This University’s Homework Means Building Inexpensive Housing

Architecture students in Alabama build homes for people that need them.


(Grekov's /

What better way to train architectural students than to let them do hands-on work on the structures they design? That’s exactly what the students at Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction in Alabama are doing, one nail at a time.

The students are part of Rural Studio, a student-centered program at the university that constructs affordable housing for the rural poor of Alabama according to an article in the university’s news room. This effort is known as the 20k initiative began 13-years ago and was created to help support underserved rural communities.

“By integrating teaching, research and service, the 20K Initiative improves lives in Alabama and around the country, brings quality, sustainable home ownership to citizens and builds stronger communities,” Steven Leath, President of Auburn University said in the news release.

Every year in the fall, third-year architecture students live and work in the small rural community of Newbern, Alabama, where they are building a home according to Yes! Magazine. It is part of their curriculum and their homework.

The idea behind the 20k initiative is to create the perfect house for families in areas where the existing housing is often dilapidated and in need of extensive repair. When the program started, it was possible to build a house for only 20K using student labor.

The homes typically have one-or-two-bedroom and are single-story. The median home price in central Alabama – according to the World Population Review reportis around $65,000.

The project has designed and built homes for almost 30 families. The completed homes are given as gifts to low-income residents of the community. The students have also constructed community centers, a library and other projects in the county where Newbern is located.

The only drawback of the program is that the university cannot purchase land to build on. The low-income residents must already own the land or have permission to build on it.

The studio’s project has been funded by partnering with local nonprofits and started working with Fannie Mae,  the Federal National Mortgage Association – a government sponsored lending institution for home mortgages – six years ago as part of an effort to address the nationwide shortage of affordable housing according to the news release.

“Fannie Mae is committed to helping find solutions for underserved markets in the US,” Michael Hernandez, Vice President, Fannie Mae said in the news release. “Auburn’s program aims to find solutions in Alabama that can be applied nationwide. 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.”

Of course, Rural Studio cannot solve the housing crisis on its own. Affordable housing is a very large challenge, and we’re one small piece,” Mackenzie Stagg, an Auburn University alumnus who is now part of the research faculty at the studio told Yes!. Stagg was part of one of the first groups of students to build a 20K home.

Rural housing and poverty often take a backseat to the problems in the cities. Projects like Rural Studios could be implemented by other universities, nonprofit organizations and faith-based initiatives to help these sometimes-invisible populations. After all, there is no place like home.

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