By the Book
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By Miyoko Ohtake / Published by Dwell
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This modern log cabin from architecture students at Auburn University was designed to be completed for $20,000—an admirable solution for the down-at-heel looking to put down roots.

In the 19th century, architectural pattern books brought design (albeit primarily neoclassical and Greek Revival) to the masses. Equipped with a basic skill level and these instruction manuals that came complete with plans and renderings, builders from New York to New Orleans could create facades of Ionic columns and decorative cornices.

In the United States, design-build programs are gaining ground not only as the way to run an architecture practice but as a method by which to teach the trade as well. Auburn University is a frontrunner of this school of thought. In 1993, the university launched the Auburn University Rural Studio, housed in the School of Architecture. The goal of the design-build program is to pass on professional design wisdom to the next generation of architects while developing strategies and making real efforts to improve the conditions of those living in rural Alabama.

Through its $20K House project, launched in 2004, Rural Studio has tasked students with designing and building prototype homes that could be replicated by local builders for $20,000. Why $20K? The project grew from the idea of building housing for low-income individuals who qualify for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 502 Guaranteed Rural Housing Loan, which the $20K House project directors were originally told was available starting at $20,000 though later learned it has no minimum. "What baffled us," says Rural Studio director Andrew Freear, "was that this money was available for people to build themselves a home but when push came to shove, there wasn’t an approved model for that minimum figure; the least expensive approved design required an $85,000 loan—-and that seemed pretty steep to us. The goal of the project is to clarify what one could achieve for $20,000."

Photo by

Ty Cole

Auburn University Rural Studio’s $20K House project is the architectural pattern book’s modern-day counterpart. The project challenges students to design and build homes for $20,000 or less. The goal is that builders will eventually replicate these prototypes for hopeful homeowners who live below the poverty line and thus qualify for a federal rural development loan.

In 2008, students Drew Coshow, Robert Douge, Abigail Grubb, and Steven Ward designed the Pattern Book House. The name was inspired by pattern books that were popular in the 1800s and outlined how to build design details, from columns to cornices. With such a book in hand, any construction worker equipped with basic building skills could construct facades straight out of ancient Rome or Greece, which were the styles most often offered in these publications. Similarly, the eventual goal of the $20K House program is that a small team of builders with printouts of one of the $20K House plans will be able to build a home in a few days without any additional assistance or instruction.<br><br>Photo by <br><br>Ty Cole

In 2008, students Drew Coshow, Robert Douge, Abigail Grubb, and Steven Ward designed the Pattern Book House. The name was inspired by pattern books that were popular in the 1800s and outlined how to build design details, from columns to cornices. With such a book in hand, any construction worker equipped with basic building skills could construct facades straight out of ancient Rome or Greece, which were the styles most often offered in these publications. Similarly, the eventual goal of the $20K House program is that a small team of builders with printouts of one of the $20K House plans will be able to build a home in a few days without any additional assistance or instruction.

Photo by

Ty Cole

In 2008, students Drew Coshow, Robert Douge, Abigail Grubb, and Steven Ward designed the Pattern Book House. Nestled in a wooded area of Greensboro, Alabama, the house is a log cabin for the 21st century that harks back to the how-to books of yore both in name and with its own building manual, currently in the works.
 

The first step to making plans for a $20K House available to builders is finding a design that work. Like the three $20K House projects built before theirs, the student team behind the Pattern Book House worked together to present a prototype of what such a home could look like. &quot;There had been some community backlash to some of the previous prototypes,&quot; Grubb says. &quot;We wanted to design something that the community would accept.&quot; To that end, they used a rain screen on the exterior walls to mimic siding on the area's traditional homes and chose cedar, as opposed to corrugated metal like other teams had done, so the locals could “compare it to a honey shed,&quot; Grubb adds.<br><br>Photo by <br><br>Ty Cole

The first step to making plans for a $20K House available to builders is finding a design that work. Like the three $20K House projects built before theirs, the student team behind the Pattern Book House worked together to present a prototype of what such a home could look like. "There had been some community backlash to some of the previous prototypes," Grubb says. "We wanted to design something that the community would accept." To that end, they used a rain screen on the exterior walls to mimic siding on the area's traditional homes and chose cedar, as opposed to corrugated metal like other teams had done, so the locals could “compare it to a honey shed," Grubb adds.

Photo by

Ty Cole

The students also attempted to appease residents by making their home "of the area." They based the design on vernacular shotgun houses and bought the cedar siding as off-cuts from a local lumberyard, which totaled $120.

Photo by

Ty Cole

Grubb and her classmates designed a double-roof system for improved ventilation. The exaggerated overhang protects the home and its residents from the elements.<br><br>Photo by <br><br>Ty Cole

Grubb and her classmates designed a double-roof system for improved ventilation. The exaggerated overhang protects the home and its residents from the elements.

Photo by

Ty Cole

The Pattern Book House is a modest 292 square feet in size. "We were going for quality over quantity," Grubb says. "We were able to make it feel bigger than it is with the vaulted ceiling and the up-lighting."

Photo by

Ty Cole

After the house was completed, Rural Studio sold it to a local resident who qualified for the 502 loan, though the cost to her was only that of the land. The 22-year-old nursing school graduate now calls the Pattern Book House "home."

Photo by

Ty Cole

Rural Studio’s hope is that within the next couple years, it’ll be able to begin testing some of the $20K House prototypes with local builders. "We’ll have a contractor take the model, build it, and tell us what was smart, how we could make it less expensive, and so on while at the same time employing people to build the homes, bringing money to the economy, and giving others affordable housing options," Freear says. And to make it easier, the students who were behind the Pattern Book House-—Coshow, Douge, Grubb, and Ward—-are hoping to soon complete a pattern book to accompany the design.

Photo by

Ty Cole

Miyoko Ohtake

@miyokoohtake

When not writing, Miyoko Ohtake can be found cooking, training for her next marathon, and enjoying all that the City by the Bay and the great outdoors have to offer.

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