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Moving Into the Future

Photos by Debra DiPaolo

Architect Jennifer Siegal has spent much of her adult life thinking about the great housing crunch. The first thing you see when you walk into her Office of Mobile Design, in a converted Venice warehouse, is a huge poster depicting her sleek and modern “Portable House,” a revolutionary redesign of the mobile home, plunked down on an African veldt with two Masai warriors standing on the front porch. And while there’s something slightly farcical and idealistic about the poster — two qualities often given much lip service by architects, but little practice — it goes a long way toward explaining Siegal’s reputation in the world of architecture.

She is part of a continuum of designers that goes back to mud hut–building hunters-and-gatherers (not surprising, since Siegal spent part of her youth living on Israeli kibbutzim and hanging out with nomadic Bedouins), with tours through the eco-friendly tradition of straw-bale builders and on into the world of let’s-tread-lighter-on-the-land design. But, unlike many of her peers, who are happy just using bio-friendly materials, Siegal wants to use those materials to address a greater need: affordable housing.

While in graduate school at SCI-Arc, she spent much time pondering alternative building materials. This was during the early ’90s, when forward-looking architects were already talking reusable and recyclable — and not in an unplug-yourself-from-the-grid-and-turn-your-back-on-society kind of way. New materials, such as fast-growing bamboo for wood floors or pressed sunflower-seed hulls for walls, were all the buzz. Concurrently, innovative smart plastics — plastics that are embedded with intelligence (for example, those that glow when it gets dark or change shape when it gets cold) — were coming off the test bed and onto the production line.

Siegal began thinking about changing pre-existing structures — such as shipping containers — into houses. “Housing is such a basic need,” she says. “I kept wondering why no one had come up with a better housing type.” Last year, she completed the award-winning Seatrain Residence, made of four shipping containers and two grain trailers, in downtown L.A.

Then she started contemplating modern society, with all of its portability — cell phones, laptops, e-mail — and wondered why not a better breed of mobile homes: “I’m fascinated by the trailer park. It’s the lowest level on the economic ladder, but it’s a very interesting idea of community. It’s somewhere between hunter-gatherer and agrarian. I just wanted to find a way to build a modern trailer park in such a way that it would foster a better community.”

So she designed the Portable House. Her dwellings are sleek and sexy and modern and, more importantly, cheap: $79,000 gets you a 480-square-foot model; $120,000 brings 720 square feet. And when you’re ready to expand, her homes are made to both move and to stack.

Architect Jennifer Siegal: Mobile designer

Where Siegal especially shines is with her retro-modern sensibility (many designers who work with recycled materials have a rather crunchy aesthetic) and her rethinking of manufacturing. “You look at the auto industry,” she says. “Cars are affordable because everything is automated. Why can’t that idea be applied to the housing market?” To this end she works with a factory in Rancho Cucamonga to incorporate the old idea of the production line in the new idea of eco-friendly, high-design mobile homes.

The first Portable House is coming off the line in June and will feature a fully self-contained single modular unit. The next house will be made of two modular units that can be stacked and offset, which will allow for a roof garden and shaded garage. It will go downtown, where Siegal has partnered with a developer to turn 2.5 acres into Eco-Ville, an artists community built out of 40 Portable Houses that will take an estimated two years to complete.

And while Eco-Ville will be a great showpiece, what she really wants is an industrywide revolution. “Right now we’re suffering a blight of crap. Architecture is limited by its workers and its material palette. Automating the industry is unpopular with the unions, and stores like Home Depot need to embrace eco-friendly materials. Making eco-friendly, affordable housing a nationwide trend is certainly going to take some work — but it’s work that I certainly want to do.”

For more info, check out www.designmobile.com; or call the Office of Mobile Design at (310) 439-1129.