Small house Building

Faq / April 23, 2018

Built in 2008 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, Pattern Book House, at 396 square feet, is the smallest 20K House.

Photo by Timothy Hursley

Rural Studio, the celebrated undergraduate program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University, has been educating citizen architects since it was founded in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and the late Samuel Mockbee. Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama by Andrew Freear and Elena Barthel with Andrea Oppenheimer Dean will be released tomorrow by Princeton Architectural Press. Here at the Eye, the authors share an excerpt of the book that centers on the 20K House project, an academic design-and-build program that delivers affordable housing for locals and is currently being developed as a commercial product.

Rural Studio launched its affordable housing program in 2005. We were eager to make our work more relevant to the needs of west Alabama, the Southeast, and possibly the entire country. 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.

The first 20K house built in 2005 in Newbern, Hale County. Elizabeth’s House, though a breakthrough, was thought to be too trailer-like 
in appearance.

Our goal was to design a market-rate model house that could be built by a contractor for , 000 (, 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.

The second 20K House built in 2006 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, Frank’s House has a gable to lend it the house-like quality that Elizabeth’s house, above, lacked, plus generous front and back porches.

Interior of Frank's House, above.

A contractor building 20K Houses for 800 people under a rural development grant would put 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 , 000 a year and the workers , 200 (based on
 a wage of .57 per hour, well above the current minimum wage of .25). Our expectation is that commercial success will create a new cottage industry, bringing new economic growth to the region.

With the exception of the Bryant (Hay Bale) House (1994) and Rose Lee’s House (2009), the studio’s client houses have tended to be about experimentation 
and have lacked long-term big-picture goals. The 20K House program evolved out of frustration at starting from scratch each year on each client house. The 
new program’s current instructional model is to test typologies, rather than producing idiosyncratic individual houses, which allows us to build iteratively on previous and concurrent work. In fact, each year’s 20K House outreach team passes on a book of information for the following class, exemplifying Rural Studio’s founding premise of learning both by practice and from reflection.

Truss House, built in 2007 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, is a duplex.
 The units are separated by a dogtrot outdoor space, created by the spanning capacity of the 10-foot-high truss walls.

Photo by Timothy Hursley

We consider ourselves privileged to have the resources and opportunity to develop such a project and feel a moral responsibility to do so. The 20K House program also represents our attempt to bring an interest in social housing—well-designed houses for everyone—back into the academic world.

Built in 2008 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, Roundwood House was an experiment in building the structure of a small, affordable house with locally sourced loblolly pine thinnings. At 532 square feet, it includes a 110-square-foot porch.

Interior of Roundwood House, above.

Because the annual budget for each house is precise and without wiggle room, the 20K House projects are the studio’s most difficult. We task our outreach students with these focused missions in which each team has to be especially efficient in design and use of materials, weighing priorities and deciding where the design’s “big hit” will be. Is it a dynamically angled porch? Ten-foot ceilings? After all, we still
 want to make compelling architecture.

Built in 2008 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, Bridge House extended the exploration of the truss wall system used in Truss House, above, replacing wood studs with lighter steel.

Interior of Bridge House, above.

The most controversial aspect of the 20K House is its small size. It is a design challenge to make a small house feel big. Although many homebuyers are attracted to the reduced operating costs of small spaces, most people want “Big!” Ironically, we
 often found our prospective homeowners in large tumbledown houses where they were hunkered down in a single room, unable to afford heat for the others.

Nevertheless, living small takes getting used to.
 One question people often ask is what to do with all the baggage they have accumulated over the years. They also worry about where visiting family will stay. This year we are developing a two-bedroom 20K House, testing larger and expandable models.

Built in 2009 in Newbern, Hale County, Alabama. Dave’s House, a shotgun vernacular with gables over the short ends, derives from Frank’s House; monthly utility bills average $35.