Back in September, I wrote, with some surprise, that after 22 years of operating strictly within three particularly down-and-out counties in Alabama’s economically depressed Black Belt region, Auburn University’s Rural Studio was movin’ on up and expanding its reach … to the swanky, semi-rural suburbs of Atlanta.

Co-founded by the late, great architect and social justice activist Samuel Mockbee, Rural Studio — a heralded undergraduate design/build program that, in the words of MacArthur Foundation, “combines the teaching of architecture with a commitment to public service” — has never swayed from Mockbee’s mission to “simultaneously demystify modern architecture and expose architecture students to extreme poverty in their own backyard.”

With its latest endeavor, part of the ongoing 20K House initiative, Rural Studio doesn't sway, per se, but has switched things up while strengthening the initiative's underlying goal: to provide sturdy, smart, safe, replicable and, most importantly, affordable housing to those with limited resources. While $20,000 is the ideal estimated cost to build each 20K House, land not included, it’s also the maximum amount granted to social security recipients through the USDA's Section 502 rural housing direct loan program. Basically, Rural Studio’s 20K House project is an attempt to do away with — or at least offer a viable alternative to — trailer homes, which depreciate in value and don't stand up to severe weather as well as permanent structures.

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.Located at Serenbe, a farm-centered community outside of Atlanta, these twin live/work artist cottages help Rural Studio expand its 20K House initiative. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

That said, cinder blocks and double wides aren’t normally associated with Serenbe, a high-end, down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community in Fulton County, Georgia, where homes typically start in the half-millions. Yet Rural Studio has brought the 20K House project to Serenbe in the form of not one but two 550-square-foot cottages that ended up costing more than $20,000 even though the cost for materials for each unit reportedly rang in at $14,000. (Given that the program — and building costs — have grown since 20K House first kicked off in 2005, the $20,000 benchmark has became largely aspirational).

As I previously noted, the twin one-bedroom cottages, recently completed and unveiled to the public, will serve as live/work studios for artists-in-residence at Serenbe's 40-acre Art Farm. Over the course of this year, the cozy, deck-conjoined cottages will host a total of 20 artists working in a range of disciplines.

While unlikely, the partnership is mutually beneficial: The nonprofit Serenbe Institute of Art, Culture & the Environment can now expand its AIR (Artist In Residency) Serenbe program and provide additional housing to visiting artists. "We feel residents are enriched by having artists in their midst," restauranteur-turned-Serenbe founder/developer Steve Nygren explains to ArtsATL.

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.A range of companies including Bosch, Toto and Brooklyn-based lighting firm Workstead helped to furnish the one-bedroom units. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Rural Studio, on the other hand, is provided with valuable lessons in the business of home-building as 20K House gears up to transition from project to product and expand out of rural west-central Alabama and offer affordable housing options to other communities across the country. "We had the ability to take the project through zoning, permitting, construction, code compliance,” explains Nygren to ArtsATL. “We’ll also monitor the homes for such thing as utility costs through a life cycle.”

Essentially, Serenbe served an incubator for Rural Studio and got two nifty new cottages — technically one unit to comply with local zoning codes regarding house size — in the process. Elaborates a news release from Serenbe:

Understanding the process of building a 20K House plan in the real world has provided invaluable data on the permitting process, using a licensed contractor rather than university students, local zoning rules, increased build times, as well as, costs associated with a ‘real-world’ build that, in this case, included Earthcraft certification. Rural Studio will be analyzing the data from the project in order to streamline the building process, bring costs closer to the name of the program and consider other contracting and building models.

As you can see, the finished cottages are refreshingly straightforward structures with playfully mis-matchy interiors that, appropriately, are more funky than fussy. (They could use some paint on those walls, though).

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.Students enrolled in Auburn University's Rural Studio have designed and built 17 20K House prototypes in Alabama since 2005. The Art Farm project marks the start of a new, bigger direction. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

To help keep the project on budget, a range of companies donated furnishings and fixtures as did local Serenbe residents, adding to the curated thrift store vibe. Typically, 20K Houses don't — and will not moving forward — come fully furnished.

Atlanta-based designers Steve McKenzie and Kerry Howard oversaw the interior of each home while Simon Shell served as project contractor. As mentioned, Rural Studio itself served as general contractor on each of the 18 previous 20K House iterations, both one- and two-bedrooms, completed for clients living in Hale County, Alabama, and environs.

In addition to my previous story on Rural Studio’s collaboration/field test at Serenbe, do check out Carla Jean Whitley's thorough background piece on the partnership for as well as ArtsATL's fantastic profile in which Nygren notes: “Small houses can live large and affordable housing can have and should have thoughtful design.”

Amen to that.

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.While the Art Farm cottages at Serenbe are based on a Rural Studio design, local contractor Simon Shell built the homes — a first for the 20K House initiative. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.Gnome place like home: Rural Studio's Art Farm cottages at Serenbe are comfortable yet cost-conscious, furnished largely with secondhand and donated items. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.In addition to an on-site arts colony, Serenbe is home to a 25-acre organic farm, boutiques and lauded farm-to-table fine dining restaurant. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.Current and upcoming artists-in-residence at Serenbe Art Farm include poet Anis Mogjani, cartoonist Aatmaja Pandya and photographer Sarah Hobbs. (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Art Farm, a 20K House Project by Rural Studio at Serenbe, Georgia.Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio, notes in a statement that 'Rural Studio and Serenbe have a shared design philosophy where connections between people, nature and the arts are nourished.' (Photo: Jessica Ashley Photography)

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Step inside the loveliest low-cost cottages in all of Georgia
Rural Studio's 'field test' in affordable housing is ready to be lived in.