Upwardly Mobile Homes

Originally published in 

When it comes to real estate, the trailer park gets a bad rap. But some designers think that this forsaken corner of the market is worthy of reevaluation—and even resuscitation.

For decades, trailer parks have been increasingly marginalized to a strict set of stereotypes. They might gleam as well-manicured retirement communities to some, but in their most iconic state they are perceived as the province of the unfortunate. The question of whether design can save or even improve trailer parks is preempted almost immediately by “Why bother?”

The latter question is easier to answer. Allan Wallis, author of Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes and an authority on regional housing, calls trailer parks an undervalued, endangered resource. “Hundreds of thousands of living spaces” have been zoned out of existence, Wallis says, warning that “we are losing a certain niche in the housing market that the market left on its own would not really replace.” Trailer parks, he explains, put workforce housing where communities desperately need it. Drive these inhabitants to suburbia’s outer rings, and freeways get clogged while households become severely strained by car and gas payments. Wallis welcomes innovative design: Trailer parks could use a face-lift. “You need to create a visually attractive package,” he says. “I would ask the designers of the iPod, ‘Could you do that for a mobile home?’”

Michael Hughes is an architect ready to provide that attention. TrailerWrap—–a stylish rethinking of a traditional double-wide—–began as a University of Colorado project exploring “alternative urbanism” in a standard-issue trailer park that survived Boulder’s million-dollar housing market. Trailer parks emerged, says Hughes, as “a way that more people could afford to live in urban settings, in the heart of expensive cities, and retain an interpretation of the American dream.” He argues that “you can redirect the effort and money from the 24 roof pitches you see in suburban houses and put it into bigger windows, taller ceilings, bigger volumes, better finishes, a more open and expansive connection to the outdoors.”

Hughes is not the only architect prying the trailer free of its dubious pedigree. San Francisco architect Christopher C. Deam’s design for a 400-square-foot unit called the Glassic Flat is small by any standard. Built by an established trailer manufacturer, his “shoebox with one side in glass” rolls out of the factory at around $65,000. The design holds to current modular styles, but requires no foundation, no contractor, and a fraction of the cost of a high-design modular home. “You just drive the thing in, set it up, and you’re done,” Deam says. “It’s a total solution to make prefab truly prefab.”

The design-inclined might wonder why all trailers don’t celebrate the box in this way. Mobile homes boast the briefest history in housing, literally towed into existence by the automobile. For a time, they held an atomic-age chic—–Bing Crosby counted Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as tenants in his Blue Skies Village outside Palm Springs—–but somewhere along the line trailers became “manufactured housing.” Design gave way to economy, and trailers wheeled into a rut of small windows, fake shutters, and bleak ribbed siding. The inherent beauty of the box was supplanted by icons borrowed from suburbia.

That design lapse persists. Tim Howard, president of Breckenridge Finer Living, says he builds “cottages.” Deam’s Glassic Flat joins a Brecken-ridge line that includes a peak-roofed trailer with “the natural beauty of a stone exterior” made from “a high-density synthetic stone product.” When Deam first came into his office, Howard politely showed the architect the door. “I absolutely did not get it,” Howard says. But when Target ordered a half-dozen trailers for New York Fashion Week, Breckenridge reconsidered.

Even people who value the niche question what design could do for these communities. Wallis and sociologist Kate MacTavish at Oregon State University say designs like TrailerWrap might ease the eyesore factor, but both acknowledge that economics
and a pervasive stigma stack the deck. Wallis notes that cities have long discouraged housing that generates little in property taxes. MacTavish, who spends much of her career in the parks, calls mobile homes America’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing, but explains that the economics work against the individual owners. They might pay usurious interest rates and face inevitable depreciation, divesting them of the single most important investment payoff most Americans will see: their homes.

MacTavish also asks, “Where are the dollars going to come from to upgrade these aging parks?” Many trailers are nearing the end of their useful lives and owners cannot sell their homes or even afford demolition. The new designs are nice but gentrification looms. She wonders if “you would end up with two kinds of parks”: the standard lot of rusted siding, and that of elitist enclaves of design devotees keeping sleek pied-à-terres on wheels.

That wheeled oasis is Canadian designer Andy Thomson’s vision. His miniHome packs off-the-grid ecofeatures into a segmented box, but at $119,000, it’s not an affordable housing model. He shies from the “trailer park” term. “We have a contest to come up with a name, and we haven’t thought of it yet.” An investor exploring the concept of urbanites shopping for second homes, Thomson believes that “blue-collar and downtown” don’t necessarily mix.
The line between alternative style and down-market desperation may lie in demographics. While Sean Penn lived in a 27-foot Airstream and El Cosmico brings an instant arts community to rural Texas with a village of vintage trailers, the mobile cachet of cool lurches to a stop with the word “double-wide.”

For Hughes, the positive attributes of the trailer park don’t extend to the trailers themselves. While “the trailer park is built on good bones,” he says, “the downfall is in the unit.” Saving the trailer park means getting rid of the trailers. His alternative urbanism ideal would let owners buy the lots they rented and build efficient, permanent homes with traditional mortgages and the benefits of appreciation.  A requirement that homes in the park remain “mobile” adds expensive  retrofits to TrailerWrap—–this despite most mobile homes making only one trip, from factory to park.

Like MacTavish, Hughes holds an affection for the classic New Orleans shotgun house. He brings that restraint to a development planned for Fayetteville, where he teaches at the University of Arkansas. The idea, he says, is to “take the design ideas of TrailerWrap and ignore that it has a chassis,” creating a community of courtyard houses affordable to police officers, his fellow faculty, and employees at nonprofits.

Taking lessons learned in the trailer park beyond the park gates may be the single greatest benefit of thinking inside the box. Small, efficient homes could define a new kind of neighborhood and fulfill a promise that mobile homes missed so conspicuously. Trailers could distribute the benefits of modernism beyond its moneyed devotees to serve a greater public. The question may be not what modern design can do for the trailer park but what the trailer park can do for modern design.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...