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!
If you enjoyed this Airstream tiny house living story you’ll absolutely love our free daily tiny house newsletter with even more! Thanks!
Latest posts by Alex (see all)
- Flamenco Tiny House by Baluchon - February 4, 2023
- 2008 Ford E-450 4×4 Timberline Box Van Conversion - February 3, 2023
- Custom Tumbleweed Tiny House with a Bidet - February 3, 2023
LOVE the airstream 🙂 Looks super cozy. My husband wants to take me on a road trip up the west coast and I feel like this would be IDEAL!
Glad you loved it too Hannah. I think a renovated Airstream project is the perfect in between of a tiny house on wheels and a travel trailer. Aerodynamic and very towable. And you can make it feel very homey inside. Plus for me, I really like the outside look of an Airstream.
If I was younger and could find an airstream or similar to remodel, I would love it. I’ve been thinking in that direction. And a home base with two acres and a studio for laundry and bathing– perfect!! Many years ago I had the opportunity to buy a used RV for nearly nothing. Have kicked myself that I didn’t. Oh well. Love your little home.
I’m sure you’ll have another chance for a nice RV project if you wanted one, Lindy! I also like their 2 acre set up with the studio. It would be a nice space for me to get away from the house for a little bit and play on Tiny House Talk too 🙂
I have been actively looking for a “cheap” RV for some time now. Altho not quite ready to buy I am surprised at how MANY decent ones there are in the UNDER $5000 category! Might need some work but—and that is for one you can DRIVE away in not tow!
Best of luck in your search for an RV project, Comet! I’d love getting to restore an Airstream like this and then get to live and travel out of it. But I would really like something like this: https://tinyhousetalk.com/the-pocket-house/ on 2 acres or so 🙂
Would love to know what type of flooring did they install so that it holds up to year round use, vs week end/vacations. And what type insulation, and how do they do in extreme heat or cold? Those seem to be the main issues we have with buying a used Airstream and redoing it.
The flooring is new marmoleum a fantastic product; tough and hard wearing, insulation glass wool, 50mm (2 inches) we are living in the south of New Zealand with frosts every morning in winter if there is no snow, not really cold like in continental climates, but we have no trouble keeping it at a comfortable shirt sleeve temperature. Bob
Thanks Bob, and great questions Beth
I have a 1988 Airstream Class A motorhome that I’m seriously considering turning into a traveling studio. My husband and I traveled extensively early in our marriage and it was wonderful but now it’s time to give the old girl a second life. And I think a studio would be perfect. If anyone has any brilliant ideas I’m an open book.
Thanks Belinda, that sounds like an amazing idea and awesome project. Will be time and energy consuming, but worth it in the end when you can enjoy it every day 🙂
Wonderful! I am wondering how Bob made the pattern for the plywood endcap in the Airstream? About a month ago I bought a 29′ 1973 Airstream that I have gutted… the endcaps were trashed and I need to have new ones built. Is there a pattern for the pieces that Bob followed or is it best to take the endcap into a wood or aluminum fabricator and ask them to figure it out? I love the aluminum flashing backsplash… I plan to do the same! It is good to see how nice it will look. Thanks for sharing your story!
The short answer re the end cap; with difficulty and patience! It took a long time, I made patterns out of old cartons, transferred them to some lightweight strand board, fitted that cutting and changing as needed, then finally when everything was fitting and looked OK cut the ply, and then spent quite some time finally fitting it. I had put battens for support behind where I thought the joins should be, and it worked pretty well, doing it again I’d spend more time getting the battens perfect, I’d used aluminium and I wished I’d put a crease in them to make them more rigid. The ply is glued to the internal battens, and the external timber batten is fastened through the ply and internal batten with long pop rivets. Trust that helps, Bob
Pretty good shape, for as old as it is…!
this has been great today.
COZY and WARM is my impression of it. For a moment there I thought it looked like riding on a train. Two thumbs up!