May 20, 2014

Essential Innovations: Can These $20,000 Houses Save the American Dream?

Built in 2009 in Newbern, Hale County, Alabama. Dave’s House, a shotgun vernacular with gables over the short ends, derives from Frank’s House; monthly utility bills average $35.

Rural Studio builds brand new $20,000 houses in Alabama. "Rural Studio launched its affordable housing program in 2005.

We were eager to make our work more relevant to the needs of west Alabama, the Southeast, and possibly the entire country. We looked at the omnipresent American trailer park, where homes, counterintuitively, depreciate each year they are occupied. We wanted to create an attractive small house that would appreciate in value while accommodating residents who are unable to qualify for credit....Our goal was to design a market-rate model house that could be built by a contractor for $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and profit)—the 20K House, a house for everybody and everyone. We chose $20,000 because it would be the most expensive mortgage a person receiving today’s median Social Security check of $758 a month can realistically repay. A $108 monthly mortgage payment is doable if you consider other monthly expenditures. Our calculations are based on a single house owner, because 43 percent of below-poverty households in Hale County are made up of people living alone. That translates to a potential market of 800 people in our county..... So far Rural Studio has designed 12 versions of the 20K House. The houses that we build each year are academic experiments, given away to local residents in need. We find the clients for 20K Houses the same way we do for our client houses. We hear about people in need from mail carriers, church pastors, local officials, and others. In deciding who to choose, we trust our gut. Our clients are always down on their luck and often elderly, and our homes add immensely to their quality of life. As with our client houses, the 20K House instructors maintain strong relationships with the new homeowners. In order to improve the 20K Houses each year, we observe how our clients inhabit and use their new homes. Their homes, as with client houses, carry their names."

Built in 2008 in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama, Roundwood House was an experiment in building the structure of a small, affordable house with locally sourced loblolly pine thinnings. At 532 square feet, it includes a 110-square-foot porch.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at May 20, 2014 11:05 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

"trailer park homes, counterintuitively, depreciate each year they are occupied"

If you ever need to repair a trailer house you will understand why they go down in value. They are cheaply built with substandard materials.

Posted by: bgarrett at May 20, 2014 11:44 AM

Should be cheap to replace after the tornado.

Posted by: Vermont Woodchuck at May 20, 2014 11:48 AM

Just in time for tornado season.

Posted by: Fat Man at May 20, 2014 12:00 PM

The sepulchral laughter in the background, seeming as it does to have a Russian accent, is likely coming from the tomb of Ayn Rand.

What the hell is it with architects and unlivable designs? I live in a 200 sq. ft. cabin (which cost a very great deal less than $20K, but I’m a scrounger) and I’ve got a closet bigger than that one house’s kitchen. Where are the windows? I know Alabama gets (very) muggy, but have these people never heard of airflow? What happens when you can’t afford the power bill for the A/C? And if I wanted a tin box, I’d just buy a trailer. Much less work.

I’m tempted to channel a Firefly character: “You paid $20K for this, sir? On purpose?”

Listen to me, I’m bitching like a liberal. See what you’ve done? :)

Posted by: Joel at May 20, 2014 1:21 PM

Living on the edge of the Black Belt, I've seen a bunch of projects like this come and go for 50 years, ever since LBJ. They never seem to last long enough to do much good, and the natives can't seem to maintain whatever is put in for them. It's a sad area, much sadder than Appalachia in my opinion.

Posted by: BillH at May 20, 2014 2:02 PM

"We looked at the omnipresent American trailer park, where homes, counterintuitively, depreciate each year they are occupied."

Why on earth would they not? The land can get more valuable but the house gets worn down. There's nothing counterintuitive about that.

These homes might be 20 grand in rural Alabama but they'd be 150,000 in Manhattan - and not up to code.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at May 20, 2014 4:43 PM

As usual, this speaks to the liberal belief that people are homeless because they lack housing.

This is seldom true. What they *lack* is the ability to keep their shit straight for more than three or four days at a stretch.

