Housing Lab Moves ‘From Project to Product’
Auburn University's Rural Studio set out to design houses that could be built for $20,000 — and now, the houses are headed to market
Founded in 1993, Rural Studio is a program at Auburn University's school of architecture to give undergraduates hands-on experience in designing and building houses while simultaneously helping people in west Alabama who needed better housing.
Students built a number of "charity houses," and then in 2005 Rural Studio turned a corner. It began producing small houses that could become alternatives to mobile homes and trailer parks — at prices people in the region could afford. The buildings were called 20K Houses, named for their $20,000 price tags.
Rural Studio celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a new book, Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County Alabama, and a new effort to take what it's learned to a national market.
"We were eager to make our work more relevant to the needs of west Alabama, the Southeast and possibly the entire country," the authors write in an excerpt published at the online magazine Slate. "We looked at the omnipresent American trailer park, where homes, counterintuitively, depreciate each year they are occupied. We wanted to create an attractive small house that would appreciate in value while accommodating residents who are unable to qualify for credit."
They chose a goal of $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 in labor and profit for a contractor) because that was the biggest mortgage someone living on a median Social Security check of $758 a month could realistically afford. The authors estimated the potential market for the 20K House in Hale County was 800 people.
In addition to providing comfortable, well-built housing, the 20K House building program would have a positive ripple effect on the Hale County economy. Houses were designed so they could be built in three weeks by a contractor and three workers. With a rural development grant paying the way, a contractor could built 16 houses a year and earn $61,000. Workers would make $22,200 (just under $12 an hour vs. the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour).
"Our expectation is that commercial success will create a new cottage industry, bringing new economic growth to the region."
The authors are Andrew Freear and Elena Barthel with Andrea Oppenheimer Dean. Freear is the director of Rural Studio. Barthel is an assistant professor and Dean is a former Architecture magazine editor who wrote two earlier books about the program.
As the program grew, house styles evolved
On average, students have built one 20K house per year, although in some years the total has been higher. By the end of the summer, there should be 16 in all, says Marion McElroy, a 2002 Rural Studio grad who was hired three years ago as the 20K House Product Manager.
Styles have changed steadily over the years. The first, constructed in 2005 in Newbern, Alabama, was considered a "breakthrough" in some respects, but it looked very much like the mobile homes that Rural Studio was trying to replace. It was a narrow building with four small windows, two on each side of the front door. A porch runs about half the length of the house.
The following year, the program built Frank's House in Greensboro, Alabama. Clad in corrugated metal, the house had a gable end and wide steps, making it look more like a house and less like a trailer. The Truss House, a duplex with a dogtrot space between the two units, followed in 2007. It, too, was clad in corrugated metal, but it had mostly shed its mobile home air.
By the following year, Rural Studio came out with Roundwood House, built with loblolly pine "thinnings." Its boxy, rectangular shape sprang up in the front to a sort of parapet creating a covered entry. Like a number of other houses in the series, it was built on piers, with the sloped lot falling away toward the rear of the building.
In its early years, the authors said, the program appeared to be mostly about architectural experimentation, which forced students to reinvent the wheel each year. Now, the program is attempting to build on past work in a more organized way.
The houses aren't big, which raises several issues for their occupants, but all of them have front porches for socializing and ceilings that are 9 to 10 feet tall, to make rooms feel more spacious and airy. This year, the program is building four two-bedroom houses.
Rural Studio considers the houses "academic experiments" and gives them away to people in need. "Our clients are always down on their luck and often elderly," they write, "and our homes add immensely to their quality of life."
Taking 20K to the next level
The next step is to fine-tune existing student designs to make sure they comply with industry standards, such as the 2012 International Residential Code, and take them to market. McElroy, who is coordinating that effort, calls this "going from project to product."
"These houses are beautifully designed," she said by telephone. "They're perfect for all sorts of client bases."
Potential buyers or builders might include rural housing advocacy groups, church groups interested in housing, artist-in-residence programs, or even hunters who want a backwoods camp, she said.
To that end, McElroy is lining up groups that will field-test construction with contractors to see whether the program's estimates on labor and materials are accurate. "These have all been built by students and we have an assumption of how they can be built and a time frame," McElroy said. "But we don't have any actual evidence yet."
Rural Studio is also building four model homes on a donated lot so owners of 20K houses won't have to be disturbed by a parade of visitors. Model homes also will give the program a chance to test houses to see how well they perform; a blower-door testTest used to determine a home’s airtightness: a powerful fan is mounted in an exterior door opening and used to pressurize or depressurize the house. By measuring the force needed to maintain a certain pressure difference, a measure of the home’s airtightness can be determined. Operating the blower door also exaggerates air leakage and permits a weatherization contractor to find and seal those leakage areas., for example, would show whether their building techniques are producing houses that are sufficiently air-sealed.
Eventually, Rural Studio hopes to sell construction plans for 20K Houses. McElroy said she would like to work with a yet-to-be-identified company that has an established national distribution network. Prices for plans, she said, have not been set.
- Timothy Hursley