The mobile home is being recast as a trendy rural retreat. Will it work? Dominic Bradbury of The Sunday Times investigates
There’s a revolution stirring that could overturn the tin-shed image of trailer parks.
Designed by an architect as a contemporary holiday home, the Retreat doesn’t look like a static caravan, but a neat, seductive neo-cabin. None of the aluminium siding and grandma’s curtains of the traditional static here; this has timber cladding and floor-to-ceiling windows, while an enclosed walkway connects a two-bedroom wing on one side to a living room/kitchen on the other in an H formation.
“We’ve designed something that will appeal to people who would never have considered buying a caravan in the past,” reckons Matt Yeoman of the architects Buckley Gray Yeoman. “The resurgence of design consciousness within the standard home didn’t seem to have filtered down into the caravan market at all. We wanted to create something completely different, taking our inspiration from simple structures such as log cabins, beach huts and ski lodges that we could recreate in the form of a static caravan.”
As a caravan, the Retreat is exempt from Vat. At £35,000 for a standard two-bedroom model, complete with fitted galley kitchen and a neat bathroom with full-sized bath, the Retreat may look like a cabin, but it conforms to the strict guidelines of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.
It comes in two prefabricated units, made of modular plywood panels, which sit on a discreet wheeled chassis. Between the units is the walkway link, a little courtyard and a semi-private terrace. The units are each 20ft long by 12ft wide. When assembled, the Retreat measures 20ft x 33ft, including the connecting walkway between the units — well within the maximum 20ft x 60ft allowed by the act.
A handful of architects in Britain and America have been working on modular, prefab cabins and designer mobile homes, but they have found it hard to build and market their designs. So confident were Buckley Gray Yeoman in their design that they set up a new company, in partnership with the property developer Michael Shaw and the Yorkshire-based manufacturer of the cabin, to turn the Retreat into reality. At a caravan show in Cottingham, Hull, this month, the first production model stood out in a sea of aluminium statics and larger, lodge-style mobile chalets. Private buyers and park owners have placed orders for about 150 of the homes for delivery early next year.
“We wanted to create an affordable, desirable escape from working life and the city rat race,” says Shaw. “Ten years ago you could go down to places like Padstow and buy a holiday cottage for £50,000. Now it’s half a million. People just can’t afford that. But there are sites across the country where you can have a mobile house like this rather than a wrinkly tin static holiday home. The Retreat is an affordable, desirable second home that sits much more naturally in the landscape.”
As well as the standard package, optional extras include a wood-burning stove, a furniture pack, a deck canopy and a hot tub for the courtyard. The whole thing can be delivered to a site and assembled in a day.
So far so good, but you will need somewhere to put your new cabin. If it’s a virgin site, you need planning permission for a static caravan for holiday or permanent use. How easy or difficult that is depends on your local planning authority. You will also have to organise hooking up to water and power, as well as sorting out drainage.
Alternatively, you can take your Retreat to a mobile home site, where you pay ground rent and services are on tap. Two sites are being made available through Shaw — in north Cornwall and near Newton Abbot, Devon — to house about 80 Retreats. They will be privately owned, with leasehold tenure and ground rent for the land.
Or you could find a plot that already has a traditional static caravan, and replace it with a Retreat: no need to speak to the planners at all.
You can judge for yourself at this week’s 100% Design show at London’s Earls Court. An elongated version of the Retreat, 40ft long by 12ft wide, is also being marketed, with plans for a larger, four-bedroom model in 2006.
“We wanted to take it to the market, set up a company and put our money where our mouth is,” says Yeoman. “Thirty thousand static caravan holiday homes are sold in Britain every year, which is a big market. Our business plan is to start with 200 homes a year. It’s a humble start, but it means we can make sure we get the quality of the design and build right and deliver the goods.”