Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Promise of the $20,000 House

The Promise of the $20,000 House

In Alabama, the Rural Studio design workshop has spent years refining prototypes
 for a cheap, well-made small house. Soon, they'll start selling the plans.
Image Danny Wicke
MacArthur's house, one of the three models in the Rural Studio's 20K product line (Danny Wicke)
Since 1993, architecture students at Alabama's Auburn University have designed
and built striking, low-cost buildings through the renowned Rural Studio program.
To participate, the students move off campus and across the state to rural western
Alabama, where they work with clients in one of the nation's poorest regions. The
program has resulted in dozens of structures that improve the lives of individuals
and whole communities: an animal shelter,park facilities, a Boys and Girls Club,
and a series of houses targeted to cost about $20,000.
And with 16 iterations of the 20K house now built, the studio is getting ready to bring
some of the plans to market.

Joanne's house (Danny Wicke)
"It's a resource that could be used and replicated in rural communities, that could be
 affordable housing or supportive housing," says Katrina Van Valkenburgh, a 
managing director at CSH, a nonprofit focused on supportive housing. Her 
husband's work as an architect has resulted in the Chicago-based couple visiting 
the Rural Studio at least once a year for project reviews.
In 2005, students built the studio's first 20K house, designed with the goal that the
cost for materials and labor would total no more than $20,000. (The cost of land is

Dave's house (Danny Wicke)
 not factored into the budget.) This became an annual exercise."Each year, the studio would look at a previous version and figure out ways to
improve upon it or challenge it," says Natalie Butts, the studio's manager of
communications and the 20K program. They honed designs for sustainability,
replicability, and cost. "It became a new mission for the studio to develop this
project into a product that others can have access to," Butts says.
Rural Studio was then ready to move forward with three budget-friendly, one-bedroom
 house plans: Dave's, MacArthur's, and Joanne's. (Each home is named after the first
 client for whom it was built.) The studio shared the plans with Landon Bone Baker
Architects in Chicago, who vetted them and ensured they conformed to building codes and standards.

The next step is for partners to field-test the designs. Rural Studio has talked to a 
variety of groups in the South about building them, including nonprofit housing 
corporations, parks and recreation departments, and an artist community. "We're 
interested in seeing how different groups respond to the plans based on their needs,
 their funding, their siting," Butts says. Three prototypes in the new product line will
 break ground shortly.
Rural Studio hopes to start selling the plans soon, although Butts can't say exactly
when. The price hasn't been finalized, but the aim is to keep them highly affordable.
Earlier 20K houses give us an idea what to expect: They'll be small (under 1,000 square feet) and reminiscent of traditional Southern shotgun houses, with gabled metal roofs and generous

"Some of the features of [the 20K house] … are particular to where it's been 
developed," Van Valkenburgh says. "Thinking about air movement and really warm 
summers, all of those kinds of pieces that come into play." She thinks the plans 
should prove adaptable to other regions, though. "Whether you're building it in 
Alabama or you're building it in Illinois, it'd still have the basic standards you'd be 
looking for ... and that makes a tremendous difference."
The 20K target is based on the smallest loan amount that a person living on Social
Security could afford through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's
Section 502 rural housing loan program. It translates to a payment of about $100 a
month. The $20,000 breaks down roughly as $12,000 for materials and $8,000 for
labor and contractor profit. Rural Studio has asked Regions Bank to create a mortgage
 for the homes.

Because they're replicable, the new home plans could add an important new avenue 
for affordable housing in rural and even, one day, suburban and urban areas where 
land is not too expensive. Whereas trailers depreciate in value, these houses will
 better suited to becoming assets for low-income owners. And their benefits extend to 
the community, Van Valkenburgh says, by creating local construction jobs. "Trailers 
don't have that same piece. It doesn't impact the money where you live in the way 
that building does," she says.
"We could probably make houses that cost less money, honestly," says Rural Studio's
 associate director, Rusty Smith, who notes that the homes have involved more than
180,000 research hours—input that wouldn't be financially viable outside of an
academic setting. "But the affordability of it is just one component which we don't
compromise on. The dignity and nobility that we expect for a house is
uncompromised as well."

No comments:

Post a Comment