Front Porch Initiative

An Efficient, Resilient, and Healthy Home

The Front Porch Initiative is dedicated to addressing housing quality and affordability in persistently impoverished rural communities. We believe that everyone, rich and poor, deserves a “shelter for the soul.” Rural Studio has spent decades designing and building homes for our rural neighbors that are efficient, resilient, and healthy, and now, we want to expand rural homeownership outside of our service area in West Alabama.

Rural homeowners, especially those in persistently impoverished communities, often struggle to qualify for a mortgage. We can meet this challenge by re-thinking housing affordability, so we’ve asked the question: what can an efficient, resilient, and healthy home afford the owner, lender, and insurer?

Traditionally, housing affordability is addressed primarily by reductions in the cost of building a home, through using less expensive materials or other means of value engineering. Our approach makes housing more affordable not by simply reducing initial construction costs, but instead by also increasing overall building performance. Energy performance, durability, and resilience, and a focus on wellness can better enable a homeowner to pay their mortgage month after month, and year after year—and at no increase in monthly cost to the homeowner.

Simply put, for every $1 a homeowner can afford to increase their monthly mortgage payment, they can finance an additional $200 of building construction costs. So, if by increasing energy efficiency we are able to reduce a homeowner’s monthly energy bill by just $25 per month, we can shift that same $25 to their monthly mortgage payment. Due to the long-term financing of this investment, the homeowner can now afford to finance an additional $5000 in energy-efficient construction with no increase in their total monthly home-related bills.

With the understanding that homeownership is the foundation of financial wealth building, we connect the “first costs” of home procurement (the overall cost of the mortgage) to the “second costs” of homeownership (monthly mortgage, utility, and insurance bills), creating a new paradigm of how a lender might consider the mortgage eligibility of a homeowner. By changing this mortgage paradigm, homes can afford rural homeowners the opportunity for safe, reliable, and efficient shelter. Moreover, higher-quality, higher-performance homes reduce risk to both the lender and the insurer.

Meet Betsy Farrell Garcia!

Betsy Garcia headshot

The Front Porch Initiative is growing! Through the generous support of Fannie Mae, we welcomed Betsy Farrell Garcia, Assistant Research Professor, to the team this spring. Betsy will work in support of current partnerships and foster new collaborations with Field Test Partners, organizations that provide homes in rural communities.

Originally from Mississippi, Betsy (’08 BArch, BIntArch) is a graduate of Rural Studio’s 5th-year program and a member of the student team that designed and built the 20K Bridge Home. Before returning to Auburn, Betsy practiced as a licensed architect with firms in Boston specializing in arts, higher education, and K-12 facilities, many designed to high standards of sustainability. She brings this extensive experience and her industrious work ethic to Rural Studio and the Front Porch Initiative.

Betsy will be joining Mackenzie Stagg, CADC’s first Assistant Research Professor, on the Front Porch Initiative research team to further the development of our high performance product line homes. She brings expertise with envisioning and designing efficient, resilient, and equitable housing for communities that need it most. As part of the research team, Betsy leverages Rural Studio’s long history of collaborating with our West Alabama neighbors to address housing needs throughout the Southeast and beyond.

If you ask Betsy why she chose to work with the Front Porch Initiative, she will start with her call to service, bolstered by a strong belief in Rural Studio’s community-driven mission. Her interest in furthering the valuable research of the Rural Studio motivates her, and she looks forward to working hard to help the Front Porch Initiative bring better homes to more rural Americans.

Introducing Our Institutional Partners

2018 Partner Meeting in Newbern, Alabama

The mission of the Front Porch Initiative is to promote home ownership in rural communities. That’s a big goal, and we can’t do it all on our own. So, we’ve built a coalition of institutional partners who offer their expertise and help support our work. We have collaborators in industry, not-for-profit, and government sectors. In this post, we’d like to introduce you to a few of our institutional support partners.

For three years, Fannie Mae, a leading source of financing for mortgage lenders, has been supporting the Initiative’s “Test and Learn” plan, which will develop home building documentation and study the social and economic impact of increased rural home ownership on local communities. The documentation provides detailed drawings and resources for building four of the 20K Homes, what we call our product line homes. Each product line home is built to maximize resilience and efficiency while supporting health and equity among rural homeowners.

The Initiative is collaborating with another finance industry partner, Wells Fargo, to improve home ownership among citizens in West Alabama. Wells Fargo, a leading financial services company, is providing research and development support for continuing work at Rural Studio, focusing specifically on ways to increase home ownership among African American residents.

In addition to industry partners, the Initiative has a multi-faceted collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development department to help build housing in rural America. Recently, USDA awarded us a Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) grant to provide enhanced technical assistance to Mountain T.O.P., a faith-based volunteer program based in Grundy County, Tennessee. Previously, Mountain T.O.P. focused on repairing homes in the rural Cumberland Plateau area, but with this grant, they will also begin building new construction homes for local residents.

