2020 20K Home

Post-Frame Construction

Once we had a grasp on our priorities and goals for the 2020 20K project, we started to dig into the budget. We began by analyzing how much our target 20K client can afford. As we are aiming to make these homes available to someone living at the poverty line, we started with the US Census Bureau / American Community Survey statistics for poverty in Hale County in 2019. According to the ACS, an individual living in poverty in Hale County in 2019 makes around $12,500 per year, leaving them with a monthly income of $1,041. From this information, we determined that if the client is spending 25% of their monthly income on mortgage, they will be able to reserve $260 per month for mortgage payments. At a 5% interest rate for a 30-year mortgage, that gives us a price of $50,000.

Next, as point of comparison, we calculated how much the original three product-line homes (Dave’s, Mac’s, and Joanne’s) would cost if they were built today. We found that material costs have increased about 75% since 2009, so if the product line homes were built today, they would cost (in materials only) 21-26K. Since labor rates vary dramatically, we estimated that labor would average around the same as material costs, giving us a total cost of 42-52K for the product line homes in 2019. This puts the total cost of these homes right around our target cost of 50K, with no wiggle room for changes or upgrades.

From that point on, we started to research and consider alternative construction methods that could help us save on materials, labor, and time. In looking around the area, we noticed that many of the locally-built buildings in West Alabama use post-frame (or “pole-barn” construction methods). This type of construction uses large posts (or poles) on the eave ends of the building to carry the entire roof load – leaving the interior and the gable ends of the building free of load-bearing structural members.

Although this construction method is not typically used for residential structures, it can be, and in fact there are many advantages to doing so. The post-frame construction method involves first erecting the load-bearing posts, then installing the roof, and then infilling below the roof (versus traditional sequencing of stick-built construction starting with foundation, then walls, then roof). As compared with stick-built construction, post-frame construction can be faster, less expensive, and allow for more flexibility.  As a result of this investigation, we have decided to move forward with designing the 2020 20K using post-frame construction, which has never been tried before in any of the previous 23 iterations!

Learning from the past 20Ks

In order to better understand the 20K Project, we set off to visit some of the existing homes and meet with the owners. The experience has been eye-opening and invaluable in informing our understanding of how the homes are lived in and what opportunities exist to shape the 2020 20K Home to the needs of our potential client.

Our first stop was to visit Frank’s Home (the second 20K ever built). Frank’s is a minimal home, with a front and back porch and a linear design – recalling the vernacular “shotgun” typology. One of the design elements for Frank’s was to create a completely open interior, with curtains to separate the public and private parts of the house. While the concept allowed for the interior to remain open and free-flowing, Frank never felt like his home was complete. However, Frank did enjoy his front porch immensely, and he was seen sitting on his porch frequently, watching the passersby and greeting his neighbors. Although the home included a large screened-in back porch, Frank rarely used this amenity.

Next on our agenda was to visit the three original one-bedroom homes that served as the catalysts for the 20K “product line” development. We almost didn’t find Dave’s home as it was difficult to recognize post-renovation. Dave’s family has expanded and so has his home! The original screened-in front porch was enclosed, and the home expanded to include another two bedrooms. We enjoyed seeing how this 20K was being passed down through the family and how it continued to be loved and added to as the family changed and evolved.

In contrast to Dave’s, when we rolled up to Mac’s Home, we recognized it immediately – not only has the home remained unchanged, but the homeowner himself has also continued to occupy his beloved front porch just as he was originally photographed in 2010. We noticed that, in contrast to the drawings of Mac’s home that showed two chairs on the porch, Mac had seven chairs for hosting his many visitors. Mac is surrounded by loving relatives and neighbors who stop by frequently to talk with him. He also hosts his weekly men’s choir practice right there on the porch.

After Mac’s we went off to visit Joanne and Eddie’s. Joanne’s was relatively unchanged (aside from signs of wear after 8 years); however, we learned from the homeowner that she doesn’t often sit on her larger front porch, nor does she use it as her primary entrance. Joanne parks behind her house (between her house and Eddie’s) and uses the back entrance almost exclusively (this entrance also has fewer steps due to the incline of the site).

