HTMAPODWTTC 12: Trailer Parks and Mobile Home Parks

HTMAPODWTTC 12: Trailer Parks and Mobile Home Parks
May 18, 2014

For a while, I’ve been proposing actionable, specific ways to create Traditional City neighborhoods within the context of the present Suburban Hell or 19th Century Hypertrophic City as it exists in the United States today. These formats are intended to achieve all of our Traditional City goals of creating pleasing environments to live, work, shop and play, while also being highly profitable for developers.

January 20, 2013: HTMAPODWTTC 11: The Diminishing Returns of Suburbia
November 11, 2012: HTMAPODWTTC 10: Let’s Bulldoze a Big Box Shopping Center 2: No, Seriously
July 1, 2012: How To Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 9: Townhouses With Parking
April 22, 2012: How to Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 8: Shared Parking

April 1, 2012: How To Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 7: Let’s Bulldoze a Big Box Shopping Center
August 21, 2011: How To Make A Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 6: Better Than a Thousand Words
July 31, 2011: How To Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 5: The New New Suburbanism
July 17, 2011: How To Make A Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 4: More SFDR/SFAR Solutions
June 12, 2011: How to Make a Pile of Dough with the Traditional City 3: Single Family Detached in the Traditional City Style
May 15, 2011: How To Make A Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 2: A Ski Resort Village
August 22, 2010: How to Make a Pile of Dough with the Traditional City

Two such formats are the Trailer Park and Mobile Home community. These are actually rather distinct: a “trailer park” is generally a place for towable travel trailers, for seasonal use or occasionally for long-term use in places with a mild climate, as travel trailers are barely if at all insulated. The “mobile home” is actually quite distinct from a “trailer,” and has a more formal name “manufactured housing.” These structures are mostly built in a factory somewhere, with the finished or near-finished product then transported via flatbed to what amounts to a permanent installation somewhere. In practice, they do not differ much from a (smallish and rather poorly-made) site-built house, often reaching sizes of 1500sf or more.

Neither of these are ideal in their present format. For the most part, a site-built structure of the same or similar size would be better for long-term residence. However, given that we have to mostly work within the existing Suburban Hell framework as it exists in the U.S., we might as well use these tested-and-proven formats. For one thing, they already fit within most municipalities’ zoning codes and general ways of doing business. Larger developers of site-built structures (single family homes, townhouses, apartment buildings, office buildings etc.) are probably working with larger budgets, and can perhaps influence municipal bureaucracies to allow what amounts to a Traditional City arrangement. In other words, they could get cooperation to build something that does not fit today’s cookie-cutter modalities. However, this might be difficult for smaller-scale developers, so it would be easiest just to use some kind of format that is already well accepted and doesn’t ruffle too many bureaucratic feathers.

Travel trailers are generally designed for towable travel use, naturally, and generally do not make very good long-term structures. Plus, they are plain ugly; the way a house looks is actually quite important. A house should look like a house. This is one reason why repurposing things like old school buses generally doesn’t work very well, even though it has a lot of utilitarian advantages. School buses are generally quite well made, and large, and you might be able to get an oldish one for under $5000. However, it looks like a school bus, and anyone living in one, even if repainted and redecorated, inevitably looks like some kind of refugee. Living in a travel trailer is much the same. Although it can be a perfectly functional (although typically not very durable) device, using it for something besides its intended purpose (short term use in summer) inevitably looks shabby.

One of the ingenious elements of the tiny houses built on trailers, which have become surprisingly popular today, is that they follow very closely the three-century-old traditions of American site-built house architecture. Thus, although they are often very small even for travel trailers, sometimes below 100sf of usable interior space, they look like “homes” rather than some repurposed transportation device. This is important.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company “Elm” design, 117 square feet. Looks like a “house,” right?

One layout for the interior of the Elm design.

Elm floorplan. It is only 6’8″ wide.


