Hi Alex (and Tiny House Newsletter readers). I’ve been a subscriber to Tiny House Talk for a while and have often wondered why there weren’t more people celebrating living tiny in trailers such as an Airstream. I’m a semi – retired builder and designer, I specialized in Earth, Straw, and other appropriate building materials, and have been a proponent of small houses for many years.
I’ve built quite a few and lived in “alternative” housing much of my adult life, buses, trailers, barns, and tiny houses. A few years ago we ended up living in a suburban house so as to care for my wife Nicky’s ailing mother; our then 23yr old daughter pointed out that it was the first time in her life she’d seen us living in an ‘ordinary’ house.
Maybe it was this statement that prompted us to look forward and make plans for when we could move on. We considered buses, trucks and tiny houses on wheels and decided that we wanted a trailer, as its prime function was to travel easily throughout NZ, on both highways and more remote rural roads, and to park up for extended periods if we, or work, called for it. We also had an interest in simplifying and minimalism, a process we haven’t regretted.
Couple Downsize into a DIY Airstream Tiny Home
Images © Bob Gilkison
I had always admired the Airstream, seeing a few in the flesh while traveling overseas, and many in movies and magazines. There aren’t too many on the road here in New Zealand but a few are here in the role of coffee carts. We considered importing a trailer but the whole deal was more complex than I could be bothered with and we eventually came across one for sale in NZ, a 1977 31 foot Sovereign. It was a mess but redeemable as far as I could see and we purchased it and bought it an uneventful 600 km and a ferry trip south to our then home and workshop.
We were pretty clear about what we required; a comfortable living space for 2 people, a small dog and a cat, and to be self -contained and easily moved. We spent quite some time with pen and paper, lists, and sketches. The trailer was in poor condition internally so I gutted it entirely, including removing all the linings so as to be able to rewire and replace the insulation. The water and grey water tanks needed replacing as did a considerable amount of the floor.
Once the floor was reinstated I was able to play around with what we wanted, to the extent of making dummy walls to see how it might feel, and in a pretty short time we came up with an effective floor plan and the building began. We really wanted to keep the shape and echo it with our refit so curves and softer lines were embraced, as was the use of aluminium. Most of all it had to be practical for full time living.
We didn’t cut corners we were building our home for years to come so we went for quality and are happy we spent what we needed to. Time was the biggest investment. For instance the lining had to be water blasted, scrubbed, steam cleaned and in places sanded with a belt sander to rid it of years of filth, cooking and smoking. I had a good workshop so I was able to take time to mould and shape as required. Most of the work I did myself although the upholstery was contracted out, and a buddy who has a metal working shop was generous with his gear and expertise when working with stainless steel and aluminum.
We have solar panels which most of the time are more than adequate for normal use, all 12 volt LED lighting, and although we have an inverter it is seldom used. We have a battery charger we can plug in to the grid or a generator if we have too many grey days. We have a Natures Head composting toilet, a gas push through water heater, gas stove, and a small fireplace which I built from an old compressor receiver and it keeps us toasty warm on a bucket of pine cones or driftwood. Water we can either hook up direct if there’s sufficient pressure; or it’s easy to fill the tank and use the pump, which is normal when traveling. Grey water we either use a dump station or we find when parking rurally digging a hole a couple of feet deep or directing the outlet into a shrubbery takes care of the minimal waste water.
I put a shower in but am in the process of turning that space into a wardrobe, storage being more important than cleanliness; actually we find that a good scrub uses a lot less water and is as effective, and there are plenty of showers around. We use a 40 litre chest type refrigerator which is fine, and storage is mostly in drawers which are efficient and easy to access.
I retrospect I’m really happy we fitted out the Airstream, it’s a dream to tow even in strong winds which are common in New Zealand. It’s never been too small, we can seat 9 friendly people at the table and it makes for an intimate party. It’s easy to heat and keep clean and tidy, and with a new thing in then a old thing out rule operating clutter is avoided.
It’s always evolving; and I suspect it will never be finished, although the basics can’t change too much. I seem to have quite a few conversations re: the pros and cons of trailer living, and about the issues of reuse and recycling. To me renovating is a logical process, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, especially when there is an aesthetically pleasing shell to be utilized. We recently spent some time in the US and saw so many elegant trailers, Airstream and others, just looking for a keen person to renovate them, it’s a shame to see them being neglected, rotting away and just becoming rubbish.
We have recently purchased a small 2 acre plot with an old school room on it, this is now our home base, and has permanent washing facilities and bath house, and is studio space for Nicky, and a workshop for future projects, and is set up so we can leave, or arrive, with minimal fuss and bother.
Images © Bob Gilkison
Our big thanks to Bob Gilkison for sharing his story and amazing Airstream tiny home conversion with us!
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