housing

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.

Free the Stairs!

Since Halloween Reviews, the 5th-year students designing Patriece’s Home have shifted their design focus of the extra unit within the home. The team is now exploring pushing the larger of the two units to the second floor.

But how would the home function if one family is using all of the spaces? With a helpful review from visiting architect and Rural Studio alum, Amanda Loper, from David Baker Architects, the team is cooking up two schemes that divide the first floor but keep the laundry shared. One scheme is a long shotgun unit and the other is a wider wrapping unit.

The strategy to keep spaces separate frees the stairs to be wholly used by the users living on the second floor. Next, the team will investigate opportunities and challenges of an open staircase in the home, including light, ventilation, storage, user experience, and (potentially) a dormer.

Vignettes of sixteen ways that stairs can be used other than circulation.

The team continues to cook these various schemes and analyze the connection of the interior to exterior porches. Keep watching out for Patriece’s Home team to see what these ideas bake into!

An arial photo of the four team members working at their desks in Red Barn.

Small Spaces, Big Questions

After weeks of work, the C.H.O.I.C.E. House Emergency Shelter team finally got the chance to meet with the Executive Director of C.H.O.I.C.E., Emefa Butler! The team got to show her what we have been working on and further discuss Emefa’s vision and details of the project scope. Initially, we were asked to design and build two units and a shared washer and dryer space. However, through many design iterations, we found that aggregating the units into one larger volume is a more efficient way to reach the goals of the project. For example, the “dead space” in between the individual units would most likely be unoccupiable and cause maintenance issues. Aggregation offers a hierarchy of outdoor spaces with a private porch and a shared porch to give C.H.O.I.C.E.’s clients the opportunity to socialize, but not force interaction. After presenting our findings to the client, she was fully on board with aggregating the units for the financial and social benefits. 

As we move forward with aggregation, we are still wrestling with the question of what a dignified dwelling is and how we can instill dignity into small spaces. To understand how the idea of dignity would manifest itself into architecture, we drew vignettes of what the ideal condition could be for each space. From this, we learned that instilling dignity isn’t necessarily done with big moves like many windows or a dramatic form. It can be as simple as having enough space to put a toothbrush or a designated place to hang up clothes. 

Along with these vignettes that we developed in studio, we had the pleasure of working with Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects in Birmingham, AL, to develop these dignified goals into our design of the individual unit. 

team meeting with Amanda Loper
Amanda Loper helping us understand some of the big questions that arise from small spaces
team working in studio
AC keeping the team up to date with a new Harry-Styles-themed calendar

The current iteration is built around a “core” that consolidate all plumbing, storage, and a third sleeping space to the center of the plan. This allows for more open spaces on either end, while also acting as a privacy buffer between the sleeping and living spaces.  

plan iteration

Thanks for tuning into the continuing story of the emergency shelters… or should we say dignified dwellings? 

Somewhere Under The Rainbow

After they pushed through “Neckdowns,” passed workshop season, and survived project selection, the new 5th-year teams are here and ready for their debut!

*Cue drumroll*

Hello from the C.H.O.I.C.E. House team!

team sitting together outside
Davis Benfer (Jacksonville, FL), Yi Xuan (Raymond) Teo (Singapore), AC Priest (Saltillo, MS), & Hailey Osborne (Ashburn, VA)

The team has been working hard these past few weeks to begin the design process of two emergency housing units in Uniontown, AL, alongside their community partner, C.H.O.I.C.E. Each unit is meant for thirty-day stays and will support C.H.O.I.C.E.’s rapid rehousing initiatives. To kick it off, the team met on site with the executive director of C.H.O.I.C.E. and the driving force behind the project, Emefa Butler.

team meets with client

She happily discussed her visions and goals of the project with the team to give them a better understanding of how to emergency housing can best serve the organization. With all the new information, the team immediately started to dive into design work with a goal of making sure the housing units remain dignified and comfortable, even though they are meant for short stays.

diagram of components of a dignified dwelling

This team loves a good charrette as much as the next architect, so there was no better way for them to start getting ideas on paper. They produced drawings, lots of drawings. The team explored ideas for the individual units and began to think about how these units replicate on the same site or how they could be implemented in different contexts in the future.

After having some time to work with the project as a team, the first set of visitors came to review the team’s progress. Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg, founders of Koning Eizenberg in Santa Monica, CA, helped the students work through a site design exercise to start thinking about how the units will connect to each other and the activities of the site.

team working on site plan for shelter units

Following the review from Hank and Julie, the team has been iterating on the site plans and continuing to push the design of the individual units.

That’s all for now!

Until next time, we’ll be somewhere under this rainbow!

double rainbow over red barn