Keystone Springdale 225RBGL — the smallest model in the Springdale model lineup. 225 square feet. Other models go up to 293sf. It’s nearly twice the size of the “Elm”!


Springdale model trailer, interior view.



Springdale floorplan.

And yet, despite the fact that the Springdale model is nearly twice the size of the “Elm,” and rather well appointed on the inside, it nevertheless looks like a vehicle rather than a house. We would consider the “Elm” much more “respectable.” This is even represented in the terms we use, a “tiny house” which happens to be on wheels, compared to a “trailer” which happens to be inhabited long-term.

Why build a house like the “Elm” on wheels?

The main reason is that putting the structure on wheels allows it to be considered a vehicle for regulatory purposes, exempting it from all the regulations pertaining to site-built structures. There are a few other advantages, notably portability, and the fact that any structure needs some kind of foundation anyway. However, putting the structure on wheels also introduces many acute limitations. Weight limits are severe, as the finished structure must be suitable for off-the-rack flatbed trailers and towable by a typical vehicle. One reason that trailer-built tiny houses like the Elm are so small, compared to travel trailers, is that they use much heavier wood framing. You can’t build very much before you exceed the weight capacities of trailers and towing vehicles. The travel trailers are much larger, because they use much lighter sheet-metal construction. They both weigh the same, about 6000 lbs.

In addition, the structure must be very narrow, typically about 7’6″ on the outside and 6’6″ on the inside, as any trailer must fit a typical vehicle traffic lane. Pop-outs and so forth, common on travel trailers, are difficult with wood-framed construction. Also, you cannot make an effective second story beyond the “sleeping loft” as shown, as this would make it too tall for towing, in addition to creating rather odd dimensions.

Once you make it very narrow, then you also cannot make it very long, before you violate traditional proportions of site-built homes and end up with something that looks … a lot more like a wooden travel trailer, or wooden shipping container.

There’s a reason that site-built homes are generally not long and narrow (except when they are, in the case of “shotgun houses” or Japanese “eel houses”). A very long and narrow structure, besides being somewhat impractical for daily use, also is much more consumptive of construction materials in relation to the enclosed space. For example, if you have a 7×15 structure (like the Elm), and double the floor space by doubling the length, then you must extend two walls by 15′ each. However, if you double the floor space by doubling the width, then you would extend two walls by 7′ each. In addition, the very long and narrow structure might have requirements for things like hallways that a more squarish design might not, thus consuming more space. On a related point, the ratio of surface area to enclosed space is very high, which means that it would tend to lose heat more rapidly in cold climates.

Lastly, an 80-150 square foot home really is very small, impractically small, even for a single person and certainly for a family of three or more. That is not to say that it is impossible, or even that such minimalism doesn’t have its own attractions and advantages. But, people seem to settle on a little larger size, perhaps in the 300-600 square foot range, if they aren’t constrained by extremely high land costs or the difficulties of building on a trailer flatbed. I find that around 150 square feet per person seems to be a good benchmark even for minimalist living. That’s why the Keystone trailer company doesn’t even make the Springdale in a size below 225 square feet.

In short, building a 100sf house on wheels is a very stupid way to build houses. However, it is a very good way of building a small house within the context of Suburban Hell as it exists today, where municipal governments basically won’t let you do such a thing unless you can drop out of the existing regulations for site-built structures, which basically force you to make the typical Suburban Hell house of 1500+ square feet on a lot of at least an eighth-acre (about 5000sf), with a 19th Century Hypertrophic street of 65+ feet wide, all of which implies a selling cost of $150,000 at a minimum, for shoddy construction.

Despite all of these issues, the idea of the Tiny House in the 100sf range has become a focus of a lot of people’s imagination. Now the question is: where do you put it?

