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Small and Affordable: The 20K House Project

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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.

Turner’s House, the eleventh and most recent 20K House, was completed in the fall of 2012. It’s not a “tiny house”, but neither is it large: Like Goldilocks and the three bears, looking at the pictures, I can’t help but feel like it’s “Juuust right.”


Turner’s House. Photo credit: Rural Studio

A quote from the Rural Studio summarizes their mission — and its similarity the tiny house movement:

Nearly 30% of individuals in Hale County live in poverty. Due to the lack of conventional credit for people with this level of income, and insufficient knowledge about alternative sources of funding, trailers offer the only chance for home ownership. Unlike a house, which is an asset for its owner, trailers deteriorate very quickly and depreciate in value over time. 

The $20k house project intends to produce a model home that could be reproduced on a large scale, and thereby become a viable alternative to the trailer in this area. The challenge is to build a house for $20,000, ten to twelve thousand of which will go towards materials and the remainder on contracted labor. (Source: The Rural Studio blog).

The strength of the Rural Studio, in my view, is the great quality of design they achieve on very limited budgets.  That is truly “Design Within Reach”.

The Rural Studio is a great organization and you can learn more about them on the web; there’s also a great book, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, as well as a documentary, Citizen Architect, which are both worth checking out.

Next week we’ll get a global perspective and see some tiny house prototypes being built around the world.

This post contains affiliate links.

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Vincent Baudoin

Vincent Baudoin is a designer and builder with a background in public interest design, sustainability, and integrated design-build.
{ 4 comments… add one }
  • jodi kautz
    April 2, 2013, 6:18 pm

    Wow great idea! I work with numerous low income families and this would be awesome to see in Tucson, az. I saw something similar in Hawaii on the big island. Very cool.

    • Bill Burgess
      April 6, 2013, 3:23 pm

      I have a couple of designs on my web page that I was doing for Iron Mountain Homes there in Tucson. George was trying to convert to an Adobe style and was at the tip of quality construction as his factory is a very small volume system and quality control is number one. My goal is to build in the $50 per sq.ft. range with all the looks and quality looks that a $300 pr.sq.ft. custom home would have.

  • LaMar
    April 6, 2013, 4:36 pm

    I built my 14×14 solar cabin for under $2000 using conventional lumber and a few recycled doors and windows so there is no reason someone could not build a larger home for under $20,000.

    I do not like the looks of trailer homes and they are not well designed for climate control and a small well insulated permanent home would be better.

    There are lots of small home plans out there that can be modified to fit a persons needs and then use a material calculator to see what the materials will cost. If you can build it your self you save a ton of money but you can always hire a handyman carpenter or even a shed buillder to do the work.

    I am assuing there $20,000 does not include septic system which averages $5,000 or a water well that wil be over $4,000 or a lot more.

    Yo have to consider permits, septic, leveling, water and power installation in your costs and those alone can eat up $20,000 unless you do like I did and go off-grid with solar, wind, alternate composting septic and alternate energy like propane, NG or wood.


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