The New Urban Autonomous House

written November 2017, updated August 22, 2018.

(above: Brenda and Robert Vale, The Autonomous House (1975) and The New Autonomous House (2000))

Could urban off-grid houses make sense, even be helpful for addressing cities’ housing shortages? In a sense, there are already many of them: like the RVs that many people live in for low cost or convenience — particularly, around the Bay Area, in San Francisco and in Google’s headquarter town of Mountain View.

RVs on Cristanto Avenue, Mountain View, California.

This RV-dweller phenomenon is regularly reported on, generally presented as appalling and unacceptable; in my opinion usually missing a key point, that it shows various sensible, adaptive living/dwelling patterns which could greatly help housing & transportation problems.

Why not see the value in people being able to more autonomously and at low cost live next to services/work as they wish? perhaps part of the time or short-term. Or, in using part of the US’ pervasively and freely available parking area for an urgently needed alternate purpose? In letting more housing be ‘agile’, deployable rapidly and perhaps impermanently, to help deal with the fact that our conventional planning and housing systems are evidently not handling well the change rate here, which has enormous cost economically & socially & environmentally?

Of course, freely parked RVs have issues of social (non)acceptability, possibly incurring costs to local governments and neighbors without producing tax revenues, etc. And most people probably have no conception that an urban dwelling unit is possible or practical without permanent, conventional grid connections for power, water, waste, etc. While I and others, on the other hand, think it’s increasingly not only possible, but often may be better for reasons of ecology, environment, & autonomy. Many people have worked on developing this for decades, with the tiny-house movement certainly picking up the torch.

So I suggest exploring models that address these concerns and possibilities, and might also be good fun.

Really there are many possible aspects by and degrees to which a home might be ‘autonomous’ or ‘off-grid’:

  • Off-grid power (solar, wind, etc), with or without grid-tie for backup power and providing power back to grid
  • No fixed water connection, e.g. using water deliveries to an on-site tank. (inefficient in a way, but could get much more efficient with autonomous delivery vehicles & smart service walls, and it’s how most future urban dwellers will likely get water for decades, ie in lower-income countries. Tanks are also useful for many reasons including anchoring the structure, thermal mass for passive solar heating/cooling, and disaster resilience).
  • Composting/incinerating toilets
  • High water efficiency: water use can be reduced by 10–20x compared to typical US household by measures such as using recycling loop shower, composting toilet, off-site laundry, avoiding lawns & non-native plants that need watering. More nearly off-grid living strongly encourages this type of water efficiency, which chronicly drought-prone California should be moving towards generally.
  • In general, units serviced by on-demand service rather than grid connection. This might both replace some current grid services — for example, handling water supply and toilet compost — and add new capabilities such as efficient delivery (into a unit’s “service wall”) of groceries, meals, laundry, etc, which might offer higher capbilities than present housing.
  • Ability to physically move an individual unit from the site. This may range in difficulty/likelihood, from the case of say a Y:cube or MicroPAD multistory building which might eventually be disassembled, to stacked but unattached container-style units movable by crane or forklift, to units on wheels or self-powered to drive away.
  • Units or residents may to varying degrees be affiliated with a particular location/community. At one extreme is “boondocking,” just parking somewhere and staying, e.g. on a street space or as is widely done for short stays, a Wal-Mart parking lot. Or a unit/resident could have a “parking/dwelling permit” good for certain places and times, or they might have a lease agreement at a specific site.
  • You could even say that conventional renting, or using interim housing like extended-stay hotels or Airbnb, are forms of more ‘autonomous’ living, in the sense of allowing easier relocation. One form of an “autonomous house” is movable belongings, furniture, space-frame or living pod which can be easily moved to a different building.

