Architects love to start from a clean slate. It’s inherent in our training, and often, it’s for the best--after all, clean-slate thinking has given us Falling Water, Ronchamps, and countless other architectural triumphs.
Yet sometimes, incremental improvements on a humble concept are more useful than the grandest plans made from scratch. This is the case with affordable housing. Consider what architects have done to make homes more affordable during the past eighty years--in practical terms, next to nothing--and compare this with the erstwhile trailer industry, that paragon of gauche design, which has stumbled along unceremoniously only to arrive at affordable housing that really works.
The trailer story begins in the late Teens, when Americans first piled into their flivvers to go “autocamping” along the nation’s scenic new roads. At first, campers simply carried tents, but by the early Twenties, many were towing tiny trailers that cleverly unfolded into roomy canvas cabins. Meanwhile, towns throughout the country opened auto camps--later known as trailer parks--to attract tourist dollars.
In 1929, a Michigan man named Arthur Sherman got tired of wrestling with his tent trailer and built himself a solid-walled masonite version that didn’t need setting up. The idea caught on, and Sherman wound up in the trailer business, with hundreds of others soon following. By the mid-Thirties, trailering and trailer parks were such a huge phenomenon that one expert foresaw half of all Americans living in trailers by 1955.
Yet by 1937 the trailer boom had collapsed, the victim of a saturated market and its own overheated rhetoric. Meanwhile, broken-down trailers became the only homes many Depression-bound Americans could afford, changing the public’s original perception of trailer dwellers as wholesome, fun-living nomads to the more familiar stereotype presuming shiftlessness and poverty.
World War II briefly redeemed the trailer’s image. Faced with an urgent need to house defense workers, the government ordered some one hundred thousand trailers during the course of the war, and in the process helped demonstrate the lowly trailer’s value as a year-round dwelling.
The postwar housing shortage brought many novel ideas for affordable, mass-produced housing, from the all-steel Lustron home to Buckminster Fuller’s aircraft-based Wichita House. Once again, however, the clean-slate approach created spiraling costs that premempted any chance of affordability.
The trailer industry, on the other hand, simply picked up where it left off, adding homey touches and increasing size, until by the early 1950s some models were over 25 feet long. These units were now clearly designed for year-round living, though in light of the trailer dweller’s shady reputation, the industry remained loathe to concede this.
Only in 1954, when a Wisconsin firm introduced a trailer so large it required a special permit to transport, did the industry finally begin to acknowledge that year-round trailer dwellers were its real market. Twelve-foot-wide, fourteen-foot-wide, and double-twelve-foot wide trailers eventually followed, at prices that nevertheless were a fraction of conventional site-built homes.
Today, the travel trailer’s descendants--now known as manufactured homes--have quietly fulfilled the whole gamut of affordable housing requirements, and have done so through evolution and not revolution. They are mass-produced and hence affordable; they can be easily customized and rapidly deployed, and they provide the familiar domestic imagery so many homeowners take comfort in.
Yet despite these attributes, manufactured homes remain largely invisible to the architectural profession. Hence, the question is not whether such homes can provide an affordable housing solution--they already have, and for decades. The real question is why architects, and much of the public, still seem to wish they hadn’t.