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Well-designed $20,000 houses for the poor? Rural Studio makes them

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Stell Simonton

(Read caption) This 20K House in Faunsdale, Ala., is now owned by Joanne Davis. It was constructed for $20,0000 in 2011 by Rural Studio, a visionary architecture project of Auburn University. Rural Studio, whose mission is to design well-built, low-cost housing for the poor, plans to have three model 20K Homes on the market by next summer.

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A two-lane blacktop road passes through a small west Alabama town. On one side are white antebellum houses and, nearby, a rusty and weather-beaten general store. 

With its vestiges of the Old South, Newbern, Ala., looks like a place that time forgot. But in fact, the town is home to an innovative architecture project in its 20th year that, among other things, designs $20,000 houses for the rural poor. The goal is to put architecture in the service of everyone -- especially the 30 percent of Hale County residents who live below the poverty line.

This year, for the first time, Rural Studio will move from constructing one house a year for local individuals to putting its designs on the market. The organization plans to have three model houses built in Newbern by May.

“We have a product that could really, really help with affordable housing in rural areas,” says architect Marion McElroy.

Rural Studio was co-founded in 1993 by the late Samuel Mockbee, an architecture professor at Auburn University, who went on to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant, among other awards. The program trains Auburn students to become “citizen architects” who understand that everyone deserves, in Mr. Mockbee’s words, “shelter for the soul.” Architects weren’t meant to be “house pets for the rich,” he told his students.

After Mockbee's death in 2001, Andrew Freear took on leadership of Rural Studio. He’s gained international recognition for his work. Rural Studio has built more than 150 innovative community and family structures in Alabama, ranging from a glass chapel in Mason’s Bend to a Newbern fire station to homes constructed of hay bales or carpet tile.

The 20K House project began in 2005. Over the course of a year, students design and build a house for a total cost of $20,000. The figure was chosen because it was considered the highest realistic mortgage possible for someone subsisting on Social Security. The plan was to spend $10,000 to $12,000 for materials and $8,000 to $10,000 for labor.

Each house has explored new design and construction possibilities. They are one-bedroom structures averaging about 500 square feet inside with additional porch space outside. Each has been built for and donated to a local resident in need.

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This summer, on a blindingly hot day in July, graduate students Tim Owen and Loren Prosch worked inside the 20K House being built in Faunsdale, not far from Newbern. The tin roof was on, but the interior was unfinished. Mr. Owen and instructor MacKenzie Stagg pulled yellow-coated wiring through the rafters. Ms. Prosch and local electrical contractor Johnny Parker huddled at the circuit box.

Over in the corner was a new element – a large closet that doubles as a tornado-safe room. It’s built of concrete blocks and rebar and secured to a slab foundation.

A porch, which will add around 100 square feet to the house, remains to be built. Eddie Davis of Faunsdale will own and live in the house.

Just across a driveway, a relative, Joanne Davis, sat on the porch of her house, a 20K House built by Rural Studio in 2011.

Her simple, square white house is one of three 20K designs being prepared for market. The goal is to have models that can be reproduced on a large scale and can also be sold with a Section 502 loan provided through the federal Rural Housing Service.

Individuals as well as housing advocacy groups and church mission groups are seen as potential buyers.

In areas like Hale County, house trailers dot the landscape. They are far less durable than houses and quickly depreciate in value. By contrast, Ms. McElroy says, a 20K House built by Rural Studio students in 2009 was appraised at $40,000 within a year and a half.

Rural Studio houses also take far less energy to heat or cool. They use techniques such as passive cooling, with windows placed for cross-ventilation and ceilings at just the right height for optimum fan cooling.

The houses are carefully designed.

“Students in Rural Studio can spend four days discussing the placement of a refrigerator,” McElroy says. They’re able to give time and thought to the process.

McElroy was a former Rural Studio student who graduated from Auburn in 2002. She went on to work for Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects in New York, but was hired by Rural Studio in 2011 as a product manager for the 20K House.

She has worked on adjusting the student designs to meet federal housing standards and the 2012 International Residential Code. The Chicago firm Landon, Bone, Baker Architects has served as a consultant.

Her job also includes figuring out the economics of large-scale construction and adjusting the design accordingly. Labor, for example, will be a higher proportion of the cost when houses are built by contractors rather than students.

Once the model houses are built in Newbern, Rural Studio will have something of a laboratory. Continuous testing of functions such as energy efficiency will be possible.

Best of all, McElroy says, she will have a response for the many people who’ve contacted her seeking help in finding housing.

“I get emails every week from someone who just needs a break,” she says. They include people with special needs and those trying to consolidate and pay off debt.

She’s looking forward having a finished design so that she can reply, “We’re ready. Here you go.”


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