The “parking/dwelling permits” idea considers, for example, what if rather than expensively and futilely kicking the homeless and vehicle-dwellers from place to place, week after week, cities instead issued permits usable by a specified resident, and vehicle/structure, in specific place or zones of town, with certain conditions and a permit fee reflecting city’s fiscal and governance responsibilities/goals? What if this was usable not by any vehicle, but by certain approved vehicle-structures designed for acceptability to community & context, health & safety needs, etc, and possibly provided to or subsidized to the needy as a type of shelter / low-cost housing?

Sure, there will be fears and objections about free-floaters and transients and freeloaders not paying for city services, etc, as there have been for the last century of campers and trailer parks in the US. But I believe that even with California’s municipal financing mess, some model of thriving close-in villages of permit-fee-paying #AgileHousing residents may be better fiscally for cities (and for reducing traffic, creating attractive retail districts and higher area land values, attracting employers, etc) than disused parking lots, sprawl, or unaffordable housing are for them now. You could say it’s a housing-included version of the interim “placemaking,” “tactical urbanism,” popup retail, etc initiatives which cities all over now often explore for redesigning and revitalizing city space.

Las Vegas’ Downtown Project is a leading case of this now, with project head and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh living in a Airstream in a 1-acre parking lot turned popup village of 30+ units, called Llamapolis. https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.businessinsider.com/llamapolis-las-vegas-trailer-park-2016–8.

The Bay Area and other magnet cities have incredible, skilled, often entrepreneurial talent flooding into them from around the world dying for a reasonable place to live, work, and study— a dream problem to have, really. It also has 101 separate municipalities, most of which lack any of the brand appeal of San Francisco or Palo Alto, giving me hope that some of them might try an alternative strategy of actually welcoming the young and less-established with innovative, lower-cost housing options.

In one remarkable opening, after years of debate and advocacy San Jose has moved to allow “bridge housing” communities for the homeless using “unconventional structures,” via a new state law allowing exemption from state building codes.

However, this initiative has been strictly crafted to apply only to homeless housing, requiring a declared state of homelessness emergency, using a legal state of exception and authorized for only five years. No doubt many supporters like me hope it will lead to wider and more permanent reform, be extended to other cities and cases, but it’s very constrained so far.

Emerald Village, a new tiny-house village under development in Eugene, Oregon, is trailblazing a partly similar strategy for homeless rehousing, except with permanent small houses, on a lot owned by the non-profit, and allowing residents to build up co-op equity stakes in the village.

Getting to municipal fiscal matters, which everybody seems to think dictates what cities do in California: might we perhaps classify auonomous housing approaches as ‘hotel’ somehow, and collect that fat and steady 10%+ hotel tax which California cities so prize? My hunch is that our village dwellers could pay quite large permit fees and hotel taxes and still create for themselves better, cheaper housing options on current disused land than what the current speculative housing market is offering. Let’s model and pilot that, and find out. A city doing this would reap windfalls in publicity and innovation reputation, at least, and who can say what factor that is in attracting the employment, investment, tax base etc which cities treasure?

Also, cities are generally at least saying they aim to supply urgently needed low-cost housing and housing close to employment & transit. The problem, it’s said, is there’s not funding or financing, or not space, or it will take many years, etc; while, often, the reality may be that the town’s political forces don’t want any more housing or any poorer/different populations, etc. By developing viable models of how a town could create affordable housing at low or no cost, relatively quickly, we might at least unmask pretextual arguments about it being nonviable for space or fiscal reasons.

Admittedly, I think this might not get far as an abstract idea; however, tangible demonstrations of cool, well-designed and well-managed relocatable units and ‘villages’ can be mind-opening and mind-changing. I think many people might actually find such setups more appealing than the conventional housing otherwise on offer — because it could offer greater autonomy, creativity, lower-cost home ownership, community, dynamic and neighborly and human-scale space of the type that is very scarce and sought-after in the US especially.

Getting to deeper cultural issues, we have to consider, as Nolan Gray aptly observes, “Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city.” (in excellent “Reclaiming “Redneck” Urbanism: What urban planners can learn from trailer parks” (Market Urbanism, April 21, 2016). The classist, discriminatory, paternalistic exclusion of more informal or perceived-lower-class housing in American towns runs deep.

