A Beautiful Home for Just $20,000?



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As the American dream of home ownership becomes more and more elusive for many folks, ingenious minds are working on solutions, from the “tiny house movement” to portable homes to going off the grid.

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Well, now there’s the 20K House!

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Rural Studio, an architecture program of Auburn University in Alabama, had an interesting challenge: Succeeding groups of students, since 2005, had to create prototypes for homes that would cost just $20,000 – that’s the highest number the average Social Security recipient could afford in terms of a mortgage, a person living below the poverty line. And, they had make them look like dignified homes someone would actually want to live in – an appealing alternative to mobile homes. The homes could then be reproduced en masse by contractors.

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A couple of the 17 so-called 20K Houses have just been tested in the real world in Serenbe, an upscale, tiny community south of Atlanta, where homes go for circa half a million dollars. This first pilot project for Rural Studio was possible thanks to cooperation with an artist residency program in that community, as well as donations. Still, each prototype had only $12,000 allotted for materials and the remainder for labor and profit. The result? Both little houses are single bedrooms with a bathroom, measuring in at 550 square feet. The cottages are set on piers for maximizing airflow, heating and cooling. The two field test artist cottages have an open and airy feel and nothing about them looks budget. But that’s because they are beautifully and minimally furnished. They really do look like artist residences more than actual homes for people to live in.

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There’s just one small problem: They ended up costing $135,000 instead of $40,000, and the visionaries are rethinking their approach and budget after overcoming a lot of hurdles such as permits, strict zoning laws, code compliance and other nightmares. Also, the goal is to pay workers a sustainable wage. That won’t deter Rural Studio from fine-tuning and adjusting the project!

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“We have discovered that while we can easily predict the cost of materials, the cost of labor, utility installation and application for building permission by region, local municipality, community and even neighborhood can change drastically,” said Andrew Freear, the Director of Rural Studio. “The studio wanted to create a beautiful, small and efficient house that would appreciate in value while accommodating residents who are unable to qualify for credit.”

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“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,” said Rusty Smith, Associate Director of Rural Studio.

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We are optimistic.

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