Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for mobile housing
– gypsy wagons, houseboats, airstream trailers, RVs, tents, yurts, prefab
homes, and old converted school buses to name just a few of the
Apparently, others share this interest in what
California-based prefab designer Jennifer Siegal calls the “new nomadism.”
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association estimates that there are about
one million full-time RVers in the United States. The nomadic trend has been
fed by a flexible infrastructure of cellular phones and satellite Internet
connections, as well as a growing network of RV parks catering to a mobile
populace who want to experience the joys of warm-climate and coastal living
but can’t afford the real estate. There are families taking a year off to
travel, self-employed people enjoying the work-at-home experience with a
twist, those looking for a tiny house living experience, and, of course, retirees.
Not all mobile dwellings are expensive, commercially-built
behemoths. Many low-budget migratory-minded folks have turned ordinary modes
of transportation like vans, school buses, and trucks into creative living
spaces. And living in their vehicle has driven more than one young person to
a student loan fueled education.
Not surprisingly, the urban car camping trend has cities
grappling with the desire of some of its residents to live in their
vehicles. Permanent residents worry about parking, traffic, infrastructure,
and property value issues. That, in turn has opened up some interesting
discussions about control of and access to public space.
Another pertinent issue is the effect of this lifestyle on
health and the environment. Most commercially produced RVs and many
home-built conversions use materials and processes that are less than green.
But there are no bylaws prohibiting the installation of a composting toilet
in a vehicle, and nothing to stop a handyperson from using healthy,
sustainable materials in a conversion.
As well as conserving space, this style of living can also
conserve resources. When our young family lived the mobile life, we found
ourselves conserving water, a habit that remains three decades later. When you
pump it by hand and know the holding tank has a finite (and small) capacity,
you are careful about every drop you use. And if you choose not to park in
RV campgrounds, you also get creative and conservation-minded about
electricity usage. Some vehicles (including a sail boat we recently saw)
sport small solar panels; others install halogen and LED lights.
And then there is the obvious environmental argument against
the operation of any sort of vehicle. When we lived the mobile lifestyle, we
found that having our home with us at all times actually reduced commuting
and other driving time. Other modern nomads address the greenhouse gas
emissions issue by converting to bio-diesel. The so-called Veggie Van has
logged over 25,000 miles on biodiesel. Not only does the three-ton,
biodiesel-powered motor home get 25 miles per gallon on vegetable oil fuel,
but its exhaust also smells like French fries. The driver, Josh Tickell is
also the author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to
Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel.
The bio-diesel powered Veggie Van
photo courtesy Veggie Van
Fortunately, the new nomadism is being embraced by a growing
number of sustainably-minded architects and designers. In fact,
Toronto-based Andy R. Thomson calls the “eco-rv” community “the last legal
loophole available for truly affordable, experimental, eco-living.” His
opinion comes from personal experience. When he was a student at the
University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2001, he and his family lived
in an 108-square-foot 1971 GMC step van with onboard solar, called VanZilla.
He says, “As a designer with a deep concern for the preservation of the
planetary ecosystem, the primary focus in my personal life has been to
discover a viable and affordable form of housing.” His goal is to create
housing spaces that consume one-tentth of the resources and energy of
traditional housing forms.
One of Thomson’s projects was launched in Toronto in
2005. The miniHOME sits on a 8-foot by 36-foot trailer chassis,
and features SIPS (structural-insulated panel system) construction, a
B100-Biodiesel powered cogenerating energy plant with optional solar and
wind backup, a novel passive-HRV (heat-recovery ventilator), composting
toilet, rainwater and greywater systems, LED-Halogen lights and
computer-integrated controls, making the unit easy to operate and maintain.
The roughly 400-square-foot unit will be built to exceed USGBC and CGBC LEED
Platinum standards for energy efficiency. The miniHOME features healthy,
non-toxic materials and durable assemblies, all using the latest in building
science envelope design.
This new generation of mobile and prefab dwellings harkens
back to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and Dymaxion House inventions,
which were admittedly a bit before their time. Conceived and designed in the
late 1920s, the Dymaxion House used tension suspension from a central column
or mast, sold for the price of a Cadillac and could be shipped worldwide in
its own metal tube.
Jennifer Siegal launched her company, called Office of
Mobile Design, after noticing the bad design that characterized mobile homes
and trailers. She designs and sells two structures – the Portable House and
the Swellhouse. The modular Portable House is completely assembled at the
factory and arrives ready to install. Buyers can choose from 10 floor plans
and two sizes, depending on their needs and budget. The Swellhouse is a
customizable residence made up of panelized walls on a steel frame; the
components are shipped and assembled on site.
Modern nomads in Europe, especially the urban sort, have yet
another option (if zoning bylaws allow). The innovative Loftcube is a
pod-like portable house that perches on top of a building and looks a bit
like a spaceship. These mobile living units, placed on flat roofs by
helicopters or cranes and connected to the building’s utilities, offer
additional living space in big cities. The Loftcube, devised by the German
designer Werner Aisslinger, is extraordinarily compact: The loft cube is
made up of an open-space for living, dining and cooking, and a separate
sleeping area and bath.
After my family gave up living in vehicles and began living
in more permanent structures, we accumulated more possessions because we had
the space to house them. However, because we retained our restlessness, it
was harder and more expensive to move. And move we did, seldom staying in
one place for more than a season. Eventually, we settled down and I was
finally able to plant perennials and be there to see them come up the next
year. But thirty years later, my husband and I are shedding those possessions
and once again living in a tiny – if stationary – space. Now it’s about that
sailboat with solar panels we were admiring the other day....
Andy Thomson’s miniHome Sustain Design Studio, Toronto, ON
Jennifer Siegal Office of Mobile Design, Venice, CA USA
Werner Aisslinger’s Loftcube Studio Aisslinger, Berlin, Germany
Workers on Wheels Resources for RVers
Mobile: The Art of Portable Architecture by Jennifer Siegal
(Princeton Architectural Press, 2002)
Car Living Your Way: Stories and Practical Tips From Those Who Have Been
Down the Road by A.J. Heim (Touchstone Adventures, 2001)
Portable Houses by Irene Rawlings, Mary Abel (Gibbs Smith,