As O'Rourke put it, things like this will never work because 45 percent of homeless are thieves who will tear out the plumbing and sell it, 45 are crazy people who will tear up the walls because the voices in their head tell them to, and the remaining 10 percent who might actually benefit from this are already being helped.

Posted by: DensityDuck at May 20, 2014 4:54 PM

Jay what's his name started this tiny home thing about 10-15 years ago and there has been an endless stream of wanna be's attempting to follow in his perverted footsteps.

Designing buildings is a mindset and cannot be bought at a college, either you have or you don't and at least 90% of those that think they have it, do not.

I am educated, have 30 years experience, have worked in ALL the trades at one point or another, and have designed in excess of 7,000 architectural projects.

These punx belong on a silly home show on TV for some to laugh at and most to ooh and aah over.

Lastly, designing small buildings is far more difficult than large ones because in the large one you count square feet but in the small one you count square inches, and ever inch counts.

Good design isn't expensive, it is priceless.
And rare.

Posted by: ghostsniper at May 20, 2014 6:12 PM

"....monthly utility bills average $35."

Some months are even less.
People should be arrested for writing shit like that.

Oh, and there's this little gem:

"....rural development grant...."

There ya go, self explanatory.


Posted by: ghostsniper at May 20, 2014 6:31 PM

Who knew that a sharecropper shack is the new desirable starter home? All it needs is 40 acres, a mule, a privy out back, some chickens, a lazy hound dog, and a passel of barefoot dirty-faced snot-nosed urchins, and the circle will be complete. Who knew, that our future is our past?


Posted by: John A. Fleming at May 20, 2014 6:43 PM

The problem is not lack of houses. The problem is lack of income.

Unfortunately, the low-skill jobs that used to produce income for the lower working class are mostly gone -- either moved overseas, automated, or filled by off-the-books illegal immigrant labor. And with Lord only knows how many million new "undocumented Americans" soon to be legalized, the latter trend is only going to continue.

The solution to the problem of the unemployable class is not obvious. The traditional solution (kill them off in war) can't be used because war is now just as highly automated as any other industry. Our armed forces are no longer defined by the masses of low-skilled gun-toters and truck drivers. Instead, our military forces consist of a relatively small cadre of high-skill technical types managed by a political elite and supported by civilian contractors. If we need mass in a given war, the National Guard supplies it. Today's military is a professional and technical trade; Gomer Pyle and Beetle Bailey need not apply.

My guess: more and more of the unemployables will become wards of the state via the welfare system. This will result in a sort of low-scale, constant warfare as the masses of bored, overfed EBT cardholders seek thrills, cash, and luxury goods to be had from preying on the employed. The State benefits by using these urban masses as an excuse to create domestic military "police" forces -- which will of course be used not against the urban masses, but only against those members of the employed class who balk at being exploited.

As time goes by, more and more members of the Employable Class will be replaced by automation. The result will be the Brazilification of the United States, with a tiny elite living in fortified islands of fabulous, machine-produced wealth while the rest of us scrabble to survive in a Hobbsean world of favelas and abandoned suburbs.

Endgame: the elites upload themselves and disappear. The technofortresses are overrun and crumble. Society resets itself to the Bronze Age, as warlords emerge from the favelas and compete for slaves, land, and valuable raw materials dug from the ruins of the cities.

So, how about those Red Sox, huh?

Posted by: Shibes Meadow at May 20, 2014 6:49 PM

Some of the structures are pretty cool. I like the Glass Church where car windshields are recycled to excellent use. Rural Studio seems like an interesting opportunity for arch. students to experiment with non-traditional materials and hyper-edited notions of shelter. It's a huge undertaking for them (team build), and a valuable learning experience. There's more to it then meets the casual eye. I like also the dynamic of kids who are earning a college education interacting with folks with minimal exposure to a formal education. The entire thing seems to be "a grace note" to me.

