Homer T. Hurst, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., has won a $10,500 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for his "cost-efficient" design for a duplex house using pressure-treated poles for structural support.

The 62-year-old Hurst specializes in housing as a research professor in the school's agricultural engineering department. While little residential construction goes on in Blacksburg--a small college town 300 miles west of Washington in Virginia's Montgomery County--Hurst is also a consultant on pole-type construction to a Virginia developer and a West Virginia manufacturer of modular housing.

"Unfortunately, housing has been going in the wrong direction--putting homeownership out of the reach of the majority of the American population," Hurst said this week. "We've talked about lowering the price of housing, but acted to make it more expensive," he said.

He said that many money-saving advances in housing technology have been subverted by a variety of state and federal regulations that have "raised the cost of building homes, but not the value."

It is the third federal award for Hurst, whose entry in HUD's current "Building Value in Housing" competition uses sawed timber poles to form a pier-like foundation. The so-called "tilt-up pole" idea is not a new one, Hurst said, but it is "unusual in residential construction."

Pole-construction techniques have been used where building sites are steep, in areas such as the Pacific Northwest and, locally, in Annapolis.

Compared with conventional building techniques, the pole method eliminates more than two-thirds of the framing lumber, trusses, rafters, roof sheathing, ceiling framing and the usual continuous concrete foundation, Hurst said. In addition, labor costs are reduced because construction time is shorter, he said.

Hurst's design also incorporates several passive solar energy features, including glass on the south and east sides of the structure and a concrete slab heat-absorber covered with a dense, vinyl-like material.

Since HUD reserved a portion of the award funds for construction designs suitable for the elderly and handicapped, Hurst conceived one side of the duplex as a "barrier-free" unit suitable for use by persons confined to wheelchairs. "This makes a lot of sense for the triple-generation family," Hurst said, because it allows infirm or handicapped grandparents "to live next door to their children."

Hurst said he designed the duplex "with the hope that a mass-producer would pick up on the the idea." The components and construction techniques are easy to duplicate, he said.

The aim of the HUD program is to foster innovative residential design and construction techniques "based on 'value engineering,' the concept of increasing quality without increasing cost, or of decreasing cost without decreasing quality," said E. S. Savas, HUD's assistant secretary for policy development and research.

"While the approach is common in other areas--such as the defense and automotive industries--it has not been used extensively in housing construction," said Savas, whose office made the awards. " 'Value engineering' is certainly basic to the goals of this department," he added, "and this program is an important part of our effort to better house the American people."

Hurst, who describes himself as "a career housing research engineer," was among 10 recipients awarded a total of $105,000 this year. The winners were selected from about 200 applicants, said Ronald J. Morony, program manager in HUD's building technology division. He said a review panel is in the process of determining which of the 10 will receive building awards. Last year, building grants were awarded to 10 out of 19 design winners selected from about 250 applications, Morony said.

Hurst said his first award-winning design--for a structurally innovative "fourplex"--is now under construction at 500 Herrell St. in Blacksburg. "I had the vacant lot and already have all four units rented to university students," he said. As required by HUD, the house will be open for public inspection from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. August 7, 8, 14 and 15.

Hurst received a $14,500 building grant for that project, he said, but "it's merely a token." While the award "really hasn't covered the construction costs, "the idea is to cover the cost of learning how to get these innovations in place," he said.

Under the terms of the competition, all grant-winning designs "are now owned by HUD and are available to the general public," Hurst added.

Other winners in the current competition are:

Jonathan Stafford of Eugene, Ore., for a small, modular unit called a "granny flat," designed to add extra living space to an existing structure for use by the elderly.

Walter Lindal of Seattle for a modular, prefabricated home transported to the construction site in a treated wood frame that is then used in place of a concrete foundation.

J. J. Ewers of Charlotte, N.C., for an "ecobrick" with plastic splines that can be easily aligned and installed by unskilled workers.

Michael Belshaw of Prescott, Ariz., for an adobe system that allows bricks to be poured in place at the construction site.

G. H. Tsuruoka of Evanston, Ill., for a rigid, one-piece truss frame system.

Robert D. Litvan of Springfield, Ill., for a duplex house with one unit for handicapped people that can be easily adapted for remarketing to an able-bodied buyer.

Shirley Pratini of Berkeley, Calif., for a small, no-bedroom house that can be easily built, furnished and marketed.

David Skinner of Odessa, Fla., for a truss-frame variation used in a slab-on-grade house.

William Bain of Seattle for a pre-plumbed, pre-wired bath/kitchen module that can be installed on a foundation before a house is built around it.