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Architect Matthew Hofmann of Hofmann Architecture prefers small living spaces and he prefers renovating small Airstream trailers to designing all-new homes. In fact, with an eye towards green architecture, he renovated his own 160-square-foot 1978 Airstream, updating it with a new contemporary interior that features bamboo countertops, a dining area that converts to a guest bed, a fully integrated home office and a luxurious bathroom. He demolished the entire interior of the Airstream, salvaging any materials or fixtures that were still usable. He then rebuilt using regional, sustainably produced, recyclable materials. The Airstream uses an integrated propane heating system on colder nights. For cooling, it uses two large awnings on each side to shade windows from direct sunlight. Large operable, screened windows promote cross-ventilation to take advantage of Southern California’s ocean breeze. The Airstream uses a low voltage battery system with integrated charger to supply 12-volt lighting and fans, or converted 110v power. Batteries are recharged from the automobile while in tow, and a solar panel battery charging system is currently being installed (October 2011). Low voltage lighting, such as fluorescent and halogen, are utilized throughout the trailer. Water flow control devices are installed on every water fixture. A small hot water tank encourages shorter showers, and an extremely low-flow dual-flush is adaptable to the type of waste. There are two separate storage tanks: one for graywater and one for blackwater. Graywater is diverted from sink and shower drains and used for landscape irrigation. The Airstream is not hooked up to city sewer, so blackwater waste is biologically-treated on-site through a leach field/septic tank. Hofman is currently a roaming architect, roving around the Santa Barbara, California, area in his remodeled Airstream. Airstreams are the iconic silver bullet-shaped, rounded aluminum trailers whose design originated in the 1930s. One of these luxury, mobile recreational vehicles was even used in 1969 as a quarantine station for the crew of Apollo 11 upon their return from the Moon, until it could be determined that they had not brought back lunar pathogens with them. The original Airstream was constructed in 1929 on a Model T Ford chassis, with a platform on it, towed behind Wally’s car to a campsite where Wally erected a tent on it. Airstream trailers had the first holding tank, the first ladder frame, the first pressurized water system, and the first fully self-contained travel trailer. Airstream was the only one of 400 travel trailer builders that survived the Depression.
On designing and building his 1978 Airstream Renovation
By Matthew Hofman, Hofmann Architecture
Often, the creative process succeeds not by adding more, but by taking away what is distracting. The design questions were: "How much does one remove? How much does one keep?"
To me, sustainable practices are a mere starting point for design. This included the use of regional materials and reusable products, such as bamboo for flooring, counter tops, dining room/worktable, along with a recycling management plan throughout construction. Weight was also a huge issue. Less was more. Lighter was better. And like luggage packed on an airplane, the load needed to be properly balanced.
I wanted to create open space in a small space, using honest materials. In Southern California, blurring the distinction between interior and exterior space can be a very successful strategy. The design needed to be bright and airy by nature, yet warm and multifunctional.
Many of my clients are in Santa Barbara, so after looking at some tiny yet still expensive condos and lofts, I purchased and remodeled a 1978, 25-foot Airstream trailer on a whim on Craigslist.
I needed a place to park it -- and not in a trailer park -- so I went back to the most logical place: Craigslist. I arranged to park it on an ocean-view Montecito lot where a home had burned down recently. The city of Santa Barbara had issued temporary trailer permits for homeowners whose homes were destroyed.
Some friends and family don't understand why I've chosen this lifestyle, while others say I'm living their dream. Before the remodel, most expressed some form of "good luck …" with doubt-filled grins. It's pleasant to bring the same folks inside to see the finished product. I enjoy working with clients with gutsy audacity -- like me. Life-changing events, such as a fire, remind people that they can do with much less and be content.
Material scraps from the Airstream were sent to a recycling yard. That included hardware, braces, tracks, rods and plastic paneling. All of the old appliances and fixtures -- refrigerator, oven, sink, toilet -- were sold online or donated. That extended the life of old materials and prevented them from heading to the landfill.
For the new dining area, I replaced the existing tabletop with Cali Bamboo natural strand bamboo while reusing the table posts. The old tabletop was reconditioned and used as shelving in the cabinetry. The dinette doubles as a guest bed. By removing the table posts and lowering the top to seat level, it also converts to what I call a media lounge where I can play movies on my 27-inch iMac.
