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Two weeks ago, I wrote about the LumenHaus, a small, energy-efficient tiny house prototype by Virginia Tech. With its very high-tech features, it’s a neat example, but its $450-650,000 price tag puts it out of the reach of most of us.

But another university group has been focusing on designing small houses with a much, much lower price tag. That’s the Rural Studio at Auburn University.

The Rural Studio is a long-running design-build program that does most of its work in rural Hale County, Alabama. The Rural Studio’s 20K House project has produced a series of houses, twelve so far, so named because they’re designed to be built for $20,000. While some have met this budget and others haven’t, they are all interesting examples of simple but well-designed dwellings.


Roundwood House. Photo credit: Rural Studio

Take, for example, the Roundwood House. Its designers wanted to explore building applications for “thinnings”, small-diameter timbers that are removed to encourage forest health but are too small to be milled into conventional lumber.

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Photo credit: Virginia Tech

The LumenHaus. Photo credit: Virginia Tech News

Every year, designers (and design students) are dreaming up new ‘prototypes’ for various types of buildings, from prototypes for disaster-relief to futuristic green homes.

Some of these prototypes are quickly forgotten (and often deserve to be). Others live on, and some even become highly successful. Marianne Cusato’s “Katrina Cottage”, whose models range from tiny to medium-sized, was a prototype for post-hurricane housing that is now a common sight along the Gulf Coast.

This week I start a four-part series on tiny house ‘prototypes’ that are outside the tiny house mainstream (if there is such a thing). None has yet become as common as the Katrina Cottage, but each has some important lessons to teach, about which I will ramble, philosophize, and generally fail to come to any clear conclusions. (You have been warned.)

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With the surge in interest in tiny houses, and the growth of a “tiny house community” online, there has been increased interest in the development of real-world tiny house communities.

Photo credit: Four Lights

Image credit: Four Lights Tiny House Company

Probably the most serious effort so far is the “Napoleon Complex” tiny house village being developed by Jay Shafer’s Four Lights Tiny House Company. It consists of 16-22 units per acre, with communal facilities including parking and a common house.

But people have many motivations for building tiny houses, and one model might not work for everyone. In this article, I talk about three general approaches to tiny house communities, and the pros and cons of each.

Rural life and tiny houses

For some tiny house builders, the countryside represents an escape from what they see as the overly restrictive requirements, and hectic atmosphere, of cities and towns.

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