Since 1993, we have run a university program that is deeply embedded in its community. This embeddedness has allowed us the opportunity to address some of the many challenges facing rural communities. When Rural Studio first started the 20K research in 2004, we were eager to make our housing work more relevant to the needs of West Alabama as well as the Southeast and possibly the entire country. We wanted to address the critical need for housing that is affordable. We also believed the end product of this work should reflect the mission of Rural Studio—that all people deserve dignified, beautiful design—but also that it should also bring economic value to residents in the form of jobs, equity building homes, and more resilient economies.
As a Studio, we wanted to be more relevant: Rural Studio is a resource that can be an instigator of housing product development. In the Studio’s history, we had built beautiful one-off, often idiosyncratic homes that were for one family and one family only. That approach seemed a missed opportunity. With so many potential clients—community members and friends who needed shelter—we were already building a house every year. Why not, instead of “reinventing the wheel” every year with one-off houses, challenge ourselves to build on the body of knowledge gained cumulatively with each new home?
Our initial goal was to design a market-rate model home that could be built by a contractor for $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and proﬁt). We arrived at the original $20,000 sum as a target 30-year mortgage ticket because it reflected what a person on social security or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families could comfortably afford to pay each month after other living expenses, which amounted to about $100 per month. It would be the 20K Home (our internal nickname): a house for everybody and everyone.
We have discovered that although we can predict the cost of materials, other factors can change drastically: labor, utility installation, and application for building permission by region, as well as local municipality, community, and even neighborhood values can change drastically. In short, in the long-term, the $20,000 target cost was untenable. Even so, the “20K” nickname, never intended to be a formal label, stuck. Students still aim to keep construction costs as low as possible, but the research shifted to focus on the total cost of homeownership, striking a balance between the initial purchasing cost of the house and the post-occupancy costs of operations and maintenance. Each year, students design and construct a 20K Home that is given to a local resident who needs it. This iterative process really does allow us, with each version, to learn from the last and to build a body of knowledge.
We will continue to develop beautiful, affordable, equity building, energy-efficient homes for our community. Eventually, we will give the public access to the Front Porch Initiative Product Line Homes as well. We hope to cultivate an industry of homebuilding that spurs economic development in rural areas. These goals are being met by the Front Porch Initiative, which is a faculty-driven extension of the 20K Project. Its mission is to develop a scalable, sustainable, and resilient process for delivering homes in underserved rural communities. The Initiative aims to address systemic issues underlying housing affordability and the inventory crisis by replacing existing homes that are substandard with beautiful homes that are safe, secure, healthy, and energy-efficient. Learn more about the Front Porch Initiative.