In rural Western Alabama, a student-led program evolves from building $20,000 homes to creating a blueprint for sustainable, affordable housing.

Turner's Home, the eleventh iteration of the 20K Home, was completed in the fall of 2012. The student team brought diversity to the 20K project by adding the first fully-accessible home.

“I don’t think we had any idea of the complexities we were getting ourselves into when we started,” admits Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio. “To be brutally honest, we were really naive relative to the issues behind home affordability and how dynamic and systemic they are. We’ve learned a lot through the project over the past 13 years.”

That project is Rural Studio’s 20K Initiative, a research program where Auburn University faculty and architecture students tackle the United States’ affordable housing crisis. Launched in 2005, the 20K Initiative began with the creation of $20,000 homes for an impoverished Alabama area.

Completed in 2005, the first-ever 20K house was designed and built by four 5th-year students for a client named Elizabeth.

Completed in 2005, the first-ever 20K house was designed and built by four 5th-year students for a client named Elizabeth.

Timothy Hursley

Today, they’re looking to bring their 20K Initiative designs and research to the national scale. Inspired by their potential at creating lasting solutions for home affordability, we’re taking a look at the evolution of the 20K Initiative and their next steps.

What is Rural Studio?

Understanding the 20K Initiative begins with Rural Studio. Launched in 1993 as one of several “field study” student programs under Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, Rural Studio follows a philosophy that everyone, both rich and poor, deserves good design. 

Built around community service learning and the university’s land grant heritage, Rural Studio immerses approximately 45 students a year in the tiny Alabama town of Newbern (population 186) for anywhere from a semester to a year or more.

The eighth house completed under the 20K Initiative is Dave's Home, a linear, one-bedroom, one-bathroom shotgun-style house with a large open living space and a screened front porch.

The eighth house completed under the 20K Initiative is Dave’s Home, a linear, one-bedroom, one-bathroom shotgun-style house with a large open living space and a screened front porch.

Timothy Hursley

Students work with a five-county service population to design, develop, and construct affordable housing and public infrastructure. To date, Rural Studio has constructed over 200 beautiful, site-specific buildings and gifted the homes to clients who might not otherwise been able to provide a home for themselves.

How the 20K Initiative Got Started

In 2005, Rural Studio asked its students to design a $20,000 home—with roughly $12,000 allocated for materials and $8,000 for labor and profit—in a challenge that grew into the 20K Project: a student-led, iterative research project aiming to bring beautiful, affordable homes to anyone who needs them. 

“The $20,000 came from some pretty simplistic math,” says Rusty, who also serves as Auburn University’s Gresham Professor and associate chair of the architecture program. “We looked at the typical mortgage that an average homeowner within our service population could afford, which conceptually, was $20,000.”

Dave’s Home was completed in 2009 by a team of four Outreach students.

Dave’s Home was completed in 2009 by a team of four Outreach students. “The students are directly engaged in the research and development of the houses,” says Rusty. “We do research with students in studio and they develop a house around a certain set of constraints. As they design that house, we work with our community partners to find a homeowner in our service population that needs a house that meets the performa the students are designing around. After the students build that house to client needs, we give the home to that client.”

Timothy Hursley

See the full story on Dwell.com: Rural Studio’s 20K Homes Reveal the Systemic Problems Behind Affordable Housing

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