However, Grey observes some surprising, countervailing cultural appeal of trailer-park urban form: as is increasingly valued, it’s high density, walkable, “shared streets,” well-governed, & neighborly:

By combining liberal land-use regulations [eg minimal setbacks, fewer parking requirements, and tiny minimum lot sizes] with narrow streets shared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities.

Who knows, perhaps even the legendary change-abhorring “homevoters,” owners assumed to be opposed to all new housing, might be softened up by seeing some swinging fun new villages springing up (popup, interim, demo, to start with), revitalizing dead zones around town, and giving their sleepy neighborhood new hip catchet and better “walk score,” both fun and great for their home values. As futurist Alex Steffen argues in “Neighborhood as Platform,” leading-edge home buyers now put a premium on neighborhoods that signal readiness to innovate and adapt.

Caravan tiny-house hotel, Portland, a successful part of greatly revitalized Alberta neighborhood in NE

A few versions of this that especially appeal to me to explore are 1) off-grid unit/structure designed to occupy a standard parking unit while allowing a car to still be parked in the space; and 2) stackable/joinable units. #1, while presenting some structural challenges, could be a very interesting provocation, in helping to convey the remarkable point that almost any of the US’ literally billions of surface parking spaces — 20%+ of urban land area, fast obsolescing due to online retail and car sharing and driverless cars, most available at all times for free and many hardly used — could also be housing units that would serve many people well; without taking away the parking. In form, these, in groups, could be/appear quite similar to the 2-story over-garage single-family homes and apartment buildings which are already pervasive in Bay Area & US, the apartment form being a common existing type of naturally affordable housing. But they could be much faster and cheaper and more flexible to develop, and even potentially to relocate.

The Autonomous House

To put this in wider context: in the mid-late 20th century we saw widespread movements to pull back from centralized grid energy, waste, water, etc systems — for various reasons including environmental efficiency/resiliency, cost effectiveness, or philosophical goals of more autonomous and considered living. (There had also been much exploration among leading architects like George Fred Keck into more self-sufficient, solar-powered/heated housing going much further back, at least into 1930s).

A foundational work in this vein is the Cambridge-educated architects Brenda and Robert Vale’s The Autonomous House, 1975, and The New Autonomous House, 2000, (not, despite the publishers’ marketing, a new edition of 1975 work but a report and study on a complete autonomous house project they completed in the UK).

Brenda and Robert Vale, The Autonomous House (1975) and The New Autonomous House (2000)

The Vales’ work focuses on fixed structures in fairly low-density semi-urban settings, where there may be room for greenhouses, windmills, plant growing, etc.

In the US perhaps the best-known comparable work is The Integral Urban House, book based on the 1970s house project in Berkeley:

“The Integral Urban House was a pioneering 1970s experiment in self-reliant urban homesteading. The house was located 1516 5th St. in Berkeley, California. The founders were Sim Van der Ryn, California State Architect and UC Berkeley professor; and Bill & Helga Olkowski, authors of the City People’s Guide to Raising Food; the project was run by the Farallones Institute, which Van der Ryn founded.

The Sierra Club published a book about the experiment in 1979. Elements of the home included a vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits, a fish pond, beehives, a composting toilet, solar power and more.”
(from Wikipedia, “Integral Urban House”).

Similar “integral houses” arose around the country: the Ouroborus House in Minneapolis, the East Eleventh Street project in New York City; the Institute for Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C., and the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod.

There are many more recent projects exploring Net Zero Energy or otherwise more self-sufficient housing, but perhaps among the most interesting to me is the one recently crowdfunded by the Open Building Institute. OBI is a partner project to the older Open Source Ecology project, which aims to develop a sort of civilizational tool-kit able to redevelop industrial society from scratch. See “The $25,000 Open Source, Modular, Eco-Home” (Shareable, July 20, 2016).

