Case Study #5: 20K House Product Line

Joanne's House
Joanne’s House

Affiliation: Auburn University

Date of Project: 2005 – Present

Partners: The Rural Studio

Goal or Aim:  The 20K House project began in 2005 as an ongoing Rural Studio research project to address the need for affordable housing in Hale County, provide an alternative to the mobile home, and accommodate potential homeowners who are unable to qualify for commercial credit. The 20K House project gets its name from the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain.

Why Pursue this?: The 20K House project gets its name from the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain. The objective of the Rural Studio students is to design and build a model home that could be reproduced on a large scale by a contractor and built for $20,000. To date Rural Studio has designed sixteen versions of the 20K House.

Dave's House
Dave’s House

What were the key design considerations?:  The three homes in the 20K House Product Line have only one bedroom and measure around 500 square feet. They have big, overhanging roofs that protect the walls and houses from the Alabama sun. They also have tall ceilings so that the higher the ceiling is, the further away the real heat is as it rises. Natural cross-ventilation is key. Two of the houses in the product line (Dave’s House and Joanne’s House) have been appraised at upward of $40,000, mostly because of their efficiency of both materials and energy use.


What is the impact of the program?:  The program is currently figuring out how to make the projects more widespread and scalable:

“In the beginning, they were quite idiosyncratic, personality-based houses, and often quite experimental in form, shape, and materials,” Andrew Freear, director of Rural Studio says. In 2013, Rural Studio expanded the scope of each house, adding larger two-bedroom designs that it believes will allow families to be able to live in the houses. The studio has come up with three house designs that it is tentatively calling a “product line.”

Animal Shelter
Animal Shelter

“We can actually get out of the academic research realm and create a real product that can enable people to better their lives,” Freear says. “We’ve hired a manager to roll out the project. The biggest challenge is, how do you keep the price down? How do you keep a builder—if he knows it’s worth $40,000—from asking $40,000? Especially when we know you can make a decent living charging $20,000 to build one. How do you stop someone from reducing the material quality?”

Adapted from Rural Studio Website and

Sources: Rural Studio Website,

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