by Gary Smith, June 2016
Set the Wayback Machine to 1999.
Oldest son grew tired of sharing a bedroom with his younger brother, eight years his junior. That’s fine, but we’re all out of bedrooms. The only remedy to this unfortunate turn of events is to move out of my home office. But where to go?
Idea! “Hey, I know. I’ve never heard of anybody doing anything like this.” I've since learned that just because I can dream up a creative solution to a problem doesn’t mean that I should try it. It might be the start of a new craze. But more likely than not there are reasons why wandering off the beaten path is to walk alone. The idea seemed to have merit only because I didn’t realize that I was about to be blindsided by the law of unintended consequences.
My idea? Buy an old Airstream trailer, park it next to the house, and turn it into an office.
What could possibly go wrong?
So in 1999 I paid way too much for a ’67 Airstream. It smelled a little funny, but it wasn’t that bad inside. Very retro cool. Had a BIG A/C unit on the roof. That’s good, because I live in a Phoenix suburb. Gets hot here.
The owner was happy to have it towed to my house. Maybe a bit too happy.
Anything this retro is cool. The kids think it’s cool. Wife thinks it’s cool. OK. I can make this work. When I’m done with it, I’ll sell it as a cool, old Airstream trailer and let the next guy refurbish it.
The door was the beginning of sorrows (and maybe the last straw). The curved aluminum door was totally Buck Rogers cool. I soon noticed, however, that it took two tries to securely close the door. The initial half-hearted attempt would not latch the door. A second try with considerably more force invariably would end with the door completely shut. But the sound was anything but satisfying. This is no Mercedes. The slam reverberated through the trailer and was accompanied by a tremor. Anticipating the slam, my eyes would close and my teeth clench. Like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The process repeated itself when exiting. “I’ve got to fix that door.” Unfortunately, the solution to fix the latch was not adjustment, but replacement. It was all worn out. Never did find a replacement. The latch was damaged because the door hinges were worn, and the door sagged a bit striking the latch in the wrong place. Increasing closing force overcame the mismatch.
Several amenities in the thing offended my sense of good taste. Had to be dealt with. For example, the ’70s shag carpet had to go. It looked like dirt. Only dirt would have smelled better.
How to Build an Airstream
The Airstream trailer was constructed thus: A bare plywood floor was secured to the aluminum chassis. Twelve inch square linoleum tiles were glued to the plywood. Then the major pieces of the interior that would be too large to get through the door were installed. Like the fiberglass bathroom tub/shower unit. The refrigerator and oven were placed on the linoleum. They became the supporting structural members that held up the cabinetry and counter top. Then at some point the shell was dropped on and attached through the wood floor to the frame. How do I know this?
I know this because when I took out the shag carpet, the glue that held many of the linoleum tiles in place had long since given up. More were loose than not, revealing that the plywood had water damage in places. OK. So the flooring needs to be replaced. No big deal. I’ll slide out the refrigerator and oven that were resting on the linoleum to get all of the loose tiles out. Except to do that the cabinetry and counter top had to be removed because they were attached to the appliances. Several hours later I gave up trying to be careful. The refrigerator and oven were out, but the cabinetry was destroyed. Too much glue. Too many screws. Too much dried-out wood from sitting through too many Arizona summers. The units were never designed to be serviced or replaced.
The other side of the kitchen had the sink and range. So I ripped all of that out also so the kitchen would be destroyed symmetrically. Not pretty.
Dawning conclusion: The whole thing needs to be gutted. Which was a shame because a lot of the wood trim inside was in pretty good shape.
The more I worked, the worse things looked. The bathroom consisted of a curved, fiberglass shower and tub that was formed to fit the curved back end of the trailer. Way too big to get out the door. A sawzall made short work of the bathtub. But it pained me greatly to cut it up.
After a couple of weeks the back yard looked like a trailer park after a tornado.
The condition of the factory plywood floor deteriorated as I progressed closer to the bathroom, removing the tile. I ended up sealing the floor and added a new floor layer on top because, if you will recall, the edges of the original floor were sandwiched between the frame and the shell. The old floor could not be removed.
Then there was the holding tank. Let’s just say that it was removed and discarded using thick rubber gloves. I think a mask was also involved. I’ll let it go at that. The details are too horrible to recount.
Eventually I got to electrical issues. The trailer was wired for 110 and 12 volt. There was a big lead acid battery that, of course, had leaked all over the place. At one point I heard a zis-zis sound from an outlet. Weird. So I took the plug cover off to inspect. At this point I should remind readers that what was intended to go into this Airstream was my office. Computers were a part of the equipment list. Computers like stable power. They don’t like aluminum wiring and its corresponding connectivity issues. Guess what the Airstream had for wiring? Aluminum was all the rage in the ’60s.
