Rural Studio 20K House | Update

April 14, 2011 — 9 Comments

I have asked my friend Eric Schmid to provide us with an update on what’s happening with the $20K House. The amount of time they have spent discussing a house that will be built for so little money is staggering – but it’s also a testament for how important this process is as a learning tool (not to mention how it will impact the lives of many people). If you would like to see the first post on Life of an Architect that introduces the 20K House Rural Studio you can find it here. At the end of Eric’s update, I have included a few of my favorite entries from the 20K House blog.


Rural Studio Houses


The $20K House is an ongoing research project at the Rural Studio that seeks to address the pressing need for decent and affordable housing in Hale County, Alabama. 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. Once a truly successful model has been designed, the aim is to sell the houses in conjunction with the “502 c Direct Loan” provided by the Rural Housing Service.  The project began in 2005, and there have been 9 iterations of the house so far.  The project is typically carried out by four outreach students; international post-graduates with a background in architecture or design.

The $20K House has the real potential to improve living conditions of Americans in the rural South.  We see that 26% of the residents of Hale County, Alabama live below the poverty line, which is more than twice the national average.  This is not an uncommon occurrence for rural counties across the South.  The only affordable house ownership option for residents in the area is used mobile homes.  Mobile home, much like cars, decrease in value over time; which is an unhealthy financial liability.  Not only is the $20K house an affordable homeownership option for clients, but it is also a profitable venture for contractors to build.

20K Rural Studio Team 2010

20K House Team 2010 includes (l to r) Eric Schmid, Jacob Beebe, Erika Henriksson, and Sandra Yubero


This year’s team; a Swede, a Catalan, a Floridian, and an Oklahoman (that’s me) are currently working on the tenth iteration of the project.  This is a very difficult project to try and explain in just one blog post, but I will try my best to illuminate why we are doing this, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed.

Just a couple of days ago the four of us where duking it out, trying to agree on a kitchen layout with Andrew Freear (Rural Studio Director) Danny Wicke ($20K instructor) and Xavier Vendrell (Rural Studio Consultant).  After about an hour and a half of cyclical conversation Andrew Freear muttered, “Never before has so much been said about something that costs almost nothing.” While it could certainly be viewed as an insult to our over-eager over-analysis, I took it as the highest of compliments.  The biggest strength of the $20K House is the fact that very few, if any, architects can compete with the time the studio has dedicated to solving a very difficult design challenge.   In all honesty, architecture firms cannot afford to design an affordable house to the level of detail that the Studio has been able to achieve in the previous six years.  So the easiest answer for why we do this is: “if we don’t do it, who will?”

We have spent the previous seven months designing, debating, drawing, discussing, disagreeing, drinking, and discussing some more (which leads to more drinking).  The house is only a little over 500 square feet; therefore, we get the opportunity to draw every detail, a lot.  When I say a lot, I mean it.  Every drawing is simultaneously connected to the materials budget and all design decisions are based not only on aesthetic but also time and ease of construction.  Since we are the designers and the construction laborers we get the opportunity to really understand ever screw we will install on the house.  This attention to detail is crucial in maintaining the budget, which coincidently plays a major role in prioritizing the design of the house (the name of the project is the budget of the project).


$20K Rural Studio Construction Starts

Now that we have agreed enough on the design to start construction, the real fun begins.  Over the course of the next two months we will be testing the feasibility of constructing the house.  We are by no means specialized laborers, and despite our lack of construction knowledge we should be able to build the house in less than two months.  This fast pace is crucial to help the contractor actually turn a profit on the project in the future.  While it will most likely take us seven to eight weeks of build time, a real contractor with knowledgeable laborers will be able to complete the house somewhere between three and half to four weeks.

I know that most highbrow architects will likely scoff at the house’s domesticity.  We are more than happy to open a conversation regarding perceived disconnects between architectural style and client need.

If you want to follow a group of architecture students as we try to figure out how to design and most importantly build a house for $20,000, without going to the emergency room, check us out at the $20K Rural Studio blog.



Life of an Architect is a big fan of what these young architects-in-training are doing. This is one of the blogs that I check in on without fail so I thought I would provide some links to some of my favorite post entries from this years $20K house blog. They are interesting, entertaining and almost always enlightening.


The Square Plan

Rural Studio the Square Plan




What’s so important about a porch?




Neufert? That’s a weird word…

20K House Neufert study




Eric Schmid Frankenstein



$20K Home Criteria (Efficient)

$20K House David's House.


I hope you will take some time to go look at the work that the $20K Rural Studio is doing. It’s meaningful, it changes people’s lives, and it shows the power of architecture and how it can affect an individual and a community.

Thanks – and have a great day.


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  • Anonymous

    I am a retired Army Col. with 17 acres of properly zoned property in south east Columbus, GA that I am considering developing into a Veterans/Active Duty “subdivision”-close to Ft. Benning. A possibility would be to commit all or part of it to disabled veterans housing-different design parameters. Would you Auburn folks be interested in joining the TEAM?

    Bob Clark

    • ShannonSzukala

      If this happens let me know.

  • I was a big fan when you introduced Eric last summer and love the follow up and will be following the blog. I still have those 12 acres in the Oregon Coast Range that need some place to keep me out of the rain!

  • George M. Blackburn, AIA

    I like the concept, but I wonder about the real cost. A cost schedule for labor and materials for the different plans would be interesting to see. I also wonder about the exterior enclosure design for the air, thermal, and water barriers and what materials are used.

    • E_schmid

      We have a very thorough breakdown of the cost estimates before construction for our house, as well as the final construction budgets for the previous two iterations. I would love to talk to you about it with you if you wish. We can be emailed at

      Regarding the wall design, in the fastest way possible. We use 2×6 construction for exterior walls, this provides the opportunity for us to provide studs 24″ o.c. as well as provide depth for R19 insulation. We utilize taped seams house wrap as an air barrier, and our model will be finished on the exterior with corrugated metal siding. While the wall construction could be more efficient by using structurally insulating sheathing with taped seams or rigid insulation with taped seams over the sheathing, it is imperative for us to balance between performance and cost. This system has been successful for us so far.

      Like I said earlier if you want to chat about anything else we are pretty friendly people and only the Swedish one bites.

      • thanks for responding to George’s question Eric.

        This goes for anyone who is reading this – Eric and the rest of the 20K House Studio would love to field your questions. They spend a lot of time working through their process and undoubtedly can let you know what their specific reasoning was for every gesture they make.


  • E_schmid

    It appears that the link to our blog is broken. You can check out the 20k blog here at :

    • I think this counts as double dipping … very clever.

      Now get back to work!

  • Wow, that’s enthusiasm and idealism put to practical use! yay, young archis! I think these homes will be way nicer than the mobile homes, and without the social “looks down nose” that can go with it. Best wishes as you continue your quest.