Posted by: DeAnn at May 20, 2014 7:49 PM

I am constantly appalled at how little people know about the most expensive thing they will ever purchase. DeAnn above is an example.

There's a reason 2x4 stick homes with 1/2" OSB and vinyl siding are so common. They are the least expensive, and are *off the shelf* items instantly available everywhere.

The minute you step outside the norm prices skyrocket.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for custom everything, but be advised, custom is demonstrably more expensive.

The smaller a home becomes the more expensive per square foot it also becomes. Inches count, square inches count 144 times as much.

The 2 biggest expenses in home building?
Land development, and core costs (plumbing, electrical, and mechanical). Labor costs as much or more than the materials.

Posted by: ghostsniper at May 21, 2014 4:28 AM

There is a need and this is one of the better designs I have seen. If it truely can be built that cheaply including labor and profit then this is a great idea. Her is the problem: In the cities around the country the government built many really nice housing developments. Had they been rented out to educated people for the going rental rates these somewhat utilitarian apartments would still be in use and would look great and undoubtedly decorated inside to fit the tenents taste. But they were instead "given" for free to people who neither appreciated them nor took care of them. Many of these developments had to be torn down mostly because the damage the tenents had inflicted on them made it impractical to repair and partly because the buildings had been so overtaken by criminals that police wouldn't even enter them. What makes anyone think that "giving" these homes to someone who values nothing will suddenly transform them into the kind of person who will value and take care of them. What we all need to understand is the welfare and the welfare society has destroyed America. Giving the poor money, food, housing, phones, cars, etc. devalues all of those things to them and they end up valuing nothing and demanding more. Let's stop "giving" things to people and allow them to fail and to decide to succeed or suffer for their failure. If that means a certain percentage of people choose to fail then so be it. Life will still be 100% better for those who choose to take on their responsibilities. Then they can get a job, pay their own bils and maybe even afford to buy one of these affordable homes.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at May 21, 2014 9:01 AM

GWTW, what do you do about people that simply will not fend for themselves?

"If you give a man something he will not appreciate it. If a man earns something he will cherish it. If you beat a man's ass with something he will respect and avoid you forever."
--gs, 2014

Posted by: ghostsniper at May 21, 2014 9:45 AM

Those look like some some nice cottages, or trailers, in a weekend park.

Come in after work on Friday, relax, light a campfire and have a couple of beers....

Posted by: Mikey NTH at May 21, 2014 9:11 PM

Shibes: I like your "Endgame: the elites upload themselves and disappear. The techno-fortresses are overrun and crumble. Society resets itself to the Bronze Age, as warlords emerge from the favelas and compete for slaves, land, and valuable raw materials dug from the ruins of the cities."

My futuristic and woefully impossible scheme: arm anybody and everybody, shut down welfare and any other "free stuff" programs and let the Darwin Principles prevail.

The wretches will mostly kill each other, eliminating that task, and as with any society since we lived in caves and ate raw meat the stronger and better will rise to the top. After several elimination rounds we'll be pared down to a population that will benefit from democratic rule. A rudimentary moral code will sort out the strong from the good.

Kind of like with Nature, if we just step back and let the natchull things happen it will all sort itself out. Estimated time required: fifty years.

Posted by: chasmatic at May 22, 2014 5:52 AM

90% of the military's are still very much neanderthal fodder. 7,000 rds of ammo were spent per killed enemy in Iraq - not a very good ratio. What if they didn't have access to those quantities, what would the outcome have been?

Chas: I agree, a serious culling is way over due.
The party of violence cannot handle what it dishes and would be soon eradicated, at least down to manageable levels, in the event that push comes to shove.

Those that can, do.
Those that can't, better get out of the way.

It's coming. Are you ready?

