Rural Studio, founded in 1993, is a satellite school of Auburn University whose mission is to educate the “citizen architect”—to teach architecture students design and building skills along with the ethical and social responsibilities of the profession . To date, Rural Studio has completed about 120 private and public projects. Among these is the $20K House, a research project that aims to address the dearth of affordable housing in Hale County (in western Alabama) and represents a broadening of the school’s scope and potential impact. Forty percent of the region’s nearly 6,500 residents are eligible for federal housing loans, but few can manage loans over twenty thousand dollars; many, often elderly or disabled, live in trailers, whose value and quality depreciate precipitously. In an attempt to ameliorate this situation, every year since 2005 a new group of Rural Studio students has designed a house that can be built for twenty thousand dollars and is a potential model for low-income rural housing. So far nine designs have been drafted (one a year, except in 2007–08, when four were developed in tandem) and built by the students with help from their instructors.
Informed by their predecessors, the 2008–09 team has come closest to creating a viable prototype. After nearly a year of design development, client presentations, and critiques the house was distilled to the most elemental details, minimizing cost and accelerating construction time. Set on a pier foundation, the six-hundred-square-foot house—the home of Hale County resident David Thornton—is open inside except for a core that neatly encloses the bathroom and separates the bedroom from the rest of the space. The result is an airy, well-ventilated space suited for the extremes of Alabama’s climate. Dave’s House is the first $20K House built by a local contractor in real time, a step toward formalizing a repeatable model and a new paradigm for low-income rural housing.