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Affordable Housing Program Goes from 'Project to Product'

comments (0) May 30th, 2014 in Blogs
ScottG Scott Gibson, contributing writer

Elizabeths House, 2005.
Franks House, 2006.
Bridge House, 2008.
Elizabeths House, 2005.Click To Enlarge

Elizabeth's House, 2005.

Photo: Timothy Hursley

Rural Studio at Auburn University's school of architecture was founded in 1993 to give undergraduates hands-on experience in designing and building houses while simultaneously helping an underserved population in west Alabama.

By 2005, students had built a number of "charity houses," but then 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. They were called 20K Houses, named for their $20,000 price tags.

Rural Studio celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a new book called Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama, and a new effort to take what it has 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 $8000 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, a 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 previous books about the program.

As the program grows, house styles evolve

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 house, constructed in 2005 in Newbern, Ala., 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 two small windows on each side of the front door. A porch ran about half the length of the house.

The following year, the program built Frank's House in Greensboro, Ala. 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 with even less of a mobile-home air.

By the following year, Rural Studio came up 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 the early going, the authors say, 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 9 ft. to 10 ft. 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," the authors write, "and our homes add immensely to their qualilty 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 then to 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, and 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 also is building four model homes on a donated lot so that 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 test, 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 have not been set.

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