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How a college architecture studio is tackling the affordable housing crisis

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Auburn’s famed Rural Studio seeks to share knowledge with partners across the nation to help design better, more affordable homes

Bobby’s House, one of the roughly 22 20K Homes built by students at Auburn’s Rural Studio. The design/build program has partnered with Fannie Mae to expand its reach nationwide.
Timothy Hursley

When Rusty Smith, associate director of the Rural Studio, first explained the program’s new initiative to promote affordable housing, he was initially hard to understand. From where he was calling, on the road in rural Hale County, Alabama, where Auburn University’s pioneering design-build program has created low-cost homes for the community for more than two decades, the cellular connection isn’t always reliable.

But, despite the occasional dropped call and static, Smith’s enthusiasm was clear. The Rural Studio will soon share its knowledge of economical, innovative, and sustainable residential architecture to partners across the country, hoping to make a dent in our serious affordable housing crisis.

As part of a program with Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage lender, and its Duty to Serve initiative, the Rural Studio will spend the next three years working with a number of national partners to expand its mission to create “beautiful, healthy, and resilient houses” for financially vulnerable homeowners. To support this collaboration, Auburn University has awarded the studio $1,275,000 to scale up its mission.

“This is a three-year test to learn and grow,” says Smith.

The mission for the three-year program is to work with fulfillment partners across design, construction, and financing industries to help increase the country’s inventory of affordable homes. Rural Studio is famous for its work on the 20K House, a variety of energy-efficient, inexpensive, and well-designed dwellings for rural homeowners designed to cost $20,000 or less. A hallmark of the influential design-build program is how students, who live and work in the community where the homes are built, gain a deeper understanding of their clients’ needs. Each of the 20K homes is even named after the owner.

Joanne’s House
Timothy Hursley

This partnership scales up that focus on outreach, interaction, and research. The Rural Studio will share designs and knowledge with a wide array of partners, including civic and faith-based groups, organizations like Habitat for Humanity, builders, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which runs affordable housing programs for rural America), as well as insurance companies and mortgage firms.

“Auburn’s program aims to find solutions in Alabama that can be applied nationwide,” said Michael Hernandez, a vice president of Fannie Mae, in a statement. “The support of their research effort goes to the heart of our affordable housing mission and complements our Duty to Serve initiative, especially when it comes to addressing the shortage of affordable housing in rural America.”

Looking at the widespread nature of the affordable housing challenge, Smith says it’s not just about better design, it’s about tackling the structural and financial barriers standing in the way of homeownership. Ideally, he says, by working with these partners and sharing knowledge, both the Studio and others can develop best practices and new concepts.

“We’re an architecture program, and we have no interest in scaling all over the U.S. and replicating our model of delivery,” says Smith. “That’s not what we do.”

Smith says the focus will still be mostly on rural areas, but this program will expand the studio’s impact, especially in the Southeast. He also says there’s been interest from more urban partners on adapting Rural Studio designs to function as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or coach houses.

Smith says one of the big goals of the collaboration is communication, and developing a deeper understanding of what affordability really means. It’s not just the upfront cost of a home that matters, he says. Since some of the main reasons people default on mortgages are spending emergencies tied to home expenses, such as unexpected utility or repair bills, sustainable construction is vital for low-income housing. As part of that mission, Smith and Rural Studio want to redesign construction documents to communicate important information about energy efficiency.

“To us, that’s what affordability means,” he says. “It’s about connecting the initial cost of the house to the lifecycle costs paid by the owner. How can better design smooth out those monthly expenditures?”

By the end of the three-year program, Smith hopes Rural Studio designers will have incorporated learnings from these collaborations into new home designs. The ideal result of this work would be the creation of a National Institute for Rural Prosperity, an even larger platform to help build affordable communities across the country.

“It’s going to take every approach right now to solve the affordable housing problem.” says Smith. “The fact that school teachers and firefighters can’t live in their community is a cultural problem, and it’s not just a Seattle or San Francisco problem. It’s an everywhere in America problem, and I just don’t think that folks get the sense of it.”