housing in rural America

I find no humor in the popular joke about tornadoes ability to always find mobile home parks to hit. If you have spent any time at all in rural America you will certainly know that mobile homes and their newer cousins, manufactured housing, represents a significant portion of the housing stock and increasingly so. I am not talking about the fancy modular designs so popular with hip architects these days, but the generic, artless single- and double-wide dwelling.

What is interesting here is not necessarily how bland or cheap these can be (they are certainly no worse than the crappy builder suburban houses most of us live in) but what people do with them. This is especially true of the first generation of mobile homes, the ones with wheels still attached and towing hitches still present. I am not talking about the more recent manufactured housing units,

but rather the older mobile homes that have been converted into stores,

or more commonly, added onto and expanded as housing.

There are a lot of issues surrounding this type of housing, its sustainability, costs, cultural significance, etc. but I am going to stick to a really simple, maybe even dumb, architectural question. The issue that all of these structures have had to deal with is the conversion from essentially a mobile unit to a house on the ground – how does the foundation/base work? As a design that when parked on a site doesn’t really look “finished” as a house, the owners of these older mobile homes are compelled to address this issue first.

Typically these sit on concrete blocks, hopefully on poured concrete pads, supporting only the point loads of the undercarriage. As these are meant to be transported, these older units had an undercarriage not unlike a trailer (newer manufactured housing units are carried on flat-beds and do not have an undercarriage as such). To keep critters out from below and provide some insulation and a sense of being a more traditional house, this space between the bottom of the mobile home and the ground is usually filled in with something.

That something ranges from very flimsy stamped-metal siding sheets, to wood trellis, to concrete block and even occasionally a fully concrete foundation.

You will note that the dark horizontal band on the end of these older units is the tow hitch still there, extending out. I kind of like these, they look like they are still ready and willing to hit the open road, neither really houses or recreational vehicles, but something quite apart. Just hitch them up, tear of the the skirt trim and away we go!

Maybe it is just the passage of time, but the older units didn’t really look so much like houses and were quite small and so owners have added extensions, porches, changed siding, etc. Over time these have witnessed a great and joyous kind of variety, a blank slate for people’s needs and creativity to be fleshed out.

That is considerably less so than the newer generation of manufactured homes that try so hard to look like a “normal” house and in doing so tend to diminish their nature as mobile, or formerly such. But make no mistake, they are. For when you fail to make the payments, they come and take your house away and it ends up in the used house lot, like so many clunkers:

This is not the photo of post-tornado or post-earthquake disaster, but rather an economic disaster that strikes harder and faster in rural America than anywhere else and can leave you “homeless”.

Outside of Farmville, Virginia is a growing compound of mobile homes that my wife has seen change and evolve over twenty years. Starting with a single unit, it has grown to three or four connected ones and the entire original structure has been surrounded by brick. A recent visit reveals that the brick is making its way around to the other units as well, completing the tranformation of these mobile homes by brick, the “noble” masonry of rural Virginia. A lot of hipster urbanites like to make fun of mobile homes and by extension their owners. Rarely have I ever seen owners more proud and industrious and better deserving of the name “homemaker”.

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