Reanna Martinez

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The $20,000 House

The $20,000 Home by myCAREexpert
The $20,000 House by myCAREexpert


Rural Studio students have been perfecting a series of radically affordable, well-designed 550-square-foot houses for nearly a decade.


How do you design a comfortable home that someone living below the poverty line can afford?  Rural Studio has spent decades pondering this problem and testing prototypes.  In January, the team finished their first pilot project in the real world, building two one-bedroom houses, with materials that cost just $14,000 each.

Tim Hursley 1

Sam “Sambo” Mockbee founded Rural Studio in 1993, centered around “social justice architecture.”  Initially, architecture students would use reclaimed wood and other materials to design houses for low-income residents of Hale County. 

House 1

In 2005, Rural Studio started making the 20K house, based on the calculation that $20,000 was the total cost of housing someone living on Social Security could afford to pay in monthly mortgage installments.  Since then, students have built dozens of houses for their rural neighbors, with each design building off the knowledge and real-world experience of the last.

Years of architecture students and their advisors have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the house design to optimize both the function and the price.  The foundation, for example, uses cantilevers – seasaw-like joists – that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would.  The team is working to complete the “Instruction Set,” much like IKEA or DIY instructions, that tells the builder not just what to build, but specifically how to build it, and why it should be built that way.


But finalizing the design and building plan is just one of the hurdles.  To bring the house to everyone else who wants to build it, the team realized they face some challenges with local planning and zoning regulations, as well as traditional mortgage requirements.  In some counties, the house is just too small for local zoning ordinances.  Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio added, "The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they're really high-performance little machines in every way.  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."


It may also be challenging to get a loan for 20K home.  A mortgage for a $100,000 house costs the bank about $2,300.  But a mortgage for a $20,000 house also costs about $2,300.  Typically, when someone is buying a house on a limited income, banks won’t finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money.  "The most daunting problems aren't brick and mortar problems, they're these network and system problems,” said Smith.


The team is working to address these problems, and once they have a final “Instruction Set” ready, they plan to share it with anyone who wants to use it.  The ultimate goal of the project is to give it away.

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0 Responses

  1. For the cost of 20.000$ these houses look quite decent, compared to what the same amount money would normally buy you. What remains to be seen is how these house are going to be tested against various weather conditions, because I imagine there will be requests from all over the world…and even across the USA, where the climate can change drastically.

    1. These kinds of houses are also gaining popularity in communities that are combating homelessness. They’re cheap and easy to build, they’re sturdy, and having a home of their own really empowers people. Other countries are indeed looking at this as a model for their own work.

  2. This would be ideal for after you retire and the kids move out.. Have a tiny house built out in the middle of no where, pay the $15000 outright for materials, and never have to worry about housing anymore.

  3. This is a novel project that deserves government attention. The tiny homes trend has been going in for a while and this $20,000-home design will definitely benefit financially-challenged people who want to have a decent and at the same time affordable home. Understandably, local regulatory officials are concerned about the structural soundness and suitability of the house. I do hope that the Rural Studio will be able to work this out.

  4. Well, I actually think that 20k bucks is a lot for me, however, since you all say it’s a cheap house budget, seems like it’s kind of a good deal then. That house looks really comfortable and relaxing though.

  5. I love this idea. Hopefully officials in charge of zoning can understand these plans a little better so that more people who need them can build them.
    I wonder if Rural Studios will try and design some slightly bigger houses. I’m sure there are people who need a two bedroom house that would love to have a low cost house like this!

  6. Those are really cool houses, design-wise and vibes. My only concern is that they seem to be made from light materials – no wonder they’re affordable. It’s not a bad idea to live in those houses particularly if you’re single or have a small family. However, your security may be compromised. In times of bad weather or natural disasters, the materials might not be able to stand a chance. On the brighter side, if such houses were to be built in areas where natural disasters hardly strike, then they may continue to stand the test of time (but maybe less than half a century).

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