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Chasing David
Timothy Treadwell
RV there yet?



RV there yet?
Leading the eco-trailer park charge


courtesy sustain
design studios

One year of incessantly hunching over, steamed wash cloth sponge baths and months of frozen toothpaste taught Thomson a few things about basic human needs.

“The first design in architecture after the tent experiment was just basically a hard tent.”  The new 10 x 10 house was insulated and had room to stand. It was furnished with a folding futon, two bookcases, a kitchen counter and had a composting toilet.

Like his journey, Thomson’s minimal house evolved over the years. Constantly travelling and learning what people need to live simply, but comfortably, Thomson continued to expand his designs to fulfill basic necessities. He had already proven himself a nomad, but now it was time to raise a family. Would even the most loving, supportive wife go to the extremes of Andy Thomson?
While they started married life and had their first child in a rented home, the Thomson family was destined for a unique way of life. Just before their daughter turned two, they moved into a van. Now Thomson’s model was entirely self-sufficient – with solar power and LED lighting – and mobile. Not having to plug into the grid meant the Thomsons could take their home wherever they went. At the time, home was in Vancouver.

Back in Toronto and in an apartment, Thomson began working for architectsAlliance, while continuing his own work at Sustain Design Studio with new partner, Daniel Hall.

Intent on creating a fully functional, self-sufficient off-grid home, Thomson looked beyond traditional architecture, to the futuristic lunar lander-home he had envisioned as a child. Since he had always been intrigued by the idea of tiny houses, Thomson realized the only way to stray from the dependence of the infrastructure and cut costs was to build small.

“The idea for me was encumbered by all these things it was attached to. To consider the pure house, almost as if it were in a bubble, it had all of those systems integrated like an organism. All its physiology is kind of wrapped up inside it and it, of course, needs to be fed.”

The miniHome is fed by batteries, which, in turn, run on solar power and wind turbine. The home-on-wheels comes equipped with a portable green roof, LED lighting, composting toilet, and solar powered electricity and hot water.

Since batteries inevitably run out, Thomson says his goal is to modify people’s behaviour. “There’s ample power for a movie, but say if you’re working a table saw, that’s a bigger load; you might have to call it quits for that day,” he jokes. He assures prospective buyers, however, that there is no compromise of modern convenience. “You’ll still have a big LCD screen with a good stereo system.”

The green roof or “air conditioner” as Thomson likes to call it, evaporates moisture and provides a layer of insulation. Along with shading the windows from the outside, the rooftop garden will help decrease the temperature by 3-5 degrees. It will also collect rain water for storage. The miniHome does need access to water, but once full, Thomson says the tank won’t run out for about a month.

Daniel Hall, who runs the production side of the partnership, admits the experience of manufacturing the miniHome has been an interesting challenge. Before joining the partnership he worked as a carpenter and furniture maker for 14 years. The factory process has taken a new spin for Hall.

In a factory, “to be honest, they’re not that used to doing things in an environmentally friendly way,” Hall says. All materials used in the production of the miniHome are carefully considered. From removing adhesives that give off gases to limiting construction waste, every aspect of building green is taken into account. Even the particle board used for the wall panels is made from formaldehyde-free materials.

“If you ever did Grade 11 science, it’s what you use to preserve dead rats,” Hall says. “It’s not very good for us to breathe in all the time, but pretty much every standard particle board plywood out there has (formaldehyde) in it.”
Hall obtained his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Waterloo. While interning at architectsAlliance, he met Thomson.

“Andy’s extremely knowledgeable and experienced in all the practical systems and how you get something to work off-grid, how you get it to work within the code,” says Hall. Their complementary skills have allowed them to stay focused on the project and goal at hand.

“It’s about making something that’s affordable and available to people, that you can actually live in a much more green, environmentally-friendly way,” says Hall.
 “Everyone talks about unity, community and the words become kind of meaningless,” he explains. Hall’s ultimate goal is to have every trailer park in North America have miniHomes in them, expanded in a way that is much more respectable than the average trailer park, built right into the trees, built into the surroundings.

“Trailer parks have a bad rep,” says Thomson. “But they’re sometimes interesting places.”

Meshing their architectural backgrounds with their deep concern for the preservation of the planet, Thomson and Hall have managed to create an environmentally friendly dream home. “Once people live with it and realize that it works, and realize how they have to modify their behaviour a little bit, ultimately the idea is that people walk away from the thing more enlightened,” Thomson says. “Things that you take for granted, like unlimited running water in a house or unlimited electricity, using those as if they’re unlimited has serious consequences for the environment, for the economy.”

Hall and Thomson each hope to take stints in the miniHome this summer, so the Thomsons are destined to move again.

Also this summer, David Suzuki has been invited by Sustain to spend a week in the newly released off-grid dwelling. Hall says they have been in discussion with the producers of The Nature of Things for nearly a year.

“They want to see how people live in it and how they use it,” says Hall. “And as part of that, there was some speculation that maybe they would have David Suzuki use it for a week.”

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