Upwardly Mobile Homes

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By Rick Polito
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?"

Upwardly Mobile Homes - Photo 1 of 6 - Michael Hughes and his University of Colorado collaborators transformed a 10-by-47-foot trailer destined for the landfill into the striking TrailerWrap "rehab" prototype.

Michael Hughes and his University of Colorado collaborators transformed a 10-by-47-foot trailer destined for the landfill into the striking TrailerWrap "rehab" prototype.

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?’"

Upwardly Mobile Homes - Photo 2 of 6 - The interior of the TrailerWrap prototype.

The interior of the TrailerWrap prototype.

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."

Upwardly Mobile Homes - Photo 3 of 6 - Architect Christopher C. Deam’s Glassic Flat attempts to put the "pre" back into prefab: When the unit leaves the Breckenridge factory on the flatbed of a stylish big rig, it is ready for occupation.

Architect Christopher C. Deam’s Glassic Flat attempts to put the "pre" back into prefab: When the unit leaves the Breckenridge factory on the flatbed of a stylish big rig, it is ready for occupation.

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."

Upwardly Mobile Homes - Photo 4 of 6 - The 400-square-foot interior of the Glassic Flat boasts a bedroom, bathroom, storage, and open living area and kitchen.

The 400-square-foot interior of the Glassic Flat boasts a bedroom, bathroom, storage, and open living area and kitchen.

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.

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