I am a residential Architect who is living and working in a new solar-powered Airstream trailer in the southern Marin County. I have been practicing for 37 years, been a contractor for 17, and have completed almost 200 projects in the Bay Area. As a residential architect, my “specialty” has become Arts-and-Crafts and Lodge Style homes in Northern California. While loving and designing these elegant and spacious homes, I became interested in the “Not So Big” ideas presented by author Sarah Suzanka in the 90’s. With Planning and budget constraints limiting the size of my projects more and more each year, I am finding that I must often council my clients to build smaller. To help with my understanding and experience of living smaller, as well as my curiosity about living a more and more simple, almost nomadic life, I have moved into smaller and smaller homes over the last decade, and moving into my Airstream is the most recent step in this amazing process.
A 40-year dream of owning an Airstream
In 1964, the year I began my architecture studies at Cal, my parents moved into a house-trailer for their retirement, and while visiting them soon after, a neighbor gave me a tour of their Airstream. I wasn’t completely sold, but curious, and obviously a seed was sewn. As I moved through my mid-life changes, with kids (4 daughters) leaving home and completing college, reaching a physical limit and necessary end for my passion of backpacking, I felt more and more drawn to a nomadic life that would give me comfortable access to the outdoors.
Airstreams held a fascination, but I knew I could never live in a traditional RV because I felt that the interiors (even for Airstreams) were an uninspired and unevolved example of mid-century mediocre design, materials and detailing. In the 90’s Airstreams became a popular starting place for elaborate one-on-one custom redesign, and the completed projects began to make their way into the design literature. I remember seeing a picture of Ralph Lauren’s Adirondack Airstream in Architectural Digest, and thinking that re-hab-ing an old trailer would be the only way to enjoy my projected version of a mobile lifestyle. Having been a contractor, I also knew that such a project would be extremely expensive or complex and time-consuming, or both.
Returning from a high-sierra camping trip in summer 2004, I came upon an Airstream dealer with an entire city-block of gorgeous aluminum facing the highway. I stopped for my first visit to a dealer, and was surprised to learn some essential new details regarding the Airstream product. When I opened the door of the first trailer my reaction was “wow” they’ve completely updated the interiors – I don’t have to undertake the daunting task of fixing up an old trailer to have one I like. The new “International CCD“ line was everything I wanted. I also learned at this first visit that the new trailers were affordable to me because they were financed as a second home with low-interest mortgages and the interest is tax-deductible.
“I wanted the interior to deliver on the promise of the exterior.”
– Christopher Deam
The Christopher Deam – Airstream Story
Christopher Deam is a San Francisco-based architect and award-winning furniture designer who had begun to look at Airstreams in the 90’s for inspiration on a home remodel for his brother in the Berkeley Hills. Chris wanted to take the not-so-big ideas of Sarah Suzanka to the next level and thought that Airstream could provide inspiration. He did find some ideas to use in his remodel, and at the same time realized that Airstreams could use some updating as well. He contacted the corporate offices in 1998 with the suggestion that he might design a new interior, but was politely told that his proposal did not fit the Airstream “customer demographic”.
Chris was ready to give up when he received an offer to create a custom-designed 1954 Bambi for the 2000 International Contemporary Furniture Fair. (Bambi is the name given the shorter 16 foot and 19 foot single-axel Airstreams). A photographer wandering through the show came upon Chris’s Airstream and was blown away. He called his dad, CEO of Thor (Parent company if Airstream) and said: “There’s an Airstream down here that’s worth a look!” Dad came down and was impressed, met Chris and began the collaboration.
Chris’s design simplifies the interior space, uses laminates, adds halogen lighting and a touch of primary color, but his most significant contribution is his suggestion that the interior aluminum skin be exposed rather than painted. “I wanted a subtle but magical connection between exterior and inteior, the outdoors and the indoors.” Airstream management was impressed and over the next five years, increased the number and types of Deam (bearing the designer’s initials – CCD)designs. The International Line now accounts for over 40% of Airstream sales.
I returned home from my first visit to an Airstream Dealer pumped up on these new ideas and design. I began to read every book I could find about the history of Airstream. The more I learned, the more impressed I was by the story, product and concept that is Airstream. I never really understood the power of involvement with, and ownership of an American Icon. I do now. I purchased my trailer in May of 2006 and my new Airstream office and home has been my supportive companion for work, site visits, and family visits from Seattle to Santa Fe, as well as for visits to several week-long dance community camps, at least one weekend trip each month. I joined 24 other Airstreams in a theme-camp called “Burnstream Court” at the 2006 Burning Man festival and returned this year to join 30 Airstreams for a second week of playa play.
