Revolutionizing Affordable Housing in Rural Alabama
In 1993, the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University launched Rural Studio with the goal of educating its students to be “citizen architects” by emphasizing the responsibility to design in a way that elevates people and the community. Program participants have completed more than 200 projects in underresourced communities in western Alabama’s Black Belt, designing and building small, affordable houses; chapels; civic buildings; and other community assets. In 2004, Rural Studio began the 20K Initiative to focus students’ efforts on creating single-family detached housing that keeps material and labor costs to an affordable minimum. That program and other research projects have yielded a body of knowledge that illuminates a scalable solution to the problem of housing affordability. The studio’s latest effort, the Front Porch Initiative, is working toward that goal with the help of several partners. Through housing designs refined from the 20K Initiative as well as novel financing mechanisms being developed with partners, Rural Studio aims to fundamentally shift models and practices for affordable housing.
The Heart of Affordable, Stable Housing
According to Rusty Smith, associate director at Rural Studio, efforts to build affordable housing generally adopt one of two strategies: reducing construction costs or subsidizing construction. The 20K Initiative explored the first strategy, challenging student teams to design and build a house for under $20,000 — roughly the amount someone living on Social Security could afford to finance through a mortgage. By repeating this assignment over several years, Rural Studio developed a set of replicable solutions to building affordably. For example, the student team refined the basic design of the 20K Initiative’s second project, “Frank’s Home,” to better standardize construction in “Dave’s Home,” built in 2009 as 20K’s eighth project. The team’s changes reduced labor costs, allowing it to spend more money on value-adding materials.
Rural Studio’s goal of keeping costs under $20,000 proved to be too ambitious, highlighting the limits of seeking housing affordability through reduced construction costs. As a result, instead of focusing on how to build housing affordably, the studio began investigating what housing affords people. Smith echoes the core belief of Rural Studio that housing should afford stability, health, and economic security for its occupants. With this new conceptual frame, Rural Studio began to consider the affordability of a house at the time of acquisition versus the affordance of stability and value creation over the long term. In the “Buster’s Home” project, completed in 2017, the design team replaced a wooden platform on concrete pier footings with an insulated concrete foundation. The slab acts as a thermal mass that makes the building more energy efficient, which reduces the likelihood of a destabilizing spike in energy costs; at the same time, this feature makes Buster’s Home more valuable and aids in wealth building. Similarly, well-crafted houses using high-quality materials can reduce unexpected maintenance needs and preserve affordability over time.
Even nonresidential buildings can affect people’s ability to access and afford housing. As an example, Smith cites the firehouse in Newbern, Alabama, a Rural Studio project that expanded the studio’s understanding of the complexity of housing affordability and the subtlety of housing affordance. The completion of the firehouse in 2004 meant that nearly 200 area residents had fire protection. Homeowners became eligible for insurance, and homebuyers became eligible for mortgages. By providing the opportunity for homeownership, the firehouse also increased Newbern residents’ access to one of the main sources of household wealth in the United States. In addition, as the first civic building to be constructed in Newbern in 110 years, the firehouse boosted civic life by hosting elections, council meetings, fundraisers, and community events.
Putting Learning Into Action at Scale
Rural Studio is adapting this perspective on housing affordability and affordance to seek ways to apply some of their built solutions on a regional scale. That is the objective of the Front Porch Initiative, which uses four of the houses built for the 20K Initiative, including Dave’s Home and Buster’s Home, as models that experienced builders could easily construct. The Front Porch Initiative’s models, which were developed in Alabama’s hot, humid climate, have also been built in Tennessee, Florida, and South Carolina. In one instance, working with affordable housing and construction partners brought Rural Studio’s work to an infill urban project in Nashville. For Front Porch Initiative projects, which are still being piloted, local Field Test Partners handle the bulk of the work on site while Rural Studio provides technical assistance. To understand how these houses work in people’s lives, Rural Studio gathers qualitative data from residents and project partners to refine the models further. For example, postoccupancy studies of previous Rural Studio houses showed that, regardless of a house’s square footage or intended circulation paths, occupants tended to place two couches in their living rooms, prompting a change in layout that made its first appearance in Buster’s Home.
Rural Studio is also expanding the scale of its work by improving affordability through new financing mechanisms. Fannie Mae, with guidance from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), is working with Rural Studio to develop mortgages that cover additional building costs for increased building performance without increasing the owner’s total costs. Smith describes how this works in terms of energy efficiency. Adding an energy-saving feature to the house might save a homeowner $25 per month in energy costs. By allocating the $25 to servicing their mortgage, the owners could afford $5,000 for sustainability improvements without affecting their monthly budget. To help determine the appropriate design features in the houses, Rural Studio has developed a computer model to quantify the features’ effects on energy use, which mortgage lenders can use to calculate value.
At its core, Rural Studio’s mission is about closing the gap between knowledge and action, demonstrating the unique experimental work that affiliation with a university can offer. This guided the efforts of Rural Studio’s citizen architects in designing and building one-off houses that address a discrete design issue. The Front Porch Initiative has reconceptualized affordable housing by creating models that can be used throughout the South. By building partnerships, Rural Studio’s efforts are expanding, even, perhaps unexpectedly, into some urban areas. By exploring what housing affords, Rural Studio is building new partnerships with local housing providers and builders, research institutions, and national organizations — such as Fannie Mae, FHFA, and the National Institute of Building Sciences as well as the U.S. Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development — that create more opportunities to provide affordability. If the problems of housing affordability are to be fully addressed at a large scale, Smith advocates turning away from asking what the costs of building are and toward what the costs of inaction will be.
For additional information on the Auburn Rural Studio and related design programs to reduce the cost of housing, see this Edge feature article.