Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rural Studio's $20K House

For many years, the architecture students at Auburn University have been exploring planning and Design/ Build issues up close via hands-on experience through work done as part of Rural Studio (RS). Rural Studio examines the many facets of planning, affordablity and the challenges of providing real-world replicatable architectural solutions. As part of its project for 2007, Rural Studio (RS) has completed an interesting housing prototype for Hale County (Alabama). The target cost: $20K (labor and materials). Rural Studio (at Auburn's School of Architecture) was the brainchild of architect/educator Samuel Mockbee & D.K. Ruth. Mockbee passed away a few years ago, but the program is still operational and has produced an interesting student project for 2007: an affordable residence built for about $20K for some of the areas' low income residents.

Very much borne out the southern shot gun vernacular, this structure is all about utility and fulfilling basic [housing] needs. The Katrina Cottages (designed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, $30-100K each) share some of the same (albeit abstract) vernacular as the $20K House in a direct response to the problem of readily erected & affordable housing. After all, the lack of affordable housing is probably the single most under-reported and oft ignored socio-economic problem facing the US -- moreso than even health care or exaggerated threats to our national safety. (The US housing market should undergo further, perhaps even more dramatic corrections in the months head, imo. But I digress..)

The students & faculty have briefly documented the project, posted photos on the process, etc., on a blog devoted to the project. Surf over to Auburn's School of Architecture to read and hear more about the $20K House. Also, Public Radio has done a piece featuring this project entitled , "The Architecture of Decency",
(airing November/Dec.). Visit to hear the broadcast (mp3 format).

I'd like to see the ledger on the cost for this particular project, as the number of workers and the time invested if calculated at fair market (or even minimum wage) seems as though it would have pushed the true cost well beyond $20K --even adjusted for regional cost differences. (Info & photos on the blog suggest that about 40 or so people have contributed their work, money and/or time to the project.)

Perhaps RS will publish a data accounting and a more detailed outline of costs, labor supplied, man hours, challenges, etc. Publishing that data would prove far more useful than keeping it limited to the interested participants and sponsors. I mean, if you are really concerned about affordability, you help others make affordable housing a reality in other communities by sharing data, methods, experiences. Otherwise, you create the proprietary mess that surrounds the human genome industry.


Lindsay Butler said...

I only respond to this blog because it is the first result when one searches "$20K house" on google. Just to clarify about the post: the house pictured is technically a $32K house. It is approximately one and a half $20K houses, resultant of the observed multi-generational living arrangements in the area. And no, the projects are not quite at cost yet. The $20K target is based on a government loan program. No loans have been issued because the program stipulates that a model first be established. Thus, the Rural Studio continues to investigate the $20K model, and hopes to make it a reality. Version #8 is currently underway; only one of the previously built $20Ks is nearly feasible within budget and time constraints. And this is a $20K contractor-built house, meaning roughly $10K in materials. As for data on the project, there certainly is detailed accounting for all projects completed as each student team is required to compile a book on their work, but it is the policy of the Rural Studio not to self-publish anything. The Rural Studio has worked closely with another housing resource group in Hale County called HERO on the $20K project. Beyond that the Rural Studio participates when invited to conferences and lectures. While affordable housing has become a recent focus of the Rural Studio, the stated objective remains the education of architecture students. The following is a link to the current $20K blog: $20K8

Charity said...

I want to respond to this blog because I have been a participant in the rural studio building the most recent 20k house. Your comments about donated materials, time, etc. are understandable, but I think you are confused about the process of the 20k. If materials are donated, the actual price is still calculated in the budget-EVERYTHING is given a price tag and put into the extensive budgets we keep during the project-all is accounted for. It does take more time and labor for students to build the house because they have no prior construction experience (usually), but ask a general contractor and he/she will tell you they could build the current version of the 20k house in 3 weeks or less. I encourage you to go look at the current 20k blog as Lindsay suggested.

Shanty Minister said...

Charity, you miss the point of my inquiry in the post. As an architect with 24+ years of experience, I'm not "confused" about the construction process -- not even when the materials are donated in a student lab. Yes, there are many costs involved in any project.
No one doubts the students' commitment to the process, nor the issues the Rural House project raises.

In my experience, retail costs (for an average market rate dwelling) often lean toward a 65/35 split-- where 65% of the cost is in the LABOR (market rate, trade grade), and 35% of the (market rate retail) cost is in the materials. Obviously, this ratio varies by region, context, etc.

Charity, in a real-cost market, the builder has overhead costs, insurance, payroll, training, transportation, advertising, taxes and a series of other real-world costs the Rural House project may not have had to include (in its costs). That is why the exercise of being able to assess the cost metrics matters.

And in case no one noticed, the housing crash of 2008 was partially about the over-pricing of low quality housing. (It's not just about mortgage/bank greed. Contractors, realtors, developers played their roles too.) The pre-2008 Housing market was an unsustainable model of a different kind.

The problem with pricing a $180K house for $400K, is that it still performs like a $180K house. It's only after the destruction has created a weak economy, do (some) people begin the analysis. (Some of us predicted the housing bust.)

Any architect fully understands that student or apprentice labor is not as efficient (time wise) nor in execution as journey level work. That was not my concern, nor is it an indictment of the good work the school and students have accomplished with the Rural Studio. In no way was I trying to diminish the work put in by the students.

But Charity, you rightly point out that student labor affects costs. The point is how do we get to a point where affordable methods, materials and reasonably priced labor produces reasonably priced structures? (I have some ideas on how to get to a more stable price structure that I will post later on this blog.) Contractors, developers & realtors are not interested in "fairness", philanthropy, benevolence, nor affordable housing. They are in the business of closing at the highest possible amount, and damn the societal consequences. But I digress...

As for the $20K label (Lindsay), that is something your school's PR engine (or blog author) created. The internet "wires" (and I) merely picked it up. It wasn't an amount (nor headline) I arbitrarily ascribed to the project-- for how would I have any way to know what the actual costs were?

Remember, I was asking the true cost. Obviously, I had suspicions about the accuracy of the claim.

If you have read any of my other posts on this Blog, you'd know that I feel (know really) that contractors over-charge the public. SO GETTING "PRICE" INFORMATION OUT TO THE PUBLIC IS ACTUALLY, IN MY OPINION, ALMOST AS VALUABLE AS THE Rural House DESIGN CONCEPT ITSELF.

There is so much spin and lying by contractors and developers, that the public thinks a 2400 SF house w/ cheap shingles, 2x4 walls,a cheap forced air heating system and vinyl windows is worth $450K. THAT WAS MY POINT. Frankly, it's the point of this blog: to inform people that a vinyl sided 2x4 house is not worth $425K.

Perhaps your architecture professors will weigh in.