An exhibit titled “Ashes and Snow”
An artist friend e-mailed me a web site from an exhibit she had seen in New York. The site is www.ashesandsnow.com, and I was very impressed by the creativity and power of the images. I found that the show was the work of a Canadian videographer named Jeffrey Colbert and that his exhibit was housed in a unique building called the Nomadic Museum, which was built out of shipping containers and moved from port to port as it traveled around the world. I found that the museum and exhibit was coming to Santa Monica in the Spring of 2005, so I made a point of going down to see it, and spend a day touring the complete exhibit three times.
At the exhibit, I witnessed thousands of visitors from all walks of life having very similar reactions to Colbert’s work: they were stunned, moved, and changed. He presents a unique, and very Zen image of a “dancing” interaction between humans and a wide variety of animals. I have been a dancer for all my life, and my daughters all studied dance, so the movement was compelling for me. The slow and deliberate presentation in sepia tones set to a meditative music score was almost hypnotic. I came away with a nagging discomfort for the pace and complexity of my life. I realized that I was seeking a more “Zen” life experience that could be derived from the management and possession of fewer things. I wanted my life to be a clearer and stronger statement of my beliefs, and I was even more curious about my nomadic dream.
A movie titled “Inconvenient Truth”
I waited a few weeks to see Al Gore’s documentary after it opened. Before going, I knew that it had a message for me. I was already the owner of a new Airstream, and I had it parked on a client’s lot in Larkspur while I was designing his new home. The Lark Theater around the corner was showing “Truth” so I went with my girlfriend, and while at the theater, we ran into the same artist who had told me about “Ashes and Snow”. We invited her and her date back to the Airstream for snacks and talk after the movie. We shared our reactions to the powerful and well-presented theme. We were all searching for ways to change our own lives and make a difference for the environment. As I was sitting in my new trailer exploring ideas, the layers of my nomadic Airstream experience coalesced into a single concept. I knew that I needed to move into my solar-powered Airstream and live and work there as a personal statement about my concern for the environment and as a way to reduce my carbon footprint.
In the spring of ’06, the small house I was renting on the side of Mount Tam in Mill Valley was sold, and the new owner wanted to remodel. He asked if I could be out by the end of the year. This was the final impetus to get me into moving mode. I found a space to rent for my Airstream in a Greenbrae RV park, and a large storage unit nearby. Last fall, I began to consolidate the physical pieces my life. Items were sorted, boxed and labeled. I built a shelving system that would allow me to have visual access to each box, with a double-tiered area for clothing. By January, I had completed about a third of the work and was ready to move into the trailer. Because of the construction, the new owner was nice enough to allow me all of the winter and spring to complete my move. The last load came down the hill in June. I now have all of the functioning pieces I need for my life in the plentiful storage available in my trailer, and all of my remaining possessions neatly stored a block away.
An Ashes and Snow life
I have been living in my Airstream (her name is “Arabesque”) full time for 10 months now, and I am completely happy with the changes I have made in my life. The park where I live is unique in that it has 6′ redwood fences separating each 20′ x 50′ space, a feature that gives a sense of privacy and separation between the tenants. I brought with me 75 potted plants and put them on drip irrigation. I put down 75 bluestone pavers to create a patio, I brought my Webber bar-b-que, patio furniture and a red 10 x 10 Easy-up shade structure to create an elegant outdoor space. A quiet Quan Yin statue and a wall fountain from my hillside home were the final touches in my creation of a beautiful nomadic garden around Arabesque. In June, I switched off the circuit breaker and Arabesque automatically went onto her own internal solar power. The single 110 watt panel and twin marine batteries provide enough power for 24 hours of my personal electrical needs. A small inverter allows me to recharge my laptop and cell phone from the solar batteries. The fountain and a few garden lights remain on land power, so my electric bill is a modest $7 per month.
Having recently completed this transition, and with a desire to share my vision, I have begun to invite curious friends over for small dinner parties. They are consistently surprised and impressed by the comfort, aesthetics and experience of living and working in an Airstream. I often see the “wheels turning” as they hear me recount the lessons I have learned. One friend was gracious enough to look up from my current issue of “Airstream Life” and comment: “Wow, you really have this figured out”.