How the $20K Tiny House Design Could Upend the Home Construction Industry

A universal plan for making a house for $20,000 has run into problems with zoning officials and building inspectors.

📅   Wed September 28, 2016 - National Edition
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In January, after years of building prototypes, the team completed its first real world pilot project in Serenbe, an  upscale development outside Atlanta.
In January, after years of building prototypes, the team completed its first real world pilot project in Serenbe, an upscale development outside Atlanta.

At the University of Alabama, a group of architects and students are part of what is known as Rural Studio. For nearly a decade, they have been trying to design a Tiny House that someone living below the poverty line can afford but that is attractive enough to appeal to a wide variety of buyers. The goal is to keep the cost of the home under $20,000, including a living wage for the local construction team that builds it. A tall order? Absolutely, but Rural Studio thinks they have finally accomplished their goal.

In January, after years of building prototypes, the team completed its first real world pilot project in Serenbe, an upscale development outside Atlanta. In partnership with a commercial developer, it built two one bedroom houses. Materials for each house cost only $14,000.

“We're in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we're really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public's hands,” says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio. “Really this first field test was to find out all the things that we didn't know, and to find out all of the kind of wrong assumptions that we had made, and really find out how we had screwed up, honestly.”

He and his colleagues, plus the students involved over the years, have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the 20K Tiny House design to optimize both their function and price. The group has run into problems, however, with zoning officials and building inspectors. “The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they're really high performance little machines in every way,” says Smith. “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.”

The foundation of the Tiny House uses cantilevers, seesaw-like joists that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. But the design isn't in the usual guides that code officials consult, so the architects had to go back and explain how it worked. “There's a thousand and one things in the houses that are like that,” Smith says. “You'd never see them, the construction techniques, but the house is filled with them. Construction techniques that make the house not just less expensive, but actually makes it perform better than they normally would.”

To bring the 20K Tiny House to everyone else who wants to build one, the team realized they would have to create a detailed guide that explained everything from how to build each piece—with Ikea-like instructions—to how to educate local officials. “A traditional construction set basically tells a builder what to build,” says Smith. “And what we learned that we really need is what we've come to refer to as not a construction set, but really an instruction set that doesn't just tell what to build, but specifically how to build it and, even more important, why it should be built that way.”

To read the full article, visit Green Building Elements.