Open Building Institute’s “$25,000 Open Source, Modular, Eco-Home”

Again like the Vales’ work, this is oriented towards fixed buildings in low-density or rural settings. How might we extend to a flexible, urban context their principles of autonomous and cooperative development, highly modular / componentized building and systems? Possibly, starting with ‘emergency’ or ‘bridge’ housing for the most needy, as with the state legislation allowing “unconventional” building approaches in San Jose for homeless interim housing, or the “pod” shelter specifications approved by the City of Portland and being creatively designed to by the Village Coalition?

Another housing system is possible; it’s already here in bits in pieces, unevenly distributed. Time to assemble!

Notes

1) A representative from the Village Coalition, in Portland Oregon just wrote in response to an earlier version of this that was a Facebook comment, to say that it could almost be a policy agenda draft for their organization, and they are exploring how to convert parking lots to villages in ways such as I’ve described. The Coalition is a formation of various groups including City Repair Project founded by Mark Lakeman, focusing on housing all the city’s unhoused, particularly through participatory, low-cost, self-build, community effort. Having followed City Repair Project and related Village Building Convergence events for years, I’ve long wondered when they might extend from their focus on public spaces/facilities into housing, that being such an urgent issue in Portland and other cities they outreach to.

Village Coalition’s Facebook page has a nice quote from participant DW: “
“Building a village is about ‘taking a model that’s been proven for thousands of years and applying it to an urban context.’”

2) Also in the “repair” vein, I relate these ideas on agile infill to a key and creative work on incremental densification: Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual, 2010. See her site Sprawl Repair also for ongoing new material.

3) WikiHouse / “Citizen Sector” housing development model, from Alastair Parvin et al in UK. Envisions land being alloted in small parcels, or to small groups of dweller/self-builders, to develop themselves, using perhaps digital fabrication platforms empowering them to co-design detached or multi-unit buildings. See: Alastair Parvin and Andy Reeve, “Scaling the Citizen Sector
A White Paper on the role of digital innovation in tackling the UK housing crisis.
” (Oct 5, 2016). (

4) Citizen Sector is in a longer tradition of advocacy for “self-build” architecture, associated particularly with a) the work and writings of architect J.F.C. Turner from 1960s-1970s, such as the compilation he edited Freedom to Build (1972) including his essay “Housing as a Verb”; and his 1976 book Housing By People: Towards Autonomy in Building; and b) architect/planner Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977) etc.

5) an earlier version of some of this article is described in Tim McCormick, “Tiny Houses for the Homeless in San Francisco?” (Nov 18, 2015), section “Pilot suggestion 2: Vehicle shelter.” This builds on existing practices of “Safe Parking” sites for the homeless in US.

6) this article’s idea of “Learning from RVs” is of course in a long practice of what you might call populist invocation or celebration of everyday/vernacular building forms as more sensible or adaptive.
Key in that tradition, for me certainly, are John Brinkerhoff Jackson’s work on the vernacular US landscape, particularly his great essay “The Mobile Dwelling and How It Came to America”; Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: Architecture of the Four Ecologies (and “Non-Plan” manifesto, see below); and Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenoff’s Learning from Las Vegas.

7) The “Non-Plan” movement, which arose among progressive/radical architects, planners, and social commentators in UK in 1960s, likewise picked up a long legacy of observing the failures of top-down planning. It proposed planning-free zones, as at least an experiment to see how it might fare relative to the state-planned housing/urbanism whose flaws had become so apparent. They cited a long tradition of free-trade ports and Special Economic Zones e.g. Hong Kong, as precedents, and they were in turn perhaps some inspiration to Conservative government inititiatives under Thatcher, Reagan, etc for “free enterprise zones” in cities.

See: “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom” manifesto in The New Statesman, 1969, by Reyner Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall, and Cedric Price.

also, for a broader historical context, see Anthony Fontenot. “Notes Toward a History of Non-Planning” (Places Journal, January 2015).

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Tim McCormick

editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.