USDA has also temporarily assigned Meghan Walsh, Senior Architect for USDA Rural Housing Service, to support the Initiative. Walsh brings expertise in both architecture and mortgage financing, which will help promote a sustainable model of home procurement that recognizes and accommodates the needs of rural home buyers.

In the coming months, our blog will feature these partners and others who are helping us achieve the goal of rural home ownership, so check back and read about our progress!

Auburn Opelika Habitat Homes

A major goal of the Front Porch Initiative is to expand home ownership in areas outside Rural Studio’s service area of West Alabama. Recently, we collaborated with another studio within Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture (APLA) and the McWhorter School of Building Science (BSCI) as well as Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity to build two homes in Opelika, Alabama. The design of these two projects is based on 20K Buster’s Home. The homes for this collaboration were optimized for energy efficiency using different efficiency standards, which offers the opportunity to study two models of energy consumption. Additionally, both homes are designed to provide beyond-code resistance to damage from high winds and blowing rains.

View of a 20K/Front Porch home at sunset with the lights on
House 66 Dedication – Image by Matt Hall

The first house, dubbed House 66, is Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) certified, which requires homes to be super-insulated, minimize air leakage through a tight envelope, have high-efficiency windows and doors, active ventilation, and energy efficient equipment. The house was also built to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s FORTIFIED Home – High Wind standard, which certifies that a home’s construction strengthens it against severe weather. House 66 is the first home in Alabama to receive PHIUS certification and, as far as we know, the only house in the country ever certified both PHIUS and FORTIFIED Gold. The second house, House 68, is built to Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH) and FORTIFIED standards. Though not as stringent as PHIUS, ZERH also focuses on energy efficiency and preparing the home to adapt to renewable energy sources as they become available. Both House 66 and House 68 have a HERS rating of 38 (learn more about the HERS index here), but our energy models predict that it will cost approximately $100 more in energy costs per year to operate House 68. These costs can further offset by the installation of a photovoltaic (PV) panels, also known as solar panels, which generate energy. A PV system has already been installed at House 66, where excess energy produced is fed into the local energy grid.

Each house is also outfitted with monitoring devices to collect data about energy usage at the level of the individual circuit. David Hinson of APLA is co-leading the project and explains the research: “We will monitor the actual operating costs […] and compare the operating savings against the cost of incorporating these special features. Our aim is to find the balance point between the initial cost of constructing the home and lower operating costs that results in the best long-term solution for the families.” Along with Hinson, Mike Hosey of BSCI and Mackenzie Stagg of the Front Porch Initiative have received funding to analyze the data collected at the homes. Analysis of this data will help us better understand which changes to the building design have the largest impacts on energy consumption.

Habitat House 68 exterior
House 68 Dedication


At the 2019 PHIUS Passive House Projects Competition, House 66 was awarded Winner of the Affordable Category.

Recent Press:

Auburn University 2019 Press Release: Building Better Architects: Auburn University partnership with Habitat for Humanity gives architecture students experiential learning opportunities

Auburn University 2018 Press Release: Auburn University students design, build energy efficient Habitat for Humanity Home

WLTZ News: Auburn University Students Help Design Energy Efficient Habitat for Humanity Homes

Opelika-Auburn News: Opelika takes step toward renewable energy

Learn more about the Front Porch Initiative here.

Welcome to the Front Porch Initiative Blog!

The Habitat product line house
Image by Matt Hall

The Front Porch Initiative seeks to expand the reach and impact of the ongoing research, design, and construction work at Rural Studio. Capitalizing on over 25 years of work in West Alabama, our goal is to use the deep knowledge of quality home building developed by students in Hale County to promote quality home ownership in other underresourced rural areas.

Over the last 15 years of focused research and development on rural housing, student teams have continually built on the previous work of their peers, with an increasing focus on how each home is designed for both construction affordability and optimized performance. The result is a line of homes that are designed to be durable, efficient, resilient, and healthy. The Initiative aims to offer quality housing products in communities across the South and Appalachia (climatic regions most amenable to the 20K Home design) as well as offer our knowledge and technical assistance to housing providers more broadly.

“Good housing is a fundamental human right. It improves health, economies, and communities. Our goal is to provide access to beautiful, dignified, equity-building homes for our rural communities.”

– Andrew Freear, Rural Studio Director

The Initiative is collaborating with a range of government, NGO, and industry partners to tackle the issue of the lack of housing that is affordable, both through the construction of high-performance homes and by lowering the financial barriers to home ownership, including mortgage requirements, insurance costs, zoning, and permitting challenges.

The Initiative currently has a variety of projects and collaborations underway across the Southeast, and we look forward to regularly sharing more details about our partners and continued progress over the coming weeks, months, and years. Stay tuned here to follow along!

Learn more about the Front Porch Initiative here.