Trailer Homes, Revisited

In recent years, the internet has been abuzz with Tiny Houses: generally defined as sub-500 square foot (usually to avoid having to comply with building codes) and wheeled, these new trailer homes have sprung up in the wake of the Great Recession like seedlings after a forest fire. The web may have taken a shine to them because they are so meme-worthy, being so small and adorable and Pinterest-y. While not an altogether recent phenomenon, the zeitgeist is the zeitgeist, and their time has come. In an era of dwindling home values, rampant foreclosures, job insecurity, rising energy prices, and shrinking retirement funds, the tiny house makes sense. An abundance of online resources are available for planning one, and the small scale makes it possible for an amateur to knock one together with little time or money. 

 Trailer from field trip to Black Warrior trailer sales lot in Moundville, Alabama, fall, 2009.

Trailer from field trip to Black Warrior trailer sales lot in Moundville, Alabama, fall, 2009.

However, the traditional trailer is still alive and kicking. First built en masse  during World War II to get around wartime rationing of building materials, mobile homes continued to boom into the fifties as returning vets were faced with housing shortages. These days, manufactured housing  is the term of art. HUD instituted a mobile home building code in 1976, which mandates certain strength and efficiency standards. But, even in this gauzy promotional video, it is clear that the homes are literally stapled together, often out of sub-standard 1x3s and other low-grade materials. The interior finishes are chemical-laden, off-gassing bouquets of particle board, laminate, and vinyl. A lack of permanent foundation makes them prone to flying and floating, depending on the natural disasters at hand. 

 Trailer sketch from my 20K days, circa 2009.

Trailer sketch from my 20K days, circa 2009.

Trailers suffer from other, financially structural problems. They are unable to be financed or insured like traditional homes, mostly due to a lack of permanent foundation.  So, most trailer purchasers rely on high-interest loans with usurious terms, which leads to high short-term debt on a rapidly depreciating asset. By the time the loan is paid off, the home is worth very little on the resale market. Only nominally mobile, most manufactured homes move only once -- from factory to site -- then live out their lives on rented slices of land inside planned communities, where owners have to pay rent and utilities on top of the purchase price. And yet, while slowed somewhat by the recession, new mobile home sales are remarkably high. Many are financed with FHA low-income housing loans, which are government-subsidized loans that are supposed to help with affordable housing in rural areas.

One major growth area for trailers is seniors -- looking to downsize, and move to a warmer climate, the sale of a traditional home can finance the purchase of a mobile home somewhere sunny. When I lived in Arizona, the land north of Phoenix was pockmarked with 55+-only communities, most of which limited visits by younger folks to a week or less. Recently,  a great article in Pacific Standard profiled one such park in California, explaining how the the financial structure and social life was a self-reinforcing loop that helped folks cope with getting older at a fraction of the cost of a full-service assisted living facility. Resale values are less of an issue for retirees, and the one-level, generally open floor plans are easy to move around in. 

In 2009-10, I studied at the Rural Studio, studying many of these same issues with my teammates. We attempted to design and build a house on a permanent foundation for about twenty grand, competing on price with a trailer while enabling folks to get traditional financing and insurance. This experiment continues, as next year it will leap mature on into its 20th iteration. We were tackling a persistent problem in architecture: pre-fabricated, small, efficient architecture seems to be a great solution to low-cost housing, yet fails, over and over again, to be adopted on a widespread basis. 

 

 An early conceptual rendering of 20K 9.0, Mac's House.

An early conceptual rendering of 20K 9.0, Mac's House.

From Buckminster Fuller to Rocio Romero, modern prefab has kept falling prey to pricey problems. Folks don't want to live in cookie-cutter developments, and stick-built homes have reached a point of construction efficiency that makes some price and speed arguments obsolete. Dwell Magazine, amongst others, continue to champion prefab and mobile homes as the wave of the future, but they consistently fail to thrive. 

I think the future lies somewhere in the 20K model -- providing a modular, kit-house approach that can be built cheaply and quickly with locally available, off-the-shelf components. A new project, WikiHouse, has arisen along the same lines, aiming to bring open-source design, CNC milling, and 3-D printing technology to home construction. At the same time, tiny houses continue to thrive, evading building codes and site-built restrictions. Hopefully the Great Recession has provided an opening for the guerilla architect, entry points for structural changes to building codes, manufacturing standards, and financing systems to allow for a better, stronger, faster housing systems for seniors, poor folks, and everyone else.

 Courtesy WikiHouse.

Courtesy WikiHouse.