Low-Cost Rural Studio Homes Aspire to Be Built for $20,000

Video screen capture. Rural Studio

One major reason why tiny homes are so popular is probably that they are cheaper to build than your average home, usually costing anywhere from a few thousand to many thousands of dollars -- still cheaper than average. The only drawback is that tiny homes are, well, tiny, typically measuring under 280 square feet. But what if you could get a home twice the size, for about the same price? That's the aspiration behind Rural Studio of Auburn University's 20K House, a decade-old project that has aimed to design low-cost, efficient homes for the broader public.

First founded by Sam Mockbee back in 1993 as a place to engage in "social justice architecture," Rural Studio's students have designed and refined more than a dozen prototypes of homes sized at around 550 square feet. This January, the program partnered with a commercial developer to build two cottages for an artists' residency program located in Serenbe, a "high-end, new-urbanist-pastoral community" south of Atlanta.

According to Fast Company, thousands of hours have been spent to refine the concept behind the houses -- something that is built unconventionally and intelligently yet doesn't look completely out of place. Says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio:

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.

Some instances of these unconventional but efficient methods of the building include elevating the structure on piers and wooden joists, instead of using a typical concrete foundation, which saves on the material but makes for an even stronger foundation. Airflow underneath the house is promoted in this way, encouraging passive heating and cooling. Windows are kept to a minimum as they are costly, but are placed in strategic areas to maximize light and air. Inside the home, transom openings are built in over the bathroom and bedroom doors to help with cross ventilation.

It's important to note that despite the project's moniker, that when taking into account the rising cost of materials, land, installing utilities and so on since the project's inception more than a decade ago, these houses end up costing quite a bit more than $20,000 (these two cottages each cost $14,000 in materials alone -- the 20K refers to how much of a mortgage a person living on the median Social Security income can afford to pay off.) There are also problems in dealing with entrenched zoning regulations and mortgage policies from banks that aren't exactly favorable to people living on a low-income or who want to build a small house -- as tiny housers can attest.

Ultimately, the idea is to build something that not only meets the needs of those who need it most but to disrupt business-as-usual. Says Smith: "The most daunting problems aren't brick and mortar problems, they're these network and system problems that are threaded together and all intersect in the built environment. We're able to attack all these problems simultaneously—when we see a lever over here and wiggle it, we can very clearly see the implication it has on other systems down the road."

The studio is now aiming to produce educational materials for builders and officials alike, which will explain each of these unconventional building techniques in detail, to facilitate a broader acceptance (and an easier process of obtaining permits) for this potentially revolutionary little home. More over at Fast Company and Rural Studio.