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Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

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A 308 sq.ft Katrina Cottage can be delivered for $70,000 including construction. That works out at $227/sq.ft.   

The affordable IVRV House designed by SCI-ARC students for a low-income Los Angeles neighbourhood was constructed for $200,000 ÷ 1,185 sq.ft = US$165/sq.ft.  

The 2015 house designed by Yale architecture students as part of the Jim Vlock Building Project was 1,000 sq.ft and had a budget of $130,000 – excluding labour which was provided by students. Assuming labour at 60% of the cost-in-place, that’s $217/sq.ft. (*1)

The ÁPH80 transportable house by Madrid firm ÁBATON offers 291 sq.ft of living space and sells for €32,000 (US$40,000) which is $138/sq.ft. 

Diogene by Renzo Piano Workshop is 81 sq.ft. and sells for $45,000 which represents $555/sq.ft. A deluxe model with rooftop photovoltaic panels costs $75,000 and works out at $926/sq.ft

Rural Studio’s 20K House costs US$20,000 but, they explain, it would have to sell for more in order to pay a living wage to builders. Materials cost $14,000. At 500 sq.ft the $20K represents $40/sq.ft.


Rural Studio have been attempting to perfect the 20K house since 2005.

These houses aren’t the end product of a journey of aesthetic discovery but represent twenty years of research and the refinement of the design approach and of prototypes.

The 20K House program evolved out of frustration at starting from scratch each year on each client house. The new program’s current instructional model is to test typologies, rather than producing idiosyncratic individual houses, which allows us to build iteratively on previous and concurrent work. In fact, each year’s 20K House outreach team passes on a book of information for the following class, exemplifying Rural Studio’s founding premise of learning both by practice and from reflection. [Slate 19/05/2014] 

This house below is a refinement of the 2009 (v8) Dave’s Home which itself is a refinement of the 2006 (v2) Franks’s Home. 


Rural Studio’s 20K houses look low-tech but associate director Rusty Smith says “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements.” This I believe. I’ve mentioned before how the aircraft maker Sukhoi treats every aircraft as a prototype for the better performance of the next one. Iterative design aims for perfection rather than preconceived notions of beauty.

The Sukhoi S-47 [on the left, below] proved impractical to develop and maintain as a production aircraft. The T-50 [on the right] that succeeded it is the 1985 SU-27, substantially modified. Engines are the 117S derivative of the economical and high-performance AL-31 engine. The T-50 is economically efficient, low maintenance and has a planned service life of 35 years.

In the same way and for the same reasons, Rural Studio made the decision to test typologies but concentrate on building iteratively on previous work. Such an approach still requires high-level and densely-packed design intelligence. In the case of residential buildings, it amounts to a conscious process of vernacular design accelerated over decades rather than centuries. We can all learn from this. Some of the rules can be identified from decisions made.

Economy of means

The self-imposed cost limit of $20K forces attention towards the cost of every element and design design. Windows are a major cost item. “We are very precise in the placement of windows of doors,” says Andrew Freear, studio director. “Typically, we can afford two doors and seven windows, and how do you use those the fullest? Cross-ventilation, bouncing light, putting a window near a table as a reflective surface. In Joanne’s House, in the kitchen, the refrigerator is perpendicular to a window and bounces natural light into the space.

A single waste pipe runs beneath the porch to link all wet areas. The layout is determined by this as much as anything else. Siteworks are a major cost item and cantilevering the floor joists past the foundation piles reduces the area of sitewaorks.


Maximum efficiency of each element

Cantilevered floor girders act more efficiently as beams, making smaller and less expensive timber sections sufficient. Floor joists are cantilevered from the girders for the same reason.

Conventional technologies and standard parts

Standard components are easier and less expensive to source, maintain, repair and replace.Windows and doors are more obvious examples of standard components but the 2×4 framing system is itself an example of conventional technology and standard parts. It’s a construction system and, once the cladding is on, a structural system as well.


