In recent years, the Rural Studio, the design-build program of Auburn University, has received a great deal of attention for its projects that imaginatively adapt abandoned structures or ingeniously reuse discarded materials to create playgrounds, libraries, and other civic amenities that improve the lives of residents of Hale County, Alabama. But since its founding almost three decades ago, alongside these one-off community-oriented projects, the studio has focused on affordable housing solutions as core to its mission—solutions that could prove applicable not only in rural Alabama, but throughout the southeast.
These efforts got a boost last week with $450,000 from finance provider Fannie Mae to the studio’s Front Porch Initiative—a program that aspires to create single-family houses that are energy-efficient and resilient, while enhancing access to mortgages in high-needs rural areas. The group is tackling the total cost of home ownership, including building operations, maintenance, and insurance, explains Mackenzie Stagg, an assistant research professor at the university’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture and a Front Porch Initiative co-principal investigator. “We are developing an argument for linking financing with performance,” she says.
The current contract is the Front Porch Initiative’s third with Fannie Mae. Under the two previous agreements, Rural Studio faculty and students developed four designs for one- and two-bedroom houses, each 500 to 950 square feet, that can be adapted to site conditions and different climate zones. The group also developed detailed construction documents and supporting technical materials so that the houses can be built by local workforces with conventional construction techniques and readily procurable materials. Many of the initiative’s non-profit partners depend on volunteer labor, points out Stagg.
Two of the Front Porch Initiative houses have been constructed so far, both by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity in Opelika, Alabama, the town adjacent to Auburn. The wood-framed structures are straightforward in form, with rectangular footprints and simple gabled roofs, but have been informed by advanced energy modeling and include such details as enhanced insulation, tight building envelopes, and impact resistant roofs. These features, among others, have enabled them to comply with stringent “beyond-code” standards, including Passive House, the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program, and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety’s Fortified rating system, which seeks to minimize storm damage. Energy monitoring for the prototypes, which have been occupied since September 2018 and October 2019, began in earnest last December. Though it is too early for conclusive findings, modeling predicts annual energy expenses that are less than half of the average across the South for houses smaller than 1,000 square feet.
Financial institutions are recognizing the value of the high-performance designs. For instance, the first completed prototype, a 915-square-foot, 1-bedroom house, recently appraised for $114,000. Meanwhile, the 1,200-square foot, 3-bedroom model that Habitat for Humanity had been building in Opelika typically appraises for the same value or less, according to Stagg.
Although the spread of COVID-19 has complicated scheduling, over the next year, the Front Porch Initiative, with its partners, plans to further refine the prototype designs and start construction on houses in Nashville and Coalmont, Tennessee; Marianna, Florida; and Hartsville, South Carolina.
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