Could Trailer Design Make More of “Less” in Housing?

inside of an airstream
inside of an airstream

Rock Creek, Montana     When discussing the fascinating work done by the Advanced Studio of nine students from the Yale School of Architecture working with noted Italian architect, Pier Vittorio Aureli, on the question of how to squeeze 100,000 units of affordable housing into the overheated, expensive real estate market of San Francisco, I noted what I found to be an appropriate irony that I was reviewing their work while pecking away in an Airstream trailer, my son sleeping silently in another room nearby, so I wanted to flesh out that point.

The paper sent along to me by my comrade, Michael Robinson Cohen, one of the budding architects on the project was entitled, poignantly and astutely, “Is Less Enough.” Many of the proposed projects as well as their historical references harkened to the designs of monastic life, their cells, and cloisters. There were discussions of how to design these units from what they called a “standard” apartment size of 400 square feet to half or one-third the space, between 150 and 200 square feet. There were discussions of SRO, single room occupancy, hotels as a potential model for these new units. In fact, the heart of the overall argument underpinning the entire studio was a new vision of “the room” itself. It would seem to me to make these kinds of housing units or apartments feasible and even desirable in the future, some cross fertilization with the work that is probably less appreciated in addressing exactly these problems has been undertaken by house trailer, marine, and railway architects, who make a living out of making a whole lot more of the “less.”

Being off-the-grid, I can’t access the exact dimensions of the 1978 Airstream Land Yacht where I’m pecking away, but I would reckon the inside room dimensions, wall-to-wall, front-to-back at between 300 and 350 square feet, and likely way closer to 300 than 350. Unlike the Aureli Studio designs, trailers and houseboats, not only have designated areas for sleeping, toilets, and showers, but also kitchens and cooking, which the students’ designs were all putting into the “core” or shared spaces, which might or might not appeal. In a trailer like this one, and there are no doubt huge improvements unknown to me that trailer architects have devised in the last 37 years since the Silver Bullet came off the line in Elkhart, Indiana, there are bunks for two and a fold out couch in the living room for more. I’m not recommending this for permanent family living, but for the onesies and twosies of the urban precariat this is pretty good. One of the marvels of these contained spaces is that there is storage everywhere, largely absent in the designs I saw: under bunks, under couches, above bunks and above couches, along walls, under sinks, around the shower and sink, above the sink, and frankly in every nook and cranny. Making more out of less, remember.

A ceiling on a trailer is hardly 6 ½ feet tall. No housing code would allow less than 8 feet, giving a different concept of a “room,” even more space. Many of the designs seem to have foldout Murphy-type beds, which is nice, or bed lofts, taking advantage of more height in the room, which would seem like a gift for design as well. An Airstream has a rounded top, rather than a rectangular surface, meaning more usable cubic space for the taking in these proposed new units.

I don’t want to beat the point to a pulp, but perhaps the way to look at future use is not only some cooperative space for larger social utilization, laundry, and the like, but to imagine a unit design as less monastic and more on the order of self-contained. Low-and-moderate income families in large parts of the USA have already established that they will buy trailers, because they are affordable, and they will live in them, not as transients, but as permanent housing.

When architects talk about embracing the vernacular, when it comes to getting more out of less and making people line up and be happy getting it, it might be worth learning from these humble dwellings.

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Inside of an airstream
Inside of an airstream

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