Posted by: ghostsniper at May 22, 2014 6:24 AM

Ghostsniper: There are people with low IQs who could be given productive work in the community. I have seen this work and it would cost less then welfare and lift up these people. There are or should be mandatory rehabillitation programs for drug users Including alcohol) whose habits cause them to commit crimes and are otherwise unable to function in society. There are mentally ill people who should get mental health care which for most/many will allow them to function. Additional support in the form of jobs much like what is provided for the low IQ people. This kind of assistance should be decided by and funded by state and local governments and charities. As for the rest of those who are now on welfare I have zero sympathy.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at May 22, 2014 8:02 AM

GWTW: I admire your ideals but I don't think they are attainable anymore. We are way past the point of no return and so far along the diminishing returns curve that scrapping social reforms and the persons dependent on them will be nothing more than collateral damage and will resolve as a net gain. Um, think of it as a cancer or malignant virus.

BTW this is not too much info, just letting you know that I have an active cancer, Multiple Myeloma, and I may be faced with a decision where I would lose my leg and live or keep it ... and die. I will do what I have to do to live. So should we think about our Nation. The metaphor suggested was not flippant.

Posted by: chasmatic at May 22, 2014 12:30 PM

Chasmatic: I do feel like I am tilting at windmills. But a big part of the problem our country faces is because so many people grow up learning things that are not true and never hearing other things that are true. I am 70 and I can remember times in my younger life where I heard good advice and either followed it to my benefit or followed it years later also to my benefit. So I believe that sometimes planting a seed may take years to grow but that is not a good reason to not plant it. There are a lot of people in this world who believe something without any real idea why. The heard it or were taught it and therefore they believe it. So my comments were just my two cents worth in hopes it would make people think.
Nine years ago I had lung cancer. Luckily not the smokers kind of lung cancer but an operable type. They took out one of the lobes of my lung along with some rather large cancerous growths. Well 9 years later and my doctors have found it again and are prescribing another surgery. Open chest surgery is no fun but I'm out of good choices. I too will do what I have to do to live.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at May 22, 2014 4:19 PM


Yes, I also have some ideals but with all that is going on lately I am getting cynical and bitter about politics. My personal life is still positive. I'm good with God, have a strong wife, and I definitely do not sit on the couch whining. I am a winner. Seems so are you. Contact me on my blog if you want to chat further about, well, about whatever.

Posted by: chasmatic at May 22, 2014 9:48 PM

GWTW: I wish things were different, but I don't allow myself to dream to much.

In your first sentence is the word *give* and that undermines the whole thing. People have already been given things and they didn't appreciate them and destroyed them bringing them right back to where they started.

The only thing that should be given is choice.
To succeed or fail.

If they choose the former they enter the fold of the only achievable happiness on this earth, if the latter they should be banished so as to not become a dangerous example to others.

It's past time for everyone to put their big-boy boots on and act like adults.

A person can focus on opportunities or obstacles, successful and happy people choose the former, losers choose the latter.

It's all about choice.

Posted by: ghostsniper at May 23, 2014 4:29 AM

Yes I do recognize that I suggested we "give" people with low IQs a job. It does indeed go against my belief system as well. The problem is that people with low IQ are a problem for society. They need help, not total support from cradle to grave but some help. I do believe that there are some people in society that need help because of their IQ, mental deficiency or even because of chemical abuse. I think the assistance should be focused and effective in a way that encourages self sufficiency but not in a way that encourages dependency. I also believe that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to do this and that it can be best supervised at the lowest level perhaps down to individual communities. I would also prefer that it did not involve tax revenues or politicians.

Posted by: GoneWithTheWind at May 23, 2014 7:00 AM

"There are people with low IQs who could be given productive work in the community. "

Yes they could, if only if weren't illegal to pay them wages in line with their value.

Posted by: Bob Smith at May 25, 2014 12:41 AM

Shibes Meadow, I've never seen our probable future so neatly summarized. I'm saving a copy so I can quote you.


Al Zelaya

Posted by: Al Zelaya at May 25, 2014 5:57 AM

And when you figure in the costs localities add on such as access roads, parks, etc., what are the monthly Mello-Roos fees for your 20K home?

Posted by: Jim at May 25, 2014 8:34 PM