Rewiring the trailer meant drilling out a zillion pop rivets that held the curved aluminum walls and ceiling panels to the trailer’s supporting ribs. Between the walls and exterior surface was all of an inch of fiberglass insulation. Wires couldn’t be easily pulled though holes in the ribs because they’d catch in the holes. What a mess. It took a couple of weeks to rewire the trailer. As a footnote I should mention that the insulation looked like fiberglass. I'm not dead yet so maybe it wasn't asbestos.
10/3 wire was run from the box at the house through the attic to the trailer. Probably a couple of hundred feet of wire. Some of the attic goes over a vaulted ceiling where crawl space is very restricted. Didn’t have any fun that day.
The Air Conditioner
With the electrical in, it was time to try the big A/C unit on the roof. It worked great and blew cold air. But it sounded and vibrated like a Pratt and Whitney bomber engine. Who knows how much electricity it would have used. So scratch that. I bought a modern window A/C and put it in the back of the trailer through a panel I made to replace the stock holding tank access cover. What’s another $350 at this point?
I’ve got to fix that door.
The New Office
Phoenix is called the valley of the sun. That’s because there are over 300 days of sunshine a year. The Airstream was rebuilt as an office in the winter months during mild weather. As things heated up outside, I realized that my new aluminum office was a giant heat sink. Heat (or cold) would transfer from the aluminum skin through the aluminum ribs into the aluminum interior walls. It was hard to heat and even harder to cool. The one-inch-thick insulation’s only real purpose must have been to serve as an annoyance to anyone foolish enough to attempt rewiring the trailer.
Idea! Shade would help keep the thing cooler. The Airstream came with supports for a retractable awning, but no aluminum roll-up support tube and no awning. So I went down to Arizona RV Salvage (kinda seedy) and bought the parts I was missing. I spent a couple hundred dollars there, so in appreciation (I suppose) they gave me a hat with their logo on it. I still have it and wear it when I'm doing something stupid that shouldn't need to be done at all (It's gotten a lot of use). When the awning support was repaired, I ordered a canvas awning. Got it all together.
Did the awning help shade the trailer? Well, no. I wasn't expecting, for example, that it would take two people and twenty minutes to extend or retract it. I also wasn't expecting that extended it would act as an aerodynamic aid to an otherwise land bound vehicle. With the awing deployed, any wind would rock the trailer. Consequently, it didn't get used much. So much for shade.
Once in the summer I left house for a couple of hours with the awning extended. While we were gone the sky turned black with wind and rain. Two of my kids were home and managed to get the awning somewhat retracted before trailer and awning ended up in Oz. They were drenched.
Speaking of rain, in certain conditions the roof would leak. And if the rain were really coming down, it was like being inside a popcorn popper.
Towards the back there was a roof vent with a plastic skylight. The sun had won the UV light war with the plastic decades prior. The vent got sealed permanently. There were many other openings in the trailer for vents or exhaust that had to be sealed.
By the way, any disturbance caused by wind, rain, occupants, or opening and closing the door would cause annoying trailer movement. It felt like a southern California tremor.
The only things that got hotter than the skin of the trailer were the single pane windows. Adding maximum reflective window tinting helped with the heat transfer, but did nothing to stop the leaks.
The exterior was originally polished aluminum with a protective clear coat. The sun in Phoenix laughs at clear coat. So the surface was kind of OK in the areas where the clear coat was still intact. But those areas were few and far between. Mostly it was tarnished and oxidized. Restoring the aluminum to a bright polished surface would have taken a trip to an aircraft polishing facility. I wasn't about to spend what was necessary to polish the thing, especially considering it had a few dents. So I bought some aluminum acid wash (nasty stuff), and cleaned it up the best I could.
Ball and Chain
All of my equipment was in the trailer. There was no way to really secure it. Then there were climate control concerns. No way was I going to leave it with a space heater or air conditioner running for any extended length of time. It ended up that I couldn't leave it, and I could hardly stand to be in it.
The Airstream would have worked fine (except for the door) if it had been placed inside a shop or warehouse out of the weather. But then, if I had a shop or warehouse that large, I wouldn’t have needed the Airstream.
I endured the Airstream Office for about eight months. Then I built an office in the garage.
Some guy answering my Craigslist ad bought the Airstream for what I paid for it. So I only lost about $3,500 in improvements and maybe 200 hours of my time. Not bad considering I learned a hard lesson.
“I'm going to tow it to a beach in California and use it for a photo lab.”
I told him that was a great idea.
By the way, I never got the door to work right.