This Space for Rent

Frontiers of modern architecture.

Treehugger magazine (an online magazine that attempts to combine modern design and earthy-crunchiness, and sometimes even succeeds) has some editors with a pretty severe case of prefab house lust. One design which has been mentioned a few times is a mobile home that's designed as more of a house than a trailer, and is supposed to be much more earthy-crunchy than a conventional house because it's built in a factory (sort of like a larger version of the Tumbleweed houses) and it's easy to recycle and manage the construction waste there.

It's not the prettiest modern design out there, but once you get past the awkward outside it's nicely arranged inside (except for the sleeping area, which is in a little tiny loft inside the sheetmetal wart on the roof, but that's just a matter of personal preference; a lot of people appear to like sleeping in a cabinet) and I could almost see it being a nice choice for a lot of people, except for one teeny tiny problem: This 340 square foot mobile home costs US$125,000, or ~US$368/square foot. That's, um, kind of expensive. By square foot, it's not much more expensive than the Tumbleweed houses (the prices of which have shot up substantially since the first time I looked into them), but it's still more expensive than the equivalent stick-built house, and it's much more expensive than the more conventional manufactured housing unit that you can buy new or used anywhere in North America.

And it doesn't include the price of land, either. If I decided I really really wanted this house design of my own and I wanted to live in the city of Portland Oregon, I could put down US$125,000 (plus shipping!) for the house, US$160,000 for a 50x100 lot (there's a lot near Powell and 10th that's US$160,000 for a nominal 50x100, but that 100ft includes two street frontages, so it's probably more like 50x80 usable), and US$6-10,000 for a concrete pad and utilities. Grand total, for 340 square feet (not including city permits and shipping) of US$295,000 ? When I could buy a stick-built house of approximately 10 times that size for US$299,000?

I might be able to claw back US$100,000 by splitting the lot in half and having a developer build a narrow house on the other half of the lot (I've thought about buying some lots on Portland and building a pair of 20x30 houses on the lot, except that for some strange reason people want to have garages, and that tends to eat up the entire lot if you can't tuck the garages under the houses) but that's still an awful lot of money for a very small house.

Well, it makes a nice statement house. Unfortunately, the statement I'd reading is "I've got too much money!", just like the statement that so many other so-called innovative modern house designs make.

What would I do differently? Good question. I'd probably not bother to hide the fact that it's a mobile home, and I'd try to duplicate the construction techniques that the non-earthy-crunch manufactured home builders use, with the exception of lining up suppliers who are more ecologically sound. And, come to think of it, I'd probably be tempted to use a real modular design; split the house up into a kitchen/dining module and a living/sleeping/toilet module which could be coupled together in different ways.

Or I'd just buy a used mobile home (they look like they sell for about US$25,000) and have it retrofitted in a modern style. A new mobile home, no matter how earthy-crunchily it was built, will still eat up more resources than an already existing structure, particularly if any of the retrofitting you do is with recycled materials.


Not the prettiest design? I saw something like that after the Tennessee tornado, only nicer and with a cop car stuck in the roof for surreal appeal. I could crap a better looking house.

Francois Tue Apr 11 13:01:49 2006

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