In an increasingly urban future punctuated by congestion, severe weather events, and the occasional pandemic, natural experiences will become ever more necessary - to connect, reflect, grow, and heal.
Some will seek a more resilient and empowering lifestyle, unshackled from skyrocketing costs of living and the aging infrastructures that rely on fossil fuels. A mobile lifestyle will become more desirable and commonplace, for short-term escapes or for years at a time. These "Nomads" will require mastery of their resources and more efficient modes of travel, moving in and out of communities as their needs evolve.
This project proposes a design for a near-future towable trailer that loves nature back. Model #2035 is a closed-loop RV that harvests all of its own water and energy, deploying them in an interactive and conservative fashion. Designed from the ground up for a leasing model, it's composed of recyclable materials and serviceable components that dramatically improves the vehicle's useful life and re-manufacturability. It targets a younger, more urban customer than the traditional RV industry, providing an accessible outdoor retreat and escape from high-consumption behaviors. It has been designed for rapid setup / takedown, resource stewardship, and low environmental impact.
In this storyboard, I invite you to join these Nomads on one of their journeys with Model #2035.
Overview and Intent:
A little more than a year ago, I became fascinated in the process of life cycle analysis. A material accounting strategy that is decades old and common in architecture, LCA has recently become more widespread in other industries closer to industrial design, like apparel, packaging, and appliances. In short, it's a way to calculate the environmental impacts of an object's production, use, and disposal.
Wanting to use this methodology in a project, I looked to one of northern Indiana's largest industries, recreation vehicles. These are, after all, buildings on wheels! From their drastic impact on the road in terms of fuel economy and emissions, to the materials used to construct them, to their shockingly short average lifespan (5-10 years), RV's have a colossal environmental impact.
I scoped the project for the year many American automakers forecasted transitioning their fleets to electric power, 2035. I sought to explore closed-loop material and resource use, propose a new RV service model, and study how people can live more sustainable lives in mobile dwellings. The near-future timeline also allowed me to tune the project to emerging societal and technological trends.
Research and Process:
I began research with a few questions. What benefits does small scale living provide and can it teach people about sustainable values? How does an outdoor trip into nature affect the way we feel? To benchmark trends and RV's on the market, I used a variety of research methods including lit reviews, media from online experts and influencers, and ethnographies of RV owners.
I used a futurecasting framework to look at social, technological, environmental, economic, and political trends impacting transportation and architecture in the United States. Three themes emerged. Improved wireless networks and shifting workplace norms have given rise to the digital nomad, a growing trend among young creatives, roadschooling parents, and retirees, even before its acceleration due to COVID. Second, the increasing likelihood of carbon regulation, international competition and public pressure will speed the transition to renewable energy, effects which will be seen most dramatically in the transportation sector. Thirdly, as a means to retain customer loyalty and spur investment, architects, manufacturers, and developers will need to continually improve their footprints, recovering resources and closing the loop in their production cycles.
In parallel, I conducted interviews with RV owners and industry professionals. One theme that surfaced was the desire to make memories, acutely understood by parents with young children. This encourages people (especially Americans) to hit the road as they seek "freedom" from routine and societal boundaries. A road trip enables visiting friends and family, "roadschooling", self-sufficient living, natural retreats, bucket list adventures, and an escape from the daily grind. It's also cheaper and more convenient than other types of vacations that require air travel, lodging changes, and tighter scheduling. It made me wonder whether an adaptable floor plan could affect a liberating environment and support social bonding.
Lastly, I cataloged the six primary shelters for outdoor lodging to see how they compared in financial and environmental costs, and also to get a sense for how long a typical stay they afforded. I then mapped their common amenities on the degree of satisfaction among users.
This deep immersion focused my design exploration into more actionable areas. Can the RV footprint be reduced while providing better natural connections? Could a more compelling approach to creature comforts bring out people who don't camp? And could options for hygiene and socializing be expanded for teardrop trailers? Inspired by the work of futurist architects like Zaha Hadid and Bjarke Ingels, I began to explore forms that mimicked nature in their function and construction, to enable a mode of living that harmonized with the landscape and its elements.
