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tiny home 20k project

The $20,000 Tiny Home Dubbed the 20k Project

By Maria Saxton Ph.D.
Nov 21, 2019

Tiny homes have become increasingly popular in recent years. They provide an opportunity for people to learn the ins and outs of a building, but on a small scale. At every educational level, tiny home builds have become a popular hands-on project for students to learn the design and build process of a home. 

In the world of tiny homes at the university-level, none other is likely more well-known than Rural Studio’s 20k tiny home project. Rural Studio is a student-driven design-build program at Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Established in 1993, Rural Studio historically has a tradition of emphasizing recycling, reusing, and remaking of building materials. To date, Rural Studio has completed more than 200 projects in its surrounding community. 

A driving motivation behind Rural Studio’s work is the belief that everyone has access to quality, affordable housing. As such, they started the 20K research initiative to put this belief into action. 

“The 20K Home: A House for Everybody and Everyone.”

In 2005, Rural Studio set out with the goal of designing and creating a home that would cost $20,000 and take approximately three weeks to build. This proposed price included $12,000 for material costs and $8,000 for labor. The $20,000 goal had the intent of providing an affordable housing option to someone who may be on social security or similar financial assistance. With a 30-year mortgage of approximately $100/month, 20K was a comfortable goal to provide attainable housing for someone with a lower income. 

The first 20K home gained a lot of media attention and met the cost target. In iterative projects since, however, the 20K goal has been unachievable because project costs can be challenging to predict and can change drastically based on a home’s location. Variables like local permitting, material costs, labor costs, and other factors can depend mainly on a home’s location. In addition, material costs have risen substantially since the original project in 2005. Still, the 20K nickname has stuck, and Rural Studio is moving forward with plans to create affordable housing with a focus on quality and universal design. 

Currently, the 20K initiative looks at the total cost of homeownership— including the initial cost of one’s home and the associated ongoing costs of maintenance and operations. Every academic year, the Rural Studio students create a 20K home and donate it to a resident in need. This project allows their original goal of building a quality home for 20K to become more and more attainable, with each new iteration. 

The Original $20,000 Tiny Home 

The first $20K home built by Rural Studio was named ‘Elizabeth’s Home’ after the client herself. This project aimed to be adaptable to multiple sites and occupant lifestyles. The house was built on piers, allowing it to be flexible to sites with varying elevation changes. From an environmental impact point of view, this enabled the house to have less of a physical impact on the ground. In this part of Alabama, the soil drains poorly, and less obstruction means less of a drainage problem. 

shotgun tiny house
Photo Credit: HGTV Fixer Upper

The house itself is a shotgun-style design. Typical shotgun houses are laid in a straight line, and rooms are directly connected, eliminating the need for hallways and creating more efficient use of space. Shotgun houses are commonly designed with standard dimensions, which can reduce the costs of excess building materials. The porch itself was designed so that it could ‘slide’ to accommodate different parts of the house, following the theme of site adaptability. 

The Elizabeth House included two bedrooms to allow for flexible occupant lifestyles. This design decision means that the home could have served a single person, couple, or small family. If only one bedroom was required for the occupants, the other could be used as a guest room or converted into an office or other use. This helps to illustrate a design decision that considers multiple user types. 

Subsequent 20K Tiny Home Models 

Not all of Rural Studio’s 20K homes have been considered “tiny.” The smallest of their homes were built in 2008 at 396 square feet. According to the 2018 International Residential Code, a tiny house is a home that is 400 square feet or less. That said, however, this definition is often subjective and can extend to larger homes. As such, proponents of the 20K homes often consider them in the “tiny” range. 

In more recent 20K models, the studio has tested larger and expandable models to offer more flexibility and space for potential users. These iterative models almost always incorporate a porch space and nine- to 10-foot ceilings to allow for more air circulation and a more spacious interior. A handful of iterations have been ADA-compliant, as well.

Dave's revised home 20k
Photo Credit: Rural Studio

One of Rural Studio’s recent projects, the 22nd 20K home, was built in 2018. Called Dave’s Revised Home, it focuses on reducing utility bills and insurance payments. To do this, students ran energy consumption models and incorporated multiple energy-efficient designs. An improvement to Dave’s original home built in 2009, this newer model focuses on the building envelope and low-cost thermal comfort strategies. 

Moving Forward with the 20K initiative 

The 20K initiative seems to have a promising future. By creating partnerships with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, banks, insurance organizations, and others, they will have the ability to make a large-scale change on the affordable housing front. 

In their local community, Rural Studio finds clients by word-of-mouth. Their typical clients are often elderly and in need of quality housing that will suit their needs in the coming years. After homes are built for clients, they observe how the houses are used and inhabited. 

Although not all homes are made for under $20,000, this initiative showcases the importance of quality, affordable housing that can meet the needs of many while being environmentally-conscious. With each new iteration, the students learn more about building methods and occupancy behaviors. By making these projects scalable, the 20K initiative can reach others across the nation and address national issues of affordable housing. 

Design decisions like incorporating a small-footprint and using standard building material dimensions help to decrease the environmental impacts of these projects. With each new iteration, we can see how new design elements help inform the overall goal of providing quality housing that anyone can afford. Rural Studios’ 20K initiative is pushing the envelope in the affordable housing realm.   

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-23T16:48:03+0000
Maria Saxton

Article by:

Maria Saxton

Located in Roanoke, Virginia, Maria Saxton holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Design and Planning from Virginia Tech. She works as an Environmental Planner and Housing Researcher for a local firm specializing in Community Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Historic Preservation. Her dissertation explored the environmental impacts of small-scale homes. She serves as a volunteer board member for the Tiny Home Industry Association.