18 November 2008

Mobile Homes and Public Buses





Colorado Public Radio's "Colorado Matters" program had an interesting piece (warning: audio file) on transforming mobile homes from drek to groundwork for a cottage living paradigm. Images of the CU Architecture student project discussed appear above.

The remodel of an existing trailer cost about $45,000 and was put in an existing downtown Boulder trailer park. It was sold for about $29,000. The story also notes that Aspen, unlike Boulder, has trailer lots that can be owned, rather than merely rented.

The need to have a mobile home on a chassis, rather than a foundation, was cited as a serious problem with mainstreaming the concept. Federal law prohibits local zoning codes from excluding prefab and manufactured housing that complies with the HUD code and would be properly zoned but for a method of construction specific exclusion. For example, there is a nice little manufactured home at S. Lincoln and Virginia in Denver next to Caboose Hobbies.

The problems run deeper, however. Consider the devastation suffered by an upscale trailer park in California in the latest wildfire, destroying almost 500 of them in one go. Trailers inevitably bear the brunt of every passing tornado, hurricane and flood as well. And, then the are the worries spurred by the Katrina trailers, but apparently more widespread, of formaldehyde exposure risks. Also, many trailer parks, particularly those that don't cater particularly to the elderly, because their residents tend to be poor, are fraught with crime.

There are multiple attractions to manufactured housing. One, identified by the professor in the CPR story, is the notion of allowing people to have single family starter homes on small lots at an affordable price. Another, is the ability of a factory to be more precise and efficient (in terms of both price and waste) in building housing because mass production and controlled conditions make it possible -- minimizing the unpredictability and hazards of an outdoor work site.

A web page on the topic discusses the industry:

Prefab, modular, manufactured and panelized housing are terms that are used pretty loosely to describe various types of home building options that are preassembled to some degree before they are delivered to the site. There is overlap between very low end 'tornado-magnet' trailer housing and very top drawer architecture delivered in modules.

Newer "housetrailers or mobile homes", are much more likely to be called the better sounding term: "manufactured housing". A manufactured home is constructed in a controlled environment. It is built to the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards (also known as HUD Code). Mobile home is the term used for factory built manufactured housing made prior to the introduction of the HUD Code. Around here in the South, everyday folk still refer to them as "house trailers"--code or no code !

Prefab, panelized, and modular are terms that usually refer to upscale housing that can be any combination of pre-engineered home parts that re delivered to the building site ready to be assembled in a quick manner. There is some very creative and high style architecture in some of the latest introductions into the prefab and modular housing arena. A home of this type, when properly installed and maintained, will appreciate the same as the surrounding site-built homes in it's area. If you are buying the home and land together or plan to place the home on land that you already own, financial institutions offer traditional real estate mortgages with similar interest rates.

Manufactured housing is built on a trailer chassis and is considered portable or temporary in nature. Typically constructed from light-weight metal framing, manufactured housing is less durable and less versatile than modular structures. Modular houses are comprised of all the same materials, techniques and standards as site construction, except that the units are assembled in less than a day.


Dozens of specific current examples of prefab houses follow the quoted language at the link. Technology is not what has held back prefab housing. Current technology can produce good quality housing, with very little waste, at a lower cost, with better quality control, with a longer building season, and with greater worker safety, and a less disruptive on site construction progress that goes more quickly. Past tragedies of poor predecessor technologies, public unfamiliarity with the concept, and an aversion to smaller and more affordable housing generally, are to blame.

Traditional manufactured housing, because of its poor ability to withstand extreme weather conditions and often low trim quality has been largely discredited. The HUD Code is supposed to have made a difference, and some are apparently now build on slabs, rather than remaining on a trailer chassis, but breaking the bad image earlier models created isn't easy, and the general public can't tell the difference (if indeed there is a material one) between older and newer models. There is still room for some form of prefab or modular concept to gain respectability and prove itself, however.

Technology isn't the only barrier. One also has to figure out a way to build modest, affordable housing in a way that doesn't produce toxic concentrations of poverty. This has nothing to do with the housing itself -- no one complains seriously about crime spawned by modest housing stock for college dorms or resort cabins. It has to do with the fact that in our materialistic society, people spend as much as they can afford on housing, and the fact that in our meritocratic society, low income is frequently a proxy for some combination of a lack of job skills, poor social skills, impulsiveness, substance abuse problems, mental health problems, a criminal record and/or weak intellectual and academic abilities. Even if a majority of residents have none of these problems, a substantial majority who do can turn an affordable neighborhood into "Salem's Lot" as rapper Eminem called it.