I think most people would fantasize that it would be kept either in a friends’ backyard, in a suburban context, or perhaps on five acres deep in the country. The first would require a rather good friend indeed; the second would require some way of making a living in a rural area. Both are a bit marginal at best. In any case, we are talking about building Traditional City neighborhoods and communities here, not just hiding a wooden travel trailer behind some bushes somewhere.

Typical formats today for travel trailers include the “campground” and also the “RV park,” for more long-term residence. It is actually quite common for people to keep a travel trailer at a campground year-round, but use it only in the warmer months. In effect, it becomes a sort of cheap vacation home or summer residence. The trailer never moves. I’ve been to some campgrounds of this sort, and they can in fact be quite pleasant and lively places, often with a strong sense of community.

A typical trailer campground.

Note the relatively tight spacing and Really Narrow Street of about 20-25 feet wide, with no sidewalks or central roadway.

This looks pretty nice. Note the Really Narrow Street, gravel, about 18 feet wide. Nice use of trees here.

Dense spacing, informal “backyards.”

Another Really Narrow Street here.

These spots typically have “hookups” for water, sewage and electricity. For longer-term use, you could include Internet if you wanted to.

The point is, things like these are already being done, in the United States, so what if you did it with a “tiny house on wheels” rather than a “travel trailer”? I think about 6% of the U.S. population is living full-time in an “RV” or “travel trailer” today. That’s about 20 million people.


You could, within the context of an “RV campground,” also use a layout which is more typical of urban site-built homes rather than campgrounds. Campgrounds are usually in rural areas, where land is cheap and plentiful. However, for long-term use, you would want to be nearer to cities, which means higher land costs and thus significant benefits from higher density. Plus, as the density goes up, it becomes much more like a traditional “village” than a scattered campground.

For example, let’s use some of the nicer elements of the pictures above: a Really Narrow Street (often gravel), of about 16-20 feet wide, and some nice trees and so forth. Put the Tiny Houses on plots of about 20’x40′ (800sf). At 800sf plots, 15% of surface area for streets, and 15% of surface area for shared amenities like parks and playgrounds, that would mean about 78 plots per acre.

The 20×40 foot plot would allow side parking of up to two cars, stack-parked. Also, you would have about 20′ to work with for front setback and rear yard, where things like gardens and trees could also be planted.

If you wanted to, you could use a separate parking lot, which then allows closer spacing. With a three-foot separation between tiny houses, they would be on 11-foot spacing, Also, the “street” can become more like a pedestrian walkway, of a width of as little as 6 feet, since it wouldn’t have to accommodate vehicle traffic. (Actually, you would want a way to get the tiny house in and out, since it is still on wheels, so more like 12 feet would probably be better.)

This sort of thing does exist in the U.S. today. This particular example is, frankly, pretty dismal. But, if you can imagine something like this with wooden “tiny houses,” each one unique, rather than these identical sheet-metal travel trailers, and also with some nice backyards, trees and other greenery, you can get an idea of what I mean.

This sort of format, of compact single-family houses on Really Narrow Streets, is actually quite common throughout Asia. It was the normal pattern of development in Japan before 1960 or so. Unfortunately, it has been quite hard to find a good picture of what I mean, of the classic tile roofs and small wooden detached houses (footprint typically 250-400sf). Here’s about the best I’ve done:

A light dusting of snow covers rooftops across a neighborhood in Tokyo on February 6, 2013. The Japan Meteorological Agency was forecasting heavy snow on Pacific coastal regions in western and eastern Japan on February 5 and February 6 as a developing low pressure system passed along the south of the Japanese archipelago. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI

This is a similar sort of neighborhood in China. Small detached houses in a compact arrangement with Really Narrow Streets.

Another Chinese neighborhood. Trees and bushes here and there.

Small houses and shops in a Japanese village. Note the Really Narrow Street.

Small houses on a Really Narrow Street, Japan.


Small houses on a Really Narrow Street, England.

Like this, but wooden. And on wheels.

Is that so horrible?

We will look at “mobile homes” (manufactured housing) later.

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