In the workspace and lounge, the office printer is tucked into a custom-built pullout drawer under the bench. I sold my plasma TV, DVD player, audio receiver, seven-speaker surround sound, desktop PC, laptop computer, wireless home speaker system and portable radio.
The kitchen has a Moen stainless-steel sink with a Euro-modern 23-inch pull-out spray chrome faucet. New appliances include an Atwood Wedgewood three-burner propane stainless gas cooktop, Target countertop stainless-steel toaster oven and Norcold refrigerator.
The cabinets are Hafele, with halogen puck lights overhead to provide more than ample meal-prep illumination. The original overhead cabinetry was removed, redesigned and reinstalled to simplify and clean up the lines. The seating, a custom piece that converts to a full size bed, has Sunbrella indoor-outdoor fabric cushions.
One of my favorite purchases was a Hafele Kessebohmer integrated pullout pantry system. Hafele also makes a very cool Moovit drawer box system and cutlery tray inserts. Those German designers know their driving machines and storage devices.
I'm 6-foot-4, so I designed a generous convertible bed using locally supplied, lightweight materials. I hired a seamstress to hand-sew Sunbrella indoor-outdoor fabric cushions from CushionsXpress. Underneath the bed is the original roll-up cabinets from Airstream. ArchiTech in-wall speakers sound like a high-fidelity surround-sound system.
The bathroom was easily my greatest indulgence. Attractive, durable and sustainable custom-cut counter tops are by Custom Cali Natural Strand Bamboo. The shower was handcrafted with practical and pleasing curves using tiny glass tiles and a custom-built redwood shower pan. Water temperature and power are controlled through a Grohe Euphoria chrome fixture.
A14-inch glass vessel sink sits under a single-handle faucet. The room's custom LED light has two-stage brightness, from ultra-low to high voltage. The towel bars, TP holder and other accessories were from the Grohe Essentials line.
Using the empty shell – the floor, walls and roof – in an existing building requires significantly less energy than new construction. By eliminating the need for building a foundation, erecting walls, installing windows, and placing on a new roof thousands of dollars of resources that would have been required to build these elements can be transferred, or saved all together. My 1978 Airstream project was, at its heart, an exercise in reusing an existing space.
Reuse – to take an existing product and use it for the same function or purpose, this is the most basic and simple method. For example, much of the cabinetry that was existing was saved in the Airstream project. The goucho (bed) was beyond saving, but the storage drawers beneath them made a beautiful base for the new bed. Even the faux wood paneling was reused. The new convertible couch looks like a rich piece of furniture amid the abundance of white walls. The overhead cabinetry was removed, modified, and re-installed to form a more pleasing alignment. All of the overhead cabinetry hardware was saved and reused, including the tambour rollup doors, plastic tracks, and metal pulls. The front dinette set is original, just refinished and painted.
Reclaim – to use an existing product or material, on-site that may no longer be used for its original intended purpose, removing it and reconditioning as necessary, then transferring it to a new use in the same project. A trailer, by its nature, is a very small confined space. A primary design goal was to open up the space by removing unnecessary visual obstacles. In the Airstream, there were several walls that needed to be removed. The old oak table was beyond repair and was also removed. These elements were stored onsite and reclaimed as shelving in the cabinetry.
Recycle – In all projects, there are elements that can not be reused or reclaimed. Instead of sending materials to the landfill, recycle! Recycling comes in all shapes and sizes. Many material scraps from the Airstream were stockpiled and sent to a recycling yard, such as hardware, braces, tracks, rods, plastic paneling, etc. All of the old appliances (refrigerator, oven, sink, toilet) were sold on craigslist or donated to a new user. Giving away or selling old parts that you don’t have a use for has three benefits:
1. It keeps the old part from heading to the landfill;
2. Enables the unwanted item to continue its lifespan in a different use.; and
3. Keeps one less new product from entering the market by providing someone with a working unit. New products = energy + resources.
After the interior is completely demolished by an expert craftsman, the unit is cleaned up and the design team coordinates with the production manager and the rough-in begins. Moving plumbing, electrical and any other major issues are confronted at this early stage. Architect Matthew Hofmann creates preliminary designs that are incorporated into a working set of plans and 3D computer renderings and production begins.