Eddie’s home (built in 2013) was designed in response to the need for accessible housing. This home was the first 20K to adopt a slab-on-grade foundation strategy (allowing for an easily accessible entrance), it also includes a tornado shelter to allow for an owner who might not be able to make it to a community shelter in time. Eddie’s Home was struck by a tornado last year, and Eddie made good use of his tornado shelter – however, the roof was blown off the house. When Eddie replaced the roof he made some modifications, including: enclosing the soffits, choosing a slightly darker roof color, and adding non-structural columns to the edge of the porch. We enjoyed the effect of these added columns and noted that they not only helped the house feel more substantial and grounded, but they also helped to make the porch feel more defined as an outdoor room.

Visiting the existing 20Ks helped us to refine our goals for the 2020 20K, and tailor our approach to the needs of the clients.

Based on our visits, we distilled a set of principles that we’d like to explore this year:

  1. Budgetary rigor: We are in the process of analyzing the budget for the 20K, assessing the upgrades over the past 15 years, and investigating opportunities to increase value while adhering to a strict budget.
  2. Expandability: While we have been tasked with a one-bedroom program, we would like to incorporate opportunities for expansion into our design.
  3. Heating & cooling options: We are exploring a range of possibilities for heating and cooling options, balancing comfort, cost, and environmental responsibility.
  4. Kitchen & living relationship: We are particularly interested in examining the relationship of the kitchen to the living areas (interior and exterior), and exploring a kitchen concept that would be more discreet that previous 20K designs.
  5. The porch: The porch is of the utmost importance to the 20K. Not only is it the physical and social connection point between the house and its surroundings, but it also one of the most prominent design features of the house.
  6. The landscape: We would like to consider the use of the landscape in our design, incorporating outdoor storage, social space, garden, and plantings
  7. Oomph: We’re designing a small home with big ambitions. When it’s all said and done, we hope that it will not only serve to house its owner and keep them safe and comfortable, but that they will be able to look upon it with pride, and call it their home.

2020 20K Home

Hello from the new graduate students!

Devin Denman graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in City and Regional Planning and minor in Sustainable Environments.  She has been living in San Francisco for the last ten years and most recently working as an owner’s representative on public housing rehabilitations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Although she thoroughly enjoyed working in the field, she found herself continually frustrated with the system. Devin was also longing for hands on experience of actually building instead of watching the process. After one too many lunch rants about bureaucracy and red-tape, a friend convinced her academia might be a positive direction to take her passion for housing affordability.

Charlie Firestone graduated from Cornell University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Architecture. Since then, he’s been practicing in New York City as a designer and project manager for Matiz Architecture & Design. His work in New York primarily involved interior renovations for universities and other non-profits throughout the city. Charlie came to Rural Studio to pursue his master’s degree with the hopes of learning how to participate in public interest design, integrating design-build into his practice, and reconnecting with academia. Charlie is passionate about social justice and he is excited and honored to be working on a project to help provide affordable, beautiful, and durable housing to the under-resourced population of the rural South. 

The 20K project started 15 years ago with the aim of providing affordable, efficient, durable, and buildable homes for low-income residents of the rural South. The goal of the project was to provide an alternative to the only option currently available in a similar price range: a used manufactured (mobile) home. Mobile homes are not only manufactured out of state (and therefore not feeding back into the local economy) but they also will only degrade in value over time (rather than increase in value as well-maintained stick-built houses will).

The “20K” label arose from the original price tag established in 2005 as the total price of a house that someone in the lowest income bracket (living on government assistance) could afford to make a mortgage payment on. The actual price has increased over time, but the name and the goal of designing homes that could be purchased by anyone, have remained the same. 

Over the years, Rural Studio has continued to develop and test various designs for one and two bedroom models of the 20K Home, investigating different aspects of the issue each year – from nailing down an appropriate material palette, to testing different foundation and platform methods, to developing a handicap accessible model, to pushing the envelope with sustainability practices.

This year, our mandate is to go back to the basics. Our first task is to go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, to update the original study from 15 years ago and to nail down exactly who the 20K client is, what they can afford, and what developments from the past models we can incorporate into our 20K design and stay within a strict budget. 

Over the course of a year, we will research, design, and build a one-bedroom 20K home. The plan is to break ground mid-spring with final completion by mid-summer 2020. Currently, we are in the weeds of research and process design. The plan is to address our list of principles/goals/questions, which we have divided into three categories of focus: Cost, Performance, Program – all under the umbrella of maintaining a rigorous budget in the spirit of the 20K legacy. The beauty of the 20K is in its simplicity. Adding more is easy, but not always the best solution.