|Updated: 3/3/03; 11:38:19 PM|
Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.
One of the peculiar icons of the contemporary American southwestern lifestyle is the image of the Airstream trailer standing alone in the desert. This is an image which -oddly enough- has also become something of a stereotype of the life of the sufferer of Environmental Illness. In fact, there have even been songs written about this. In truth many EI suffers have sought refuge in specially adapted trailers and the venerable Airstream trailer is one of the better choices for this simply because so much of its structure is based on aluminum rather than the chemically laden wood products typical of modular homes. But it's not often a permanent form of housing, as I soon learned when I explored the use of these myself.
I was, of course, often intrigued by the retro-futurist design of the Airstream, but I had long been reluctant to take the idea of trailer living seriously because it seemed to me a kind of last-resort housing, too small to afford the work space home employment would require, too small to provide the book storage I needed, and apparently an option EIs chose when nothing else was affordable. I soon discovered, however, that this last perception was quite wrong. The Airstream was far from a last resort housing option. It was far too costly for that.
There are only a few businesses in the US which perform non-toxic Airstream trailer conversions, the most well known being the non-toxic contracting specialist Tad Taylor and his firm Healthy Homes. The cost for conversion to non-toxic requirements is roughly $1000-$1500 per line foot, plus whatever the original trailer costs. At that cost even a relatively tiny trailer is a large investment and this is the real reason why these are not more commonly used -not, as I had mistakenly thought, because they were less adequate as permanent housing. Why is this conversion so expensive when the primary structure of the typical Airstream is non-toxic to begin with? Apparently it's because of a combination of several things. First, while the primary structure of the airstream is non-toxic, almost all its interior furnishings are not. Thus to be suitable as non-toxic housing the trailers must be stripped to the bare metal and refitted entirely. Because of the unique aircraft-style fabrication methods used for the trailers and the highly specialized design of their integrated furnishings, very special skills are needed to strip, repair, and refit them and custom non-toxic furnishings fabricated. Of particular concern is the replacement of heating and plumbing systems. Airstreams were not designed for use as permanent or semi-permanent housing. Their original plumbing systems need adaptation to interface with conventional external utilities and thier original kerosense furnaces are completely unsuitable for EIs. Careful metalwork surgery is necessary to replace these things with alternatives. Most used Airstreams tend not to be in particularly good shape because of poor treatment by their owners. It is typical for necessary repairs to cost as much as their basic purchase price. So altogether one has a pretty elaborate refurbishing process.
Airstreams are not the only trailers that have been used for non-toxic adaptation but they do, apparently, produce the best results. I have heard of other adapted trailer products -particularly a highly custom product supposedly manufactured to the specifications of a certain EI specialist doctor- but I've seen very little information on them. There is no particular cost advantage to using other types of trailers since if they are based on the same types of materials the same adaptation process applies. However, there are very few types of trailers made in the US which have had the same non-toxic composition because so few employed the same aircraft-style fabrication -such highly skilled work is not considered cost-effective in the RV industry. Even when made with the same materials, they often employed inherently toxic forms of fabrication, as in the case of the many trailers which have bodies glued together rather than riveted. Airstreams have had the most consistent fabrication method throughout their long history, though the more recent models have moved away from that and are not always as suitable as the older models. There is a possibility of much savings from scratch-building non-toxic trailers from the ground-up and this has sometimes been done. But these are usually the product of amateur fabrication and results are usually crude and practical performance mixed. Companies that manufacture custom trailers for the industrial market could readily meet this demand but none in the US have stepped up to the plate.
If these adapted trailers are so expensive, why then would EIs find them useful? The answer seems to be that they offer two critical virtues; turnkey individual housing with portability. Consider the typical scenario of the EI patient. Usually one individual in a family exhibits increasingly frequent and debilitating illness over an extended period of time. They spend years wandering from doctor to doctor with no definitive diagnosis or treatment, wasting huge amounts of money in the process. Once diagnosed, the drastic lifestyle changes the illness imposes on the patient becomes an object of social conflict in the family. It's virtually impossible to get people who aren't suffering from this ailment to relate to or accept these lifestyle changes and it can and frequently has broken up families. So the tendency is to try and confine the patient and the lifestyle adaptations he or she requires to a separate personal environment without completely disconnecting that person from the rest of the family. It usually starts with things like converting a bedroom to tile flooring or creating a kind of non-toxic adapted 'mother in law' apartment within the family home. But this is rarely adequate and so the next step is to move the individual to separate ready-made non-toxic micro-housing in the backyard of the family home.
Then we have the scenario of the EI forced to flee because the environment of the local community and/or family home is so bad no amount of 'abatement' will suffice and their health is immediately critical. These people are automatically homeless unless they can take the shelter they need with them because there is virtually NO reserve of permanent non-toxic housing anywhere in the world.
Creating any kind of custom housing is a potentially time consuming process and extremely difficult to do by proxy unless you can afford the very expensive services of the handful of EI housing specialists. Conventional housing contractors don't 'get it' and their knowledge of the latant toxicity of the products they routinely use is nil so constant vigilance is required to keep them from cheating on non-toxic specifications. Where does an EI live while supervising their home's construction? Tents can suffice for those in a healthier state, for warm climate locations, and for home building projects that don't take very long to complete. But for the rest something more robust is necessary.
Related to this is the issue of finding the right location. Insuring a home is non-toxic is straightforward but what the EI cannot control is their own individual mix of tolerances, the outside environment, and the behavior of a society that is generally oblivious to the pollution it generates on a daily basis. So even when building non-toxic housing is readily feasible, for the extremely sensitive EIs finding a suitable pollution-free location is a big challenge. There's a need to be able to travel from place to place, testing each for somewhat extended periods of time in order to find the one most optimal location. And even when you have found the right location, there is a possibility that the nearby actions of neighbors, corporations, and government will turn that one haven into hell overnight. So there's an advantage to having a kind of non-toxic shelter, be it transitional or permanent, that is freely transportable.
In all these situations, Airstreams are about the only available solution. So, as expensive and limited in space as they are, they are pretty much the only game in town. If I could afford this, I would probably be living in one of these converted Airstreams right now -with a companion trailer or shipping container serving for storage. But you can't mortgage an Airstream and my income won't cover the personal loan for one. So it remains unattainable. In general, though, I have found that marine shipping containers probably represent a far more practical portable non-toxic shelter option than Airstreams even if they lack an established industry for their conversion. They are vastly cheaper, vastly easier to adapt, offer more usable space, and are readily extensible to any size of housing. Their only comparative drawback is the lack of a car-towable trailer chassis and hence the need for cranes to move them.
|Copyright 2003 © Eric Hunting.|