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 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.

Dave's house (Danny Wicke)

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 porches.

"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."

About the Author

  • Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor, teacher and yogi in Birmingham, Ala. She’s also the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music.