frontporchinitiative

Ribbon Cutting in Johnson City, TN

Group in front yard of home watching dedication ceremony
Representatives from the City and community gathered to celebrate the dedication of a new affordable, energy-efficient home.

On May 15, the Front Porch Initiative team celebrated a ribbon cutting with Eastern Eight Community Development Corporation (E8CDC) for a new affordable, energy efficient infill home in Johnson City, Tennessee. The project represents outcomes possible when mission-aligned partners work together; this collaboration was made possible thanks to the commitment of E8CDC, the City of Johnson City, Johnson City Housing Authority, NeighborWorks, Appalachian Service Project, and Auburn University Rural Studio.

In 2011, Eastern Eight purchased a piece of property in a well-established neighborhood only two miles from downtown Johnson City. The site fronts a tree-lined street and slopes down in the rear, with alley access and a wide view of the neighborhood. The 50-foot-wide infill lot with setbacks limiting the buildable width to 34 feet, ideal for a house in the Front Porch Product Line. E8CDC selected the two-bedroom Sylvia’s House prototype for the site, with porches addressing both the front yard and back alley. The resulting intervention matches the scale and rhythm of the existing neighborhood fabric. Durable exterior materials minimize required maintenance, and a tight building envelope with high-performance mechanical systems minimize energy required to heat and cool the home.

Aerial view of houses
The new home fits comfortably into the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

E8CDC was awarded HUD Community Development Block Grant funding from the area’s HOME Consortium to enhance local housing opportunities. E8CDC partnered with Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a non-profit builder historically focused on repairs and replacing homes in their five-state service area. When breaking ground on this project in April 2021, merely a year into the pandemic, the full impacts of rapidly rising land and housing costs, a tightening labor market, and emerging supply chain issues were not yet known, nor their effects on the affordability equation. However, E8CDC always returned to the most important question: “What does it cost if we don’t build this home, and others like it, when they are needed now, more than ever?” Now that the home is complete, it will be sold to a family in the local community.

Rural Studio is both proud and humbled to have been included in this partnership. Together we have all learned a lot on this project, and we look forward to working hard to do again and again!

Press coverage of the event:

Johnson City Press: “Eastern Eight CDC unveils new affordable housing project” by Sarah Owens | May 17, 2022

Group photo with Rural Studio team and partners in front of home

Affordable Housing vs. Housing Affordability

In our work, understanding why we build a home in a certain way is key in addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. And while it is certainly important to ask, “what does a house cost to build?” it is perhaps more useful to consider what a house actually affords.

In other words, what impact might we have on the creation of more attainable housing if we could begin to consider the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation? Stated more directly, we have found that many low-wealth homeowners are not primarily challenged because they cannot afford their monthly mortgage payments. Instead, they are more often at risk of missing a payment and perhaps even losing their home because of one or more of the four following circumstances.

First, a homeowner may have an unexpected energy bill. In our part of the world, our homeowners may have an energy bill of $35–45 a month in March and April, and an energy bill of $350–400 in July and August.

Second, a homeowner may have an unexpected maintenance or repair bill. We live in an area of highly volatile climatic activity. Maintenance and repair due to storm-related events and the long-term displacement they often cause play a significant role in the financial security of our homeowners.

Third, a homeowner might have an unexpected healthcare event in their lives. Where you live matters, and living in substandard housing is one of the best-understood negative social determinants of health.

Fourth, a homeowner may face various forms of income disruption. Many rural homeowners rely predominantly on part-time work, shift work, and seasonal work to make ends meet. Additionally, they live in complex kinship networks in which everything is shared, from housing, transportation, and income to food, eldercare, and childcare. Any disruption in these community networks can be disastrous for generations of a family.

So, in addition to managing the upfront cost of construction of the home, it is even more important and impactful to understand how the actual performance of the home in four key areas—energy efficiency, durability and resilience, health and wellbeing, and the strengthening of community networks—all contribute in profound ways to financial and economic security.

Working with our builder partners and homeowners, the Front Porch Initiative provides the information, knowledge, and know-how around each of these instrumental areas to help them make informed decisions regarding both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of building performance, allowing for a clear decision tree that considers the cost and value of action, as well as the hidden cost of inaction.

