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Lloyd Alter's 375 square foot prefabricated miniHome, built by Toronto's Sustain Design Studio. (Dave LeBlanc/Photos by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
Lloyd Alter's 375 square foot prefabricated miniHome, built by Toronto's Sustain Design Studio. (Dave LeBlanc/Photos by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

A wandering house finds a place to call home Add to ...

This is going to be two stories in one, a little one and a big one, because I went to see one thing, which I did, but got an earful about another fascinating thing, which is still to be done.

The little thing is exactly 375 square feet: Treehugger.com writer and architect Lloyd Alter, whom I know a little, bought a prefabricated “miniHome” from Toronto company Sustain Design Studio six years ago. He “fell in love” with the eco-conscious design by Andy Thomson and believed he could help the company sell a bunch. The short version of the story, which he recounted in full on Treehugger in August, is that things didn’t go as planned, since the off-grid miniHome is technically classified as a trailer, and, he wrote, “people who admire green modern prefab don't get trailer parks, and the people who live in trailer parks laugh at the $125,000 price tag.”

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To skip ahead, Mr. Alter had to mothball his trailer until this past June, when it was finally set down and made available for use in Brighton, Ontario at Timber House Country Inn Resort.

I recently visited this wonderful tucked-away inn—lovingly created from scratch over a dozen years ago by David Dingle and Michele Walkau—to experience the miniHome for myself. From first glance, it’s a lovely little thing—a bright red caboose with a row of windows and a raised entrance sheltered by a solar-paneled canopy—and inside is lovely, too, with great gobs of plywood, built-in bookshelves, a tidy two-toned kitchen with gas stove, and, because sleeping quarters are in a loft over the kitchen, generous living and dining areas. Even the cedar-lined bathroom is big enough for two.

Since it’s been available for $220 a night as a ‘room’ at the inn, it’s had over 80 guests. That’s pretty big news, and it would’ve made for a great column, but it’s not the big story.

The big story is why Mr. Dingle wants it there.

First, however, a little background on his Lake Ontario-kissing property is necessary: not only does it contain the big barn structure with the hotel rooms, a good chunk of it is a trailer park. Wait now, it’s not one of those trailer parks. Nope, before he’d even conceived of the hotel, Mr. Dingle knew he wanted something different, so he only allowed the more permanent Park Model trailers on his land when he set things up over 20 years ago; with an engineering background, he laid things out “like a little subdivision” with twisty streets and wide lots, which people seemed to like, since “a shocking number” of the 38 who signed up remain on the property today.

Some years later, Mr. Dingle got a new itch, which was this: the traditional trailer park business model, he says, is “doomed” to a “downward economic spiral.” The reason, he explains, is since land is leased and can be pulled out from under trailer owners at any time, there’s little incentive to spend money on a red sports car like Mr. Alter’s miniHome. In addition, because a trailer park is regulated as a seasonal place, there is less of an emotional attachment for residents.

So, how to scratch that itch? Could the vacant lots under the trailers be sold as condominiums? Surprisingly, Mr. Dingle found that the legal answer is yes. And what about year-round access, could that be granted? Yes, provided the trailer is not the owner’s sole residence.

Armed with that, he created the Green Resort Development Corporation to create a totally new trailer park for the twenty-first century. “We’re going to do it in an eco-conscious, friendly form that is actually an experiment in bending these old land-use genres and making them have value and making them appeal to people in the modern context,” says the affable 54-year-old.

While current lessees will not be forced into purchasing their lots, those who do will be encouraged to purchase a newer, greener trailer from a “portfolio of designs” Mr. Dingle has solicited from small home experts such as Michelle Kaufmann of Glidehouse fame, Lake/Flato Architects (Porch House), Rocio Romero of the LV Home, Wee House creator Geoffrey Warner and, of course, Toronto’s Sustain. Some of these designs aren’t as strikingly modern as the miniHome, but not all owners will want that anyhow: “They’re going to pick the new trailers, but my governor on that is it has to be mutual; I have to like them, too, and they have to suit my purposes that we’re building a hotel here.”

To that end, when the new eco-friendly trailers are unoccupied, they’ll go into the hotel rental pool and generate income for their owners. So far, 18 folks have signed on, and it’s hoped that the multiple stays at the miniHome this past summer will convince even more to take the leap of faith (as if to anticipate the demand, Mr. Dingle has recently completed a “constructed wetland” for wastewater treatment to increase capacity from 38 to 51 trailer sites).

Yes, it’s still to be done. But I see big things for Brighton.

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