Autonomous Home

Project Prefab Trailer Minihome

Designers Daniel Hall and Andy Thomson

Text Melana Janzen

Since the beginnings of prefabricated housing–recall Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1929) and Robert McLaughlin’s Motohome (1932)–a trailer home advertised for delivery complete with food in the kitchen1–many architects have undertaken prefab design with the democratic ambition of providing mobility, availability and affordability to the mass housing market. Not until recently, however, has it taken hold with renewed fascination. The miniHome, designed and marketed by intern architects Daniel Hall and Andy Thomson, is part of this trend that attempts to carve out a unique territory within architectural prefab.

The miniHome strongly promotes the accessibility of a green lifestyle and does this within the RV industry.2 Conceptually, these two modes are not without contradiction, as recreational vehicles would seem to run counter to the paradigm of sustainability. However, the alternate regulatory framework of the Canadian Safety Association’s RV standards has opened up new opportunities by relaxing normally applicable building code requirements. It is possible, for example, to have non-compliant stairs or tightened bathrooms (by building standards) and to forge ahead with green electrical and mechanical systems which are not easily achieved in regular buildings.

Since the RV is by nature off grid, there is a logical impetus to move further toward energy autonomy. Winterized with structurally insulated panels (SIPs) in the roof, floor and walls, and punctuated by high-performance windows, the miniHome is airtight and energy efficient. The heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) custom designed by Thomson guarantees an efficient air supply. The propane furnace and water heater can be upgraded to run on bio-diesel while optional solar panels, wind turbine and a composting toilet give this unit LEED Platinum equivalency (based on Thomson’s own calculations). Low-voltage electrical services are run on a hybrid AC/DC hydro service and all the finishes are made with natural materials–certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and contain low amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOC).

Architecturally, the miniHome has three distinct zones: kitchen/dining, living, and sleeping loft, each articulated as boxes of varying colour and cladding. The design has a contemporary aesthetic although it might benefit from a more essential form. The 86 width limitation is handled skillfully, but in occupying the space one still struggles to transcend the feel of an RV. That said, the finishing appeals to the modern eye, and the custom furniture pushes the character of the place in a direction that begins to break down one’s prejudices.

The beta models retail at $145,000, which at 86 * 360 translates to just under $475 per square foot. This may well contribute to the skepticism around the affordable goals of prefab housing, yet in relation to standard RV units on the market, it sits comfortably below the upper price limits. Without the cost of engineering, permits, land severance, surveys, foundations, utilities, fixtures and furnishings often excluded from other marketed prefab homes, the miniHome provides a serious alternative. The ideology of freedom promoted by both prefab as well as the cottage industry may, for some, find a happy marriage in the miniHome RV/cottage hybrid.

Melana Janzen works for architectsAlliance and is based in Toronto.

1 Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart, Prefab (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2002), p. 17.

2 The miniHome is prefabricated by Northlander Industries of Exeter, Ontario.