Rural Studio students have been perfecting a series of radically affordable, well-designed 550-square-foot houses for nearly a decade.
How do you design a comfortable home that someone living below the poverty line can afford? Rural Studio has spent decades pondering this problem and testing prototypes. In January, the team finished their first pilot project in the real world, building two one-bedroom houses, with materials that cost just $14,000 each.
Sam “Sambo” Mockbee founded Rural Studio in 1993, centered around “social justice architecture.” Initially, architecture students would use reclaimed wood and other materials to design houses for low-income residents of Hale County.
In 2005, Rural Studio started making the 20K house, based on the calculation that $20,000 was the total cost of housing someone living on Social Security could afford to pay in monthly mortgage installments. Since then, students have built dozens of houses for their rural neighbors, with each design building off the knowledge and real-world experience of the last.
Years of architecture students and their advisors have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the house design to optimize both the function and the price. The foundation, for example, uses cantilevers – seasaw-like joists – that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. The team is working to complete the “Instruction Set,” much like IKEA or DIY instructions, that tells the builder not just what to build, but specifically how to build it, and why it should be built that way.
But finalizing the design and building plan is just one of the hurdles. To bring the house to everyone else who wants to build it, the team realized they face some challenges with local planning and zoning regulations, as well as traditional mortgage requirements. In some counties, the house is just too small for local zoning ordinances. Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio added, "The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they're really high-performance little machines in every way. They're built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements. We're using material much more efficiently. But the problem is your local code official doesn't understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit simply because the code officials didn't understand it."
It may also be challenging to get a loan for 20K home. A mortgage for a $100,000 house costs the bank about $2,300. But a mortgage for a $20,000 house also costs about $2,300. Typically, when someone is buying a house on a limited income, banks won’t finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money. "The most daunting problems aren't brick and mortar problems, they're these network and system problems,” said Smith.
The team is working to address these problems, and once they have a final “Instruction Set” ready, they plan to share it with anyone who wants to use it. The ultimate goal of the project is to give it away.