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Hard times: The trailer park as a 21st-century housing model? Seriously.

The Sunrise Trailer Court, subject of a redesign competition, in Charlottesville, Va.
The Sunrise Trailer Court, subject of a redesign competition, in Charlottesville, Va.

Bill Morrish has always been a restless thinker. Back in the days when your only recourse was to flee your urban neighborhood, Morrish wrote a book called "Planning to Stay." It was an architectural guide to retrofitting city neighborhoods in ways that actually suited residents and stabilized communities.

Then when "new urbanism" and "smart growth" became orthodox concepts and cities got cool again, Morrish's mind shifted to the suburbs and their problems with aging ramblers and empty strip malls.

Now, with the housing market in shambles and Americans getting poorer by the minute, Morrish's mind has skipped ahead once again, this time to the trailer park as a model for new housing. Seriously.

An interlacing of long, narrow structures
His new book, "Growing Urban Habitats, Seeking a New Housing Development Model," will be out in June. It begins with a proposal to refashion an aging trailer park in Charlottesville, Va., and ends with a design that interlaces long, narrow structures that are affordable, sustainable and well-suited to the valley just below Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"The project is fairly dense, but it doesn't just stack units up into the air," Morrish told me on Monday, just before speaking to an overflow crowd of 200 housing advocates (including Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell) gathered in downtown Minneapolis by Family Housing Fund and its partners.

Morrish, a native Californian, first made his mark in the 1990s as head of the Design Center for the American Urban Landscape at the University of Minnesota. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp went so far as to write that "William Morrish and Catherine Brown are the most valuable thinkers in American urbanism today." That was after "Planning to Stay" appeared in 1994. But Brown, Morrish's wife, died in 1998 and Morrish did not stay. In 2001, he accepted a prestigious post at the University of Virginia's architecture school.

Bill Morrish
Family Housing Fund
Bill Morrish

Four years later, as Morrish tells it, a local Habitat for Humanity organization realized it wasn't making enough headway building one home at a time. The group's eye fell on the old Sunrise Trailer Court not far from the university's historic campus. The result was collaboration with Morrish and two colleagues — designer Katie Swenson and Susanne Schindler, the Boston architect who eventually won an international competition for transforming the trailer court into, well, something far more than a trailer court. The project, says Morrish, could forge a new prototype for affordable medium-density housing.

Advantages of light, air
Trailers have long interested Morrish. He likes the simplicity of long, narrow, free-standing structures. Light and breezes come in from either side. If ceilings are pushed to 10 feet or higher, small rooms can feel much larger. And since most walls are exterior walls, the possibilities of adjacent gardens and indoor/outdoor spaces are many.

He had no quarrel, really, with the new urbanist movement. But stacking homes above retail shops along transit corridors can't happen everywhere. Besides, there's a "formula" to new urban design that doesn't appeal to Morrish's eclectic tastes.

Morrish has never been interested in the form of a building in isolation. Rather, his talent lies in analyzing the complex web of relationships among buildings, humans and events. The 21st century has brought dramatic changes to that mix, especially in the housing market.

Homes nowadays must be smaller and cheaper. They must use energy more efficiently. Cars must be fewer and transit more available. Towns must be more compact, with stores and jobs closer. Housing types must be more varied to match changing demographics. Many homes, for example, must include independent spaces for aging parents or returning children. Immigrant homes must accommodate extended families. Many more people are single. Many more need live/work spaces. Landscaping is more important than ever. Water must be captured and recycled. Zoning and permitting processes must be streamlined. Creative financing is vital.

Housing units averaged 1,200 square feet
At the Sunrise Trailer Court in Charlottesville, where 11 mobile homes stood on a 2.3-acre site, the challenge was to triple the population by substituting 15 to 30 fixed housing units averaging 1,200 square feet. There could be no elevators and no structured parking. There would be a mix of incomes and a mix of rental and for-purchase units.

Schindler's winning design arranges long, narrow units in offset layers of one to three stories. All homes have access to green spaces. All use natural light and cross ventilation. The project surrounds a series of community gardens. Parking is on the first level of the condo buildings or alongside the single units. Pre-cast materials are employed to save money and comply with green-building goals. 

The project is now going through the maze of city approvals before construction can begin. Marion Dudley, a trailer park resident who plans to move into the development when it's completed, says this on the project's website: "This one said 'home' to me; it looks more like our own home than we have now."

It's a point Morrish emphasizes. "We need to listen more to people we're building for," he told me.

Elizabeth Ryan, vice president for regional housing initiatives at Family Housing Fund, praised Morrish for stimulating a "rethinking of our notions about design, finance and regulation, and a rethinking about how to work together."

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Comments (8)

Very good article. I didn't like you or your editors choice of the word "seriously" though. I remember reading articles from the 1950's about the need for such housing. One uncle lived in one while going to law school with a wife and child. A brother in law lives in one for 5 months in Florida and he was a full time professor. Another uncle lives in one on his ranch in South Dakota.
There have always been issues regarding ownership and durability. I don't like the uniformity of design but two of my relative's have unorthoox design. And as the recent Oklahoma twister revealed you need a larger community room/storm shelter.
Thanks for including the hyperlink as in an article like this more visual aids the better.