In passing, the 2 x 4 construction system is also a technology with minimal waste as the log is sawn to leave little waste timber.


There’s also little waste within the system as cutoffs can be re-used as jack studs or nogging.

Design without waste

In my previous post I mentioned how Rural Studio were the only US practice invited to participate in the 15th Venice Biennale 2016, and how they used the money they’d been given to purchase local products to create a theatre that could be dismantled and its components used elsewhere afterwards.

It is possible to eliminate building waste by regarding every component as something with a potential future use. Native Americans famously used every part of the buffalo they hunted – meat for food, bones for implements and weapons, hides for clothing and so on. It’s no accident that this is called being resourceful. Resourceful cooks can save money and resources by making a meal out of scraps and leftovers.

Identifying Inefficiencies of Process

It’s often the case that new and better ways of doing something bump up against resistance due to instituional inertia, psychological resistance, or perhaps due to simple lack of knowledge. This last can be overcome by taking the time and making the effort to explain and educate. Rural Studio found that more effort needs to be made to change local zoning laws that regulate against small houses. They also noted that banks charge the same for a loan regardless of whether that loan is for a small house or a large house. This makes loans for less expensive houses proportionally more expensive.


Without the $20K cost limit forcing scrutiny of all cost items, no-one would ever have known this or thought it relevant to the provision of housing.

• • •

The process of edcuation should not stop there. If design intelligence has been spent tweaking minor things to make them more efficient or to multi-task some component, then the general public and the world of architecture at large, also needs to be educated to appreciate that design intelligence and the benefits it can bring.


As it stands now, Rural Studio are widely admired for doing what they do but are destined to exist outside of mainstream architectural consciousness. For one, Rural Studio is not a practice. It is an undergraduate program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University in Hale County, Alabama. You can read more about its history here.

The program for low-cost and socially-useful housing was begun by Dennis (D.K.) Ruth and Samuel Mockbee in 1993. Andrew Freear became director upon Mockbee’s death. This coming semester, Xavier Vendrell will be Acting Director while Freear goes on sabbatical. Rural Studio has a director but no figurehead. It is not personality-driven. It is not media driven.

Rural Studio are ineligible for a Pritzker Prize, for what it’s worth.

  1. Mockbee died in 2001 and Ruth in 2009. The Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect.
  2. Not only that, the Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect who has produced a singular body of work. The output of Rural Studio is a singular body of work that has consistency and development and many other qualities that mark it as the output of a single consciousness. It is not awarded to a team, let alone an amorphous team that includes a ever-changing roster of students. This condition seems particularly unfair when starchitect practice figureheads routinely curate and claim authorship of ideas generated by an intern farm.

In our current cultural landscape it is usual for architects with any degree of fame to rush into teaching to extend their media reach, ideally at an Ivy-League university. Rural Studio is doing things the other way around. It is in Alabama not New England. It is not staffed by architects who teach but by teachers who build. They are teaching us as well, as their direction of twenty years has now been appropriated – perhaps maliciously so, but time will tell – by architecture at large. Rural Studio’s presence at VB2016 shows they are continuing to do what they do as best they can and guided by what they think is right.

• • •

rural studio staff

Rural Studio!

to all of you whoever you are at any given time

for your ceaseless work of genuine benefit to fellow human beings,
for showing us how to make things better by making better things,
and, most importantly, for making it about building,

misfits’ salutes you!

• • •

*1 Thanks CBW!



  • this program has been well publicised and documented over the many years.
    it is a great program and is both an educational and form of construction model.
    i find its lack of mainstream acceptance continueingly annoying and frustrating.
    as an education model, it could and, in my view should, be adapted in many more schools of architecture. the rigidity and sense of purpose would be of significant benefit.
    the buildings built are affordable, functional, require minimum trade skill and are built to tight programming.
    however, these advantages and the findings of this research are seemingly not exploited when providing low cost housing, housing after catastrophes and so on.
    leading of course to the efforts of your next misfit Ernst.