Thursday, June 23, 2016

Auburn University architecture team makes tiny houses that are as chic as they are affordable

Co.Exist photo
Architecture students at Rural Studio, Auburn University's design-build program, have been working on a riddle of sorts for more than a decade: how do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want, while also providing living wage construction jobs?

After years of building prototypes, the team finished their first pilot project in the real world in January, Adele Peters of Co.Exist reports. They partnered with a commercial developer in the tiny town of Serenbe, Georgia, southwest of Atlanta, to build two one-bedroom houses, with materials that cost just $14,000 each, making their goal of a $20,000 home feasible.

Their goal was simple: to figure out how to bring the ultra-low-cost homes, called the 20K Home, to a broader market. Many cohorts of architecture students and their advisers have spent more than 100,000 hours tweaking each detail of the house to optimize both the function and the price, Peters writes. But the bigger challenge is fitting a house that's completely different than normal into the existing system of zoning and codes, how contractors do their jobs and even mortgages.

For example, the foundation of the house uses cantilevers, seesaw-like joists that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. But the design isn't in the usual guides that code officials consult, so the architects had to go back and explain how it worked. The team realized that in order to make 20K Homes accessible they would have to create a detailed guide that explained everything from how to build each piece—with Ikea-like instructions—to how to educate local officials, Peters notes.

Another hurdle has been financing. The homes in the pilot project will be owned by the community and shared with artists as part of a residency program. But in a typical case, when someone is buying the house on a limited income and can't afford to pay $20,000 upfront, banks won't finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money; a $100,000 mortgage costs a bank about as much as a $20,000 mortgage, Peters explains.

The project originally aimed for a house that would cost $20,000 in total, including construction; however, the team now believes that more money may be needed to provide a living wage for builders. They've rejected the idea of using factory-made prefabricated parts because one of the main goals is to create jobs. Still, whatever the final cost, it will be inexpensive, Peters notes. And if someone wants to construct it together themselves, it would cost less than $20,000.

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