Comrade, great article!

If there is an upside to the recession/depression we are slogging our way through, it is this return to simpler living. Even though some of us will be kicking and screaming all the way,cutting back is essential for the environment, for future generations, and may paradoxically add to our quality of life by turning our attention away from THINGS to PEOPLE.

I'm a senior, 71, who grew up in the classic "simpler times," lived in a one-level prefab with swamp coolers--this was during and after WWII-- we thought we had it made. None of my friends and family had much more than we did, so keeping up with the Joneses hardly existed.

Today's Jones family isn't doing too well and probably won't be for the near (and far?) future. But life is still worthwhile without all the frou-frou. Now, if we can help those who not only don't have the frills of life, but barely the necessities, let the make-overs begin!

"Must" we? Must we go back to 1950 when the average home was 1,200 square feet? That size was luxurious for the post WWII Levittown development and similar across the country that housed baby boom sized families. The most exciting period of prefab housing development was 60 years ago. Forty-two years ago Montreal's Expo 67 had long narrow prefab modules stacked on top of each other demonstrating exciting urban compact living. It was indeed exciting and it was called Habitat, but the market did not buy into it. We've always had trailer parks, prefabricated housing and "park" homes. The hotbed of modern prefab housing centers right here in the Twin Cities with Alchemy Architects weeHouse and Charlie Lazor's FlatPak houses. The Morrish design is just another re-hash of all this and the concept of singular dwellings will never be economically practical given that people today are unwilling to live in 1,200 square foot homes but seem to be willing to live in that size in a multi-unit condo or apartment that will always be more economical and more energy efficient to build.

Some time ago, I read about a two-story house designed for a small lot. The first floor was a double garage; the second a one- or two-bedroom, single bath, living room and kitchen home. I don't remember if a utility/heating/cooling room was located in half of the garage or on the second floor.

The roofs of mobile homes like those discussed above could be covered with solar panels to provide electricity.

How nice to see America begin to say Goodbye to the hotel-size "executive" homes that occupy such huge pieces of suburban/exurban land.

Whether one views the positive changes of 'Trailer Park Revisited' as an upgraded version of trailer home sans wheels or a variation on the theme of the historical shot-gun house style dwelling, seen so often in photos of old New Orleans neighborhoods after the big floods's good design whomever pushes it as a way to humanize the old trailer park model.

You could say that architects, developers, planners too often start with a box as inspiration, and go from there. Call it a case of modular dystrophy with change being in the spaces between; an elbow room away from one's neighbor and 'communal' being the word here; in central heating, gardens, recreation...and that's okay if it makes it all affordable...

But whose footprint will be recognized first here? The old poor, the new poor (foreclosures, foreclosures etc)...or the wealthy seeing a good deal and just saving their money? Will they all rush in to inhabit this new model planned efficiently and in a timely manner to accomodate a black economy that we still don't dare call a Depression? Will the New Poor or the middleclass still wealthy, stand at the head of the line; get 'first dibs' on these units planned and now acceptable? Will they be reclassified without stigma from "White Trash Homes" to "White Class (classy?) Homes" 'cuz they look real good now when the economy's down?

Planned communities rise and fall on the whim of the times and the state of the economy. So maybe it's all in the planning.

Remember Jonathan MN? Not a trailer park. A wealthy small town alternative to the strip burbs that only really looked good on a drawing board. Jonathan is probably buried in weeds these days. It shares the too-often fate of well-intentioned planning.

Maybe planning itself is the curse. People don't live well or thrive in regulated places. Mavericks don't thrive there. Iconoclasts won't die there. Desperate people live there, but is the curse in the planning or the boxes called homes whatever the intended variations?

Maybe we should bury all architects and developers and planners in a mass grave and let them 'plan' their way out. I don't have the answer and when one is homeless who cares what box you hang your hat in if you can place your own geranium on the windowsill and call it your own...but who knows?

Comment #1 Dan B is certainly correct about the use of "seriously" in the headline. This illustrates an attitude I've found to be as pervasive as lawyer jokes since I moved into a trailer a year ago (lost job, sold house to cut expenses). Any inexpensive option like this is just naturally going to attract many folks who are struggling in one way or another, and this will be a barrier to general acceptance of the model by society as a whole (in the U.S. anyway). On the other hand, I've found living here refreshing in many ways - one has privacy and light, and it's MUCH cheaper than a dinky apartment (in this big city anyway). I love the idea of solar panels on top some day! Planners will just have to keep it top-of-mind to make the whole thing truly affordable and accessible to all.

This is 2009, when will that word ((TRAILER)) stop being used to refer to a manufactured / mobile home. If you look up the definition of trailer, it is something that you can pull behind your car.

My home is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath double wide and is bigger than some people's stick houses and you cannot pull my home behind your car.

In just this one article, trailer was used approximately 9 times. People who live in manufactured / mobile homes take high offense to our homes being called trailer. They are not trailers and we are not trash either!

Please at least use the terminology of mobile home when referring to manufactured homes.

Thank you.

Proud Manufactured Home Owner