Students Design Beautiful, Affordable Homes for Just $20,000


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Source: Jessica Ashley Photography

Source: Jessica Ashley Photography

The dream of millions across the country to own a home in America has taken a huge step forward after a group of students from Auburn University solved the dilemma of building beautiful, desirable homes on a paper thin budget.

Over the decades, the cost of owning a home has skyrocketed due to increased labor costs and building supplies, along with a myriad of other factors. But the innovations presented by the students at Auburn may finally help ease those rising costs.


Rural Studio, Auburn University’s design-build program, has developed a prototype home hoping to give people living below the poverty line and others on a moderate income the ability to afford to be home owners. Together with the help of commercial developer Serenbe, they were able to build two one-bedroom homes, costing only $14,000 each. The main goal of the project, called the 20K Home, is to bring the ultra-low housing project to a larger market.

“We’re in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we’re really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public’s hands,” shared Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio, with Fast Company. “Really this first field test was to find out all the things that we didn’t know, and to find out all of the kind of wrong assumptions that we had made, and really find out how we had screwed up, honestly.”

It has taken several years, many students and advisors, and over a hundred thousand hours of hard work. The biggest challenge the students faced while designing the homes were the multiple zoning laws and codes. It is an unusual situation because the houses are one-of-a-kind.

“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,” shared Smith. “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.”

Source: Jessica Ashley Photography

Source: Jessica Ashley Photography

The students took innovative ideas to create new ways for the houses to be built. For example, the foundation uses cantilevers, a seesaw-like joist that helps save material, such as wood and concrete, to create a stronger foundation. However, techniques like these are not in the usual code guides, so the students had to explain how the process worked in order to get approval.

The team hopes to make these houses widely available by creating “Ikea-like instructions” to educate others on how to build them.

“A traditional construction set basically tells a builder what to build,” says Smith. “And what we learned that we really need is what we’ve come to refer to as not a construction set, really an instruction set. That not just tells what to build, but specifically how to build it and even more important, why it should be built that way.”

Another problem Smith and his team faced were the banks. Because the houses are so small and the likely buyer is on a limited income who cannot afford $20,000, the banks won’t finance a mortgage.

“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,” Smith says.

Ultimately, the goal is to get someone to buy the design. Once the instruction sets are ready, the team is hoping to distribute the plans to any that wants to use it.

“The goal of 20K House is really to design a house that’s affordable, that anybody could have—and that anybody would want,” shared Smith.


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