Design and UX:
Picked up from various waystations at the fringes of urban centers, the lightweight trailer can be hitched to almost any vehicle. Its aerodynamic form introduces little drag, minimally affecting on the road performance or range for electric vehicles. At only 14 feet long and 7 feet tall, it is easy to handle and less cumbersome than larger or motorized trailers.
When a Nomad arrives at their destination, the guest may deploy the living module by lowering the wings of the trailer. Air cylinders dampen the expansion, and the roof is raised by an internal cable drive. The expanded floor plan gives 120 square feet of adaptable living space, a full bathroom and kitchenette. The raised roof and support structure gives a maximum head height of 7ft, allowing for full range of motion and upright posture. A tent made from recycled denim with a wool inner liner, is treated with a hydrophobic coating and fitted to the structure.
During the daytime, the two rooms on either side of the trailer offer respite from the elements, privacy to work or relax, and a place to socialize. A large window flap adorns each side's outer aspect, unzipping to reveal a screen that allows the air, sounds, and scents of the outdoors to move freely in and out of the module. A kitchenette is located outside the vehicle in a public/private setting that serves as both front porch and water cooler. The kitchenette is fitted with a well-insulated cooler drawer and compact ice maker in the center console. A small sink and hand-pump faucet is positioned to one side, with an induction cooktop anchoring the other. Powered by the solar system, the cooktop is fitted with a small, backlit display that informs battery status, time of current use remaining, and when a solar recharge is likely to occur.
At night, queen-size mattresses extend off the bathroom wall. The mattress unit is modularized to allow for swapping two twin beds or a convertible sofa. The floorplan allows each sleeper to use the bathroom without disturbing the other partner.
To clean up after a day outdoors or to rejuvenate in the morning, a misting showerhead provides steamy refreshment with a very-low flow rate. Another backlit display shows real-time water inventory and when it may be replenished by rainfall. The showerhead may easily be programmed to shut off when thresholds are hit, like "water remaining" or a "countdown" timer.
Model #2035 is a closed-loop RV that harvests all of its own water and energy, deploying them in an interactive and conservative fashion. It is also a passive structure, using natural airflow to regulate temperature and humidity. Capable of sleeping four adults, it is a fraction of the size of its competitors and far more aerodynamic on the road.
The roof of the vehicle is equipped with a compact solar array mounted on a motorized bracket that passively tracks the sun. Rails formed into the carbon fiber roof panel gathers rainwater and funnels it into a narrow channel. The rain may be used as graywater, for tasks like flushing toilets and laundry, or filtered to use as freshwater in faucets or the misting shower.
Natural airflow cools the trailer, entering through the wing seams and tent windows and evacuated by two 8" vent fans at the highest point of the tent. The wing and front panels are heavily insulated with recycled denim, with multi-layer tent fabrics available for colder climates. Active heating is supplied by a radiant tube that may be fed from the shower or greywater tank.
The outer structure of the trailer is made from lightweight carbon fiber, a durable material whose cost and recyclability is improving with emerging research. This displaces heavier materials, like lumber and aluminum, which must travel thousands of miles to the factory after being harvested.
Just because Model #2035 has a low environmental impact does not mean it costs more for the customer or has fewer options. At the end of the Nomad's journey, the trailer is returned to the rental outfitter to be made ready for its next adventure. Heavier or lighter weight fabrics may be installed to be better adapted to the next climate. Similarly, the tables, mattresses and sofas may be swapped to suit the new passengers.
This trailer was designed from the ground up for a circular rental model that can be even more profitable than a linear, direct-to-customer model. The rental Outfitter is able to provide maintenance, cleaning, and re-manufacture, extending the service life of the vehicles and recovering resources upon decommission. The Outfitter is able to collect years of revenue off the same vehicle. Meanwhile, the customer's cost per day-of-use is cut by more than 80% and she is free to switch models whenever she chooses. This makes an RV holiday even more financially accessible.
Currently, RV's are made to order, so there is no standing inventory. With this model, an Outfitter will have excess inventory to accommodate events (festivals, weddings) and coordinate rallies (habitat cleanups, charity hikes). They can even be used as temporary dwellings for people that lose their homes to coastal flooding or wildfires, or for housing first responders or volunteers for natural or manmade disasters.