$20k House Myth

I have been following (and believing in) Auburn University’s Rural Studio program since I saw Sam Mockbee speak here at the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in ’99 or 2000, shortly before he died.  Later, the filmmakers who produced Citizen Architect were here for a showing, more recently Andrew Frear gave a presentation on current Rural Studio projects.  Particular attention was given to the $20k house, which promises to build small affordable houses for low income people.  All of this is unassailably noble.

Recently, I started designing a small house for a friend, and the talk turned to the $20k house.  Evan and I had both attended Andrew’s lecture, and came away thoroughly impressed with the caliber of work being produced there.  Then, we started crunching numbers, and soon realized that there is no way that the $20k houses can be produced, much less marketed for $20,000.  Not even close.


“A contractor building 20K Houses for 800 people under a rural development grant would put $16 million into the local economy. Financing would come from a commercial mortgage or a Department of Agriculture rural loan program. We figure that since we design 20K Houses so that they can be built in three weeks, a contractor could build 16 houses a year. Assuming a workforce consisting of a contractor and three workers for each house. The contractor would earn $61,000 a year and the workers $22,200 (based on
 a wage of $11.57 per hour, well above the current minimum wage of $7.25).”  

Articles in Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic are headlined with the announcement that the $20,000 house is soon to be a widespread reality, Rural Studio will be offering the plans for sale.  There are some minor caveats about the possibility that cost of labor will raise the cost.

“…labor costs will be higher when students aren’t building the houses...”


“The $20K Project involves architecture students developing a range of home plans and prototypes that can be built by local contractors under the USDA’s Rural Housing Service Section 502 Guaranteed Rural Housing Loan Program for construction and homeowner financing.

The Outreach students are embedded in the Thesis Studio and work to further the 20K House. One of the most challenging of all Rural Studio projects, it deals with the question: what kind of house can be designed for $10,000 in materials when the other $10,000 goes for labor costs and profit? This internationally competitive application process only accepts four students each year.

The program is a two semester professional residency for holders of a bachelor’s degrees wishing to participate in the Rural Studio. Participants are admitted and enrolled as outreach students in the non-credit experiential certificate program. Upon successful participation in the program and all related activities, outreach students receive a certificate of completion

Due to the nature of the program, most financial aid programs are not applicable to help with tuition assistance.  Government subsidized loans, fellowships, research grants, and other similar funding programs have not been a successful resource for helping provide tuition assistance due to semantic details.”    Eric Schmid (Outreach student)


The entire thesis (at least so far as it’s been explained to the public) rests on the totally unfounded assumption that in three weeks those three phantom workers are going to build one of these houses under the competent leadership of the equally phantom contractor.  Who are these workers?  Where are they?

This is custom building we’re talking about.  Small houses require more attention to detail, and cost per square foot is relatively higher because features like entry doors, bathrooms, and kitchens are a larger proportion of the package.  A builder whose construction crew has all the skills to build out an entire house is rare these days.  General contractors spend their time driving and talking on their cell phone, the actual work being performed by sub-contract labor (not employees).

Here in Arkansas (and most of the South) masonry, framing, roofing, drywall, painting is the province of marginalized workers.  General contractors, and the licensed trades, plumbing, electrical, HVAC are predominantly white men with an attitude of entitlement.  Amplify that for the profession of architecture, which is pretty much defined by whitemaleness and privilege.


Please read closely:
The $20k houses that they have built have cost significantly less than $20,000.
How’s that?
Materials are donated (RS is 501c3) student work isn’t compensated.
Students are paying for the privilege (looks really good on a resume).
2014 students raised $250,000 on social media, specifically for the $20k house project. It’s pretty high visibility.
Iterations #1 through #9 were 350-500 square feet. According to the article, one house has been appraised at $40,000 which looks like market value to me.

What I am questioning is the singular assumption that a 4-man crew can consistently build these small custom houses in three weeks. There is absolutely no proof (that is the only calculation I have seen: it’s on the website, in the magazine article, and Andrew Frear used the same numbers last fall when he spoke here) but everything is based on that calculation. (originally it was 10k materials/10k labor, later adjusted to 12k materials/8k labor) His calculation was apparently derived from the $20,000 mortgage target.  If there is a spreadsheet, I haven’t been privy to that information.

Meanwhile, the current design iteration has grown to a bit over 1000 square feet, and they are still calling it a $20k house, making the express claim that they (or this mythic contractor and crew) can actually build these houses for $20,000.

Now, Auburn intends to offer the plans for sale. Looks to me like they have branded and trademarked an idea; and even though it’s obvious that a $20k house will cost significantly more than $20,000 they’re going to run with it anyway.

Is this a social justice movement, or a marketing campaign?

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About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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One Response to $20k House Myth

  1. Pingback: Remarkable | michaellangforddotorg

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