Below, you see five variations of Joanne’s Home built in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

One of the important aspects of this iterative research is our ability to build multiple versions of each home in various climatic conditions and with different performance objectives as necessitated by our housing partner’s particular circumstance. Taken together, these homes become “Test and Learn Laboratories,” and this iterative process of evaluating both the cost and value of building performance criteria lends itself to a highly customizable process and yields a wide variety of housing options and variations.

Each house we build offers the opportunity to study different issues of efficiency, resilience, wellness, and community building. One of our research questions focuses on finding the balance point between the front-end construction costs of improved performance and the back-end performance consequences in each of these areas. In our next post, we will share a case study of two versions of the product line homes (seen below), and how we use our homes to explore the pluses and minuses of different building standards in their delivery— specifically, we will take a deep dive into the intersection of energy efficiency and resilience, and we will share some of the surprising things we have learned along the way.

Photo credits

Joanne’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AIR Serenbe: J. Ashley Photography

Ree’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AHR Wharf Avenue: Ford Photographs, provided by AHR

Ophelia’s Home: AU Rural Studio

House 66 & House 68, Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity: Matt Hall

Mind the Gap

In the field of public health, there is a concept referred to as the “know-do gap.” Just as it sounds, this is the gap between what we know and what we do. According to the World Health Organization, there are two aspects of this gap: one, the gap from research to policy and, two, the gap from knowledge to action. We have found that this same know-do gap exists in the built environment.

The existential threat of climate change is a prime example. We know that the frequency and severity of natural disasters will continue to increase. And we know that these events will have outsized impacts on under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Diagram of "Know Do"

Addionally, through analysis such as the National Institute of Building Science’s “Mitigation Saves” report, we know that mitigation provides significant saving over the cost of disaster recovery. The question here is how to take what we know through research and translate it into what we do on the ground in our local communities to address these complex challenges.

Cover of Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves book

In our previous post we shared some of the critical lessons that we have learned over our years of designing and building high-performance houses on the ground in Hale County, as well as with our builder partners throughout the Southeast. Following are just a few of the key ways we are working to close the gap between these things that we know, and what we are doing about it.

Diagram of "Know Do"

In the Front Porch Initiative, which strives to create high-performance homes for under-resourced communities, we share our knowledge on what to build—relative to codes, universal design standards, lending and insurance requirements, and the like—and our know-how—where we show what to build—through a comprehensive set of construction documents and specifications for each of the houses.

Section house drawing

We are currently working with a network of Field Test Partners throughout the Southeast. Through these partnerships we have learned a number of things. Mainly, it’s not only important to show what to build; we have to show how to build it, and even more importantly, why it’s built that way.

Serenbe 20K Homes at the Art Farm
Our first field test project in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. Photo credit: Jessica Ashley Photography

We are all familiar with the Ikea model, where we are provided a catalog of materials, a funny little tool, and a clear and comprehensive set of step-by-step instructions through which we can all become somewhat-competent furniture builders.

Ikea drawings examples

With our builder partners, we provide the same kind of instructional documents for the house. We know every detail about how the house is assembled:

Axon drawing

And we also know everything about the construction sequence:

Process drawings of stages of construction

So, in addition to our construction documents, we have also developed a set of instruction documents that walk our builder partners step-by-step through both the hows and the whys of the construction of each home.

An open book of drawings of construction steps

In our work, this understanding of why we build a home in a certain way is key in addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. But while it is certainly important to ask, “What does a house cost to build?,” it is perhaps more useful to consider what a house might actually afford its residents.

In our next post, we will explore the broader impact that we might have on affordability if we can begin to consider not just what a house costs to build, but also the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation.

It really DOES take a village: a systems-based approach to housing access and affordability

Forkland, AL (Photo by Joe Weisbord)

Today’s housing affordability crisis is a slow-motion, multi-generational, public health disaster of our own making. And until we recognize that how folks live today in America is actually the intentional outcome of long-standing intersectional injustice, we never will be able to truly provide equitable, sustainable, healthy, and durable housing access to those in our country that need it most but can afford it the least.

Rural Studio has always been a “Housing and Food First” organization, which means that before we can begin working with our neighbors to address the broader issues faced in our low-wealth community, we must first work together to make sure everyone is decently housed and adequately fed. That said, Rural Studio students have designed and built well over 200 projects for our community, including a lot more than just houses. So why is that if we truly believe in the “housing and food first” approach?

Well, think about the Newbern Firehouse, for example.

