Think You Can Build a Hip, Modern, Functional and Fabulous House with $20K? The Rural Studio Can, and Does, in Some of Alabama’s Poorest Counties.

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eco modern hut

This is the sort of minimalist, modern entryway I expect to see featured in Dwell Magazine, usually attached to a home owned by a bohemian-hipster graphic designer couple in Marin County, California or in the suburbs of Seattle. But this subtle piece of design work actually finds its home in rural Alabama, where it is part of a home that cost roughly $20,000 to build (including all materials and labor), and is now owned by a low-income resident who qualified for a federally-funded loan. The home is a product of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—a community outreach program fueled by a collection of talented and experimental architecture students.

Central to the Rural Studio’s mission is the creation of social and design solutions from within the communities that most need them, rather than a top-down, outside-in approach. Students live in the neighborhoods where their projects are located, getting to know the neighbors and thereby discovering needs that they may otherwise have overlooked. In addition to aesthetics, the Studio also prioritizes energy efficiency and durability, saving future owners from excessive maintenance and utility bills. Teams of 3-5 students—a combo of grads, undergrads and apprentices—work on a number of public projects throughout the year, while one team remains devoted to improving and expanding the ever-evolving $20K project. The result: a collection of sophisticated, functional public and private spaces serving some of rural Alabama’s poorest counties.

The Rural Studio was founded in 1991 by Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, along with his friend and Auburn University professor D.K .Ruth. Mockbee was guided by the conviction that “Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor … not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul,” and saw no reason for low-income and public housing projects to be strictly utilitarian in design, devoid of personality.

Today, the studio is run by Andrew Freear, who is making sure to keep the department’s ethics and aesthetics alive. “I love and respect greatly the fact that Sambo thought going to school was not only about yourself, but about making the world a better place,” he has said. “It sounds a bit romantic, but if architects cannot make the world a better place, there are not many people who are better positioned to do that.”

Video tour of Humane Society Animal Shelter designed by the Rural Studio:

Video tour of a 32K duplex (upgraded version of the 20K house):

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About Merete Mueller

Merete is a writer and filmmaker, and was once-upon-a-time the Managing Editor of elephant journal's print incarnation, from 2006-2008. Today, you can find her on Twitter @meretemueller and on her blog To The Bones. Her first documentary, "TINY: A Story About Living Small", about people who have downsized their lives into homes the size of a parking space, premiered at SXSW in March 2013.


14 Responses to “Think You Can Build a Hip, Modern, Functional and Fabulous House with $20K? The Rural Studio Can, and Does, in Some of Alabama’s Poorest Counties.”

  1. rusty r says:

    heather, you totally rock, this is a great blog and i love it!

  2. kate says:

    georgia or alabama??

    really cool wherever!

  3. priscilla says:

    great article! thanks

  4. JinpaG says:

    Alabama, I believe. Seems like all the videos are of homes in Ala.. Watch the vids … they are inspiring.

  5. Kate,
    It's Alabama, thanks for catching that slip!


  6. great article. check it out!

    Erika Zamcheck Wilton at 6:25pm March 24
    perfect for retreat!

    Gabrielle Edison at 7:30pm March 24
    I just passed on this blog/article to someone who worked at the Rural Studio awhile ago. She just told me about it this winter. CU architecture should get this going here … with the same level of ethics and compassion and coolness-factor.

    Francesca Reed at 10:20pm March 24
    I've been there and seen the houses, and visited some of the people; they are awe-inspiring. It is worth a special trip.

  7. […] Good Magazine comes our second coolest visual blog of the week. (The first coolest is here, slideshow via Heather Mueller). What if Google were everywhere, physically, that our online searches go? Via […]

  8. Joana Smith says:


  9. Susan says:

    Thanks for posting these photos and story. The Rural Studio has been mentioned in Dwell Magazine a few times, and was featured in 2007 in an hour-long radio program Speaking of Faith on American Public Media. A link:

  10. I have dial-up service [mii location] – the elephant site takes too long to open…
    Santa Barbara County burns to the ground on a regular basis – and cannot seem to
    embrace any building under 5000 + sq feet – don't be fooled by the office of tourism…
    the AIR is LETHAL and it is FAKE GREEN…

  11. Wow, I never new that, much appreciated.

  12. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of information. I am satisfied that you shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  13. The house is so cute and I can say that it has a clever and very unique design.

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