The social issues transcend the prefab and modular technologies. The same issues will arise if one tries to market neighborhoods of low cost, stick build single family homes or cottage communities, or affordable apartment buildings. Public housing projects, where the average resident is too poor to afford even the modest units that they are living in, tend to be centers of urban crime. Sun Valley (just South of West Colfax, just West of I-25), is one of Denver's largest traditional housing projects, and not coincidentally, it is also one of its highest crime neighborhoods, year after year after year.

Small homes on small lots built in an affordable way make a great deal of sense ecologically and financially. Much of the spending we see on houses larger than the people who buy them actually need, or with trim levels finer than greatly desired, is really aimed at excluding the poor, rather than because the housing stock itself is needed.

The Parallel Issues In Transit

The biggest barriers to public transit, be it a bus or passenger rail, is likewise social. When only those who are disabled and hence have no other choice, or are too poor to own their own car, are the predominant users of transit, and it doesn't take much money to own a cheap used car, those who are able avoid transit due to the fear of concentrated poverty and the associated fear of crime (or petty nuisances like crass language and social discord short of crime that often also comes with it).

There are many people who would take transit if they felt safe, resulting in huge traffic drops, reductions in demand for oil, and reduced pollution. With current technology, city buses are a much easier path to reduced oil consumption than super efficient cars. But, the upper working class, middle class, upper middle class and the wealthy will all shun transit unless they feel safe on it. This is the main reason why light rail is more popular than public buses with the middle class commuting public, even though the technological benefits of light rail are smaller than one might suspect, and the cost of light rail infrastructure is so high.

In places where almost everyone uses public transit because cars are exceedingly expensive or parking in impracticable or traffic is out of control or individual cars are otherwise impracticable, transit doesn't have a disproportionately poor user base and is popular among middle class riders. For example:

* People ride buses in Israel and passenger trains in India despite repeated terrorist incidents on each.
* Commercial air travel is the quintessential form of middle class public transit.
* The FREX bus from Colorado Springs to Denver, with its commuter customer base, doesn't have this problem.
* Charter buses for senior citizens and tourists lack this problem.
* School buses generally lack this character, especially in places where almost everyone has to ride the school bus to get to school.
* Subway/rail systems in New York City, Japan, Paris, London, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Washington D.C. largely avoid these issues.
* U.S. passenger trains, prior to the advent of commercial air travel in the 1960s.
* RTD buses are notable less dominant ed by very low income people in Boulder, Colorado, where college students universally have passes, parking is difficult to secure, and for whom money is often scarce.
* Dedicated high speed bus lines in Brazil (also called Rapid Bus Transit).

No Solution In This Post

The problem is long standing and not susceptible to being solve in one blog post. But, it is worth clarifying what is going on in these two areas (prefab housing and transit) where there is great room for ecological progress and an American way of life that is less focused on high consumption, but we haven't solved the social barriers to making them work yet.

2 comments:

Dex said...

wasn't it margaret thatcher who said that any man who takes the bus after the age of 30 is a failure? and just last week i watched t. boone pickens say that in america, "we walk because we want to, not because we have to."

i think the prestige/privilege thing is a huge obstacle as well...

Kristie Parker said...

As we all are aware of the fact that there are multiple attractions to manufactured housing. One, identified by the professor in the CPR story, is the notion of allowing people to have single family starter homes on small lots at an affordable price. Another, is the ability of a factory to be more precise and efficient (in terms of both price and waste). Typically constructed from light-weight metal framing, manufactured housing is less durable and less versatile than modular structures. Modular houses are comprised of all the same materials, techniques and standards as site construction, except that the units are assembled in less than a day. The need to have a mobile home loan on a chassis, rather than a foundation, was cited as a serious problem with mainstreaming the concept. Public housing projects, where the average resident is too poor to afford even the modest units that they are living in, tend to be centers of urban crime. Sun Valley (just South of West Colfax, just West of I-25), is one of Denver's largest traditional housing projects, and not coincidentally, it is also one of its highest crime neighborhoods, year after year after year.