Newbern Firehouse (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

While working on developing affordable house prototypes, our students came to realize that one of the significant barriers to affordable homeownership in our community was the lack of adequate fire protection.

“But why is that a problem?” they asked.

Well, because houses were burning down at an inordinate rate.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, that meant that you couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, you can’t secure a mortgage. And of course, as we have come to find, if you can’t secure a mortgage, no amount of work that we might do as architects by “designing the house this way or building it that way” would ever solve this problem; housing access and affordability simply aren’t brick and mortar problems. It is in this way that Rural Studio works with across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the deeply systemic issues faced in our rural communities, and then by bringing together key stakeholder partners across all areas of influence who through collaboration can begin to address these challenges.

Together with our partners, we embrace the idea that the best way to learn how to do something is by actually doing it. Rural Studio is action-oriented, and we get things done.

We have also found that when faced with difficult problems, it is always best to tackle them together. So Rural Studio is extraordinarily team oriented as well. Combining our belief in the importance of action with our penchant for partnerships, Rural Studio acts not just as a research “Think Tank,” but also as a sort of “Do-Tank” as well.

In the coming weeks we will be sharing more about not only what we have learned relative to increasing equitable access to high-performance, healthy housing, but also what we are doing about it as well.

Music City “Micro Homes” Complete!

Four Rural Studio-designed homes were the star of the show in Nashville, TN on June 29, 2021. The Music City was celebrating a successful partnership between local housing provider and CDFI Affordable Housing Resources (AHR); efficiency-minded contractor Honeybee Builders; and Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative. Based on Dave’s House, MacArthur’s House, and Joanne’s House, each one-bedroom house is between 510 and 540 square feet. Situated on two side-by-side parcels in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, Nashville’s R6 zoning allows for two detached homes per lot. The completed homes are now for sale. With an estimated total monthly mortgage cost of $900, the homes are less than the average monthly rent cost in Nashville which, in 2020, was $1390 per month!

L-R: PJ McCarthy, Fannie Mae; Zulfat Suara, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member; Chris Ferrell, The Barnes Fund Commissioner; Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director; Eddie Latimer, Affordable Housing Resources CEO, Alfred Degrafinreid, AHR Board Chairman; Latrisha Jemison, Regions Bank Sr. VP/Regional Community Development Manager; Bill Herbert, Nashville Codes Administration Director; Bob Mendes, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member

Early in the day, a dedication and press event was held to showcase the affordable, energy efficient homes. Speakers included representatives from AHR, Rural Studio, Nashville Codes Administration, Regions Bank, Fannie Mae, the Barnes Fund, and city council representatives. Local city councilwoman, Zulfat Suara, lauded the innovative use of land and construction that make these homes affordable in a Nashville housing market where mortgage costs have skyrocketed, leaving many would-be homeowners priced out. The event gained citywide attention through multiple press stories (linked at the bottom of this blog).

Later in the day, around 80 members of the Greater Nashville Auburn Club and other Auburn friends, including former Rural Studio students, attended an open house at the site. Alumni were invited to tour the homes and learn about their energy-efficient design, durable construction, and economical use of land. Our own Rusty Smith spoke to the crowd about how Rural Studio found itself in Nashville: “…we met Eddie Latimer and Affordable Housing Resources. He shared the challenges you all face here in Nashville, and while Nashville might seem a little different than our hometown of Newbern in West Alabama, some of the challenges sounded similar, something we wanted to be part of, and to learn from.”

The Nashville homes mark a significant milestone for the Front Porch Initiative: they are the first mortgage-bearing Rural Studio houses to be built outside of Alabama. The Initiative continues to scale up the research and housing accessibility work of Rural Studio throughout the Southeast. But, there is still much to learn about innovative approaches to zoning, mortgage financing, insurance, and home performance. These four modest homes are a big step forward in our research and ability to share information with a broader constituency of housing providers.

Press links:

The TennesseanHow ‘micro homes’ could be part of Nashville’s affordable housing solution

Fox17 WZTV NashvilleMicro-home development opens in Nashville in aims to help affordable housing crisis

WKRNNew micro homes in Wedgewood-Houston small step toward more affordable housing in Nashville

Photo credits:

AHR Wharf Ave Dedication and Greater Nashville Auburn Alumni Open House events photographed by Tausha Dickinson, provided by AHR.

Completed project photos by Ford Photographs, provided by AHR.

Digitally staged interiors by Brighteous Media, provided by AURS.