The Rural Studio’s 20K House is so cheap and has such innovative design that it’s changing the entire housing systemfrom mortgages to zoning laws.
The goal: To figure out how to bring the ultra-low-cost homes, called the 20K Home, to the broader market. “We’re in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we’re really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public’s hands,”
Years of architecture students, and their advisors, have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the house to optimize both the function and the price. 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.
“The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they’re really high-performance little machines in every way,” says Smith. “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements. … We’re using material much more efficiently. But the problem is your local code official doesn’t understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit simply because the code officials didn’t understand it.”
The foundation of the house, for example, 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.
“There’s a thousand and one things in the houses that are like that,” he says. “You’d never see them, the construction techniques, but the house is filled with them. Construction techniques that make the house not just less expensive, but actually makes it perform better than they normally would.”
To bring the house to everyone else who wants to build it, the team realized 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.
In Serenbe, their first problem was a zoning issue: The houses were too small. (It’s a common problem for anyone trying to build a tiny home.) But they also realized there were numerous other issues, from dealing with insurance, to the bank. In the pilot project, the homes 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 the $20,000, banks won’t finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money.
“We provide the information to you, so that if you wanted to sort of self-service the house yourself, it is a house that with the right set of instructions, anybody who wanted to could build it,” Smith says.