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Airstream: vintage aircraft shells as luxury homes on wheels

When a 26-year-old Matthew Hofman launched his own architecture firm, he bought a 1978 Airstream trailer and redesigned it to live in. He received so much attention for his own tiny home on wheels (160 square feet) that he began renovating Airstreams for clients.

Less than 5 years later he’s recrafted more than 60 Airstreams, but he finds each one a design challenge given their aircraft-style shell.

“Airstreams are like an egg. They’re what’s called semi-monocoque construction which is like, it’s an airplane so that creates the integrity as a whole so everything moves together. So there are no walls, there are no roofs, there are no diaphragms that create load, but it’s all one unit. It needs to be whole. And then once you start to do things like cutting out panels, then it really starts to become a design challenge.”

The first riveted aluminum trailer, the “Road Chief”, was designed in 1934 by aircraft designer Hawley Bowlus who had worked on the Spirit of St. Louis. Two years later, Wally Byam, who had helped sell the “Road Chief”, launched his own company called Airstream. The original “Clippers” cost $1200, expensive for the time, but Byam couldn’t fill orders fast enough.

Like the “Road Chief”, Airstreams were designed more like aircraft than traditional travel trailers. It’s a style which has earned them a loyal following.

When we visited HofArc‘s 20,000-square-foot yard in Santa Barbara, CA, the team were working on “Wanda” for an Australian family of 5 to tour the Outback and a Spartan (Airstream competitor) mobile home for clients to use as a vacation pod in Hawaii. Hofman sees the tiny homes that pass through as providing his clients with freedom.

“We’re all after a sense of freedom it’s really the driver on the great American road trip. What’s freedom, it’s being able to do what you want to do, whatever that is. Mobility. One of the things we associate with freedom. We’re humans we’re crazy, you know I want to do one thing one day and I want to do something completely different the next day. If I own a house with a mortgage paying 5000 dollars a month on it, you know, you’ve got a big anchor or ball and chain, we humans can embrace the fact that we like to change our minds.”