, Colorado to Tucson, Arizona), or cleaning your home (like we all do), makes you think about the space you have and the space you need. Do we need all this space, all this stuff? The bigger your house, the more stuff you can (and probably will!) accumulate. The more space you have the more you have to maintain, heat (or cool), and take care of.

The folks at Rural Studio have been thinking about these things too, along with how providing houses not only gives folks shelter, but also provides jobs and economic growth. In an article published by Slate, three of the program’s faculty describe why they’re working on this project, how it serves the Hale County Community, and how these houses create economic development.

“Our goal was to design a market-rate model house that could be built by a contractor for $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and profit)—the 20K House, a house for everybody and everyone. We chose $20,000 because it would be the most expensive mortgage a person receiving today’s median Social Security check of $758 a month can realistically repay. A $108 monthly mortgage payment is doable if you consider other monthly expenditures. Our calculations are based on a single house owner, because 43 percent of below-poverty households in Hale County are made up of people living alone. That translates to a potential market of 800 people in our county.

A contractor building 20K Houses for 800 people under a rural development grant would put $16 million into the local economy. Financing would come from a commercial mortgage or a Department of Agriculture rural loan program. We figure that since we design 20K Houses so that they can be built in three weeks, a contractor could build 16 houses a year. Assuming a workforce consisting of a contractor and three workers for each house. The contractor would earn $61,000 a year and the workers $22,200 (based on
 a wage of $11.57 per hour, well above the current minimum wage of $7.25). Our expectation is that commercial success will create a new cottage industry, bringing new economic growth to the region.”

We like the way this program helps us think outside the box, and how the simple act of creating housing can improve everyone’s well-being.  We also like how it serves a rural community.  Hale County is located in west-central Alabama, in an area of the state known as the Black Belt because of its fertile soil. Catfish ponds have now mostly replaced cotton fields, but the community remains proud of its agricultural roots.  

The Slate article includes lots of pictures of student designs, showing what they’ve learned along the way about what people really need and want.  Check out the pictures and see what it makes you think about your ideal house.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

2 Comments

  1. Sylvia A Long says:

    I’m excited about the opportunities that Alabama’s “Black Belt” low income residents were able to tap into. But, what about the perceived expensive septic systems that could chalk up cost nearly equal to the homes on prairie soils?

    • Kathy Voth says:

      I’ve spent a lot of time looking at “tiny houses” and their construction. Some of the solutions to septic systems include composting toilets and setting up grey water systems. I don’t know how Rural Studio addresses these issues. There might be more on their website.

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