It's often assumed that a lack of affordable housing is an issue specific to city living. But rural areas can be just as unforgiving for those living below or hovering just above the poverty line. That's why one design program in Alabama is building small homes at a cost low enough for fixed-income residents to afford.
Auburn University's undergraduate architecture program, Rural Studio, has been building 550-square-foot homes for area residents since 2005. Including materials and labor, each house costs about $20,000 to build—a figure chosen because it was thought to be the maximum mortgage that a person living on Social Security could realistically pay off.
Rural Studio has been building the houses at a rate of about one per year for Hale County residents, 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line. But after having raised additional funds this December, the studio is on track to build eight new homes before April of this year. And it's in the process of turning its designs towards mass-market production.
"We see the 20K house as a moral obligation," said Rural Studio director Andrew Freear in his interview with FastCoExist. His hope is to finally evolve the "$20K House Project" into a "$20K House Product" that could service communities well outside of Alabama.
Though the designs are constantly evolving, Rural Studio's houses currently utilize passive cooling to keep energy costs low, and also feature a concrete safe room—which generally doubles as a closet or shower—for protection during tornadoes. The structures are meant to be a smarter alternative to mobile homes, which don't provide extreme weather protections and like cars, quickly depreciate in value.
Rural Studio's goals are in line with a similar program in Wisconsin. The nonprofit Occupy Madison is currently building 96-square-foot micro-houses for the city's homeless. Not only do the structures provide shelter for those in need, but they're eco-friendly and require just about $3,000 to build.
Architects are commonly thought of as professionals in service to the rich, but Auburn University's program is meant to foster "citizen architects"—professionals who believe that those living in poverty are equally deserving of great design.
Students also learn first-hand how their work can alter the lives of those around them. Rural Studio's Marion McElroy told USA Today, "We hit this moment where we have this product that really has a chance to make a difference in other people's lives."