Removing the Stigma from the Mobile Home: An Interview with Jennifer Siegal

The first American woman to win the arcVision 2016 Women in Architecture Prize, Jennifer Siegal is hoping to redefine the 21st century home.

Taliesin Mod.Fab.Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AZ. The result of a design/build studio class co-taught by Jennifer Siegal.

Courtesy Bill Timmerman

The first American woman to win the arcVision 2016 Women in Architecture Prize, Jennifer Siegal is hoping to redefine the 21st century home. Her Los Angeles-based firm, Office of Mobile Design (OMD), designs prefabricated mobile homes which aim to promote sustainability, mobility, and flexibility in the built environment. In this edited interview with Metropolis, Siegal explains how, although mobile homes carry the stigma of poverty and immobility, her work attempts to reimagine what a mobile home is, what it signifies, and what it’s role could be in our increasingly urban world.  

Dana Snyder: What are the challenges that you face as a woman in this field, which is mostly dominated by men still? And how do you think the field needs to adapt to encourage women to remain in this profession?

Jennifer Siegal: Well, that’s a really good question. It’s a question that’s been coming up a lot lately for many reasons. One has to do with the recent death of Zaha Hadid, who was probably one of the most prominent women in our field. And also, this big election with Hillary Clinton is also fuelling this conversation. So, it’s a terrific time for me to receive this award because I am a huge advocate for women in the profession. But also […] I see this award as, well, I sit in a place in history. I am a recipient of all of the hard work of the women–of the generations–that came prior to me.

Also, my position is as a spokesperson for the women who are coming behind me. There are inequalities still in architecture and a lot of that is driven by politics and economics. People that make the decisions about who gets hired, and about the large amounts of money that are spent on these projects, tend to be men, and until the trust is there, until other women sort of bring a next generation along, that’s not going to change the cycle. And I experience that all the time.

Vanessa Quirk: So do you think that having women like Zaha Hadid in prominence is important? Is it important to have role models in the field?

JS: I absolutely think it’s very important to have role models. I think you have to see somebody who is in front of you to want to emulate or do better than. But there has to be somebody you can relate to. That’s why Zaha was such an important figure, and, you know, a whole slew of other women as well. But she in particular because she broke so many boundaries with her work and was so prolific with construction and getting things built, and also so recognized in the field.

VQ: Was she a role model for you?

JS: She was a role model for me. And I think when you see someone like yourself that speaks up and speaks for change it gives you more confidence in your role. I’ve had women that have mentored me, and supported me, and hired me in the past and I do the same for other women behind me.

Jennifer Siegal

​Courtesy the arcVision Prize

DS: Do you think that being a woman in architecture has required you or motivated you to think outside the box at all?

JS: I don’t know if it’s my gender, I think it’s more of myself. I don’t necessarily base it on gender. I hear all of—this is sort of a sidebar—but I hear all these interviews right now with women in film, directors, you know. A lot of the conversation is “how is it to be a woman in this field” and you never ask that question to a man, you know, “how is it to be a man in your field?” and then spend half the interview talking about that instead of the movie. So I don’t mind that that’s how this conversation is starting, but it’s one of many issues.

Architecture is a very complicated profession. It’s super collaborative, it involves tremendous amounts of organizing and leading in order to create the vision that we all share in any project. So I don’t necessarily think that my work is different because I’m a woman, I just feel like I do a lot of extra things in my life outside of the profession, like, I’m a mom, I’m an educator, and a colleague and friend. I’m able to manage many aspects of my life simultaneously as any good multi-tasker can. And I think that’s something that I think we women still excel in.

VQ: On the flipside of that, though, I think people would argue that just by being a non-male, white architect, you have insight into different types of design. Not that being a woman makes you design a certain way–but that if you come with a different viewpoint, you can amplify the conversation because perhaps your design perspective is a little broader.

JS: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. There was a very important moment in my education at the end of my time at SCI-Arc. Frank Gehry was on the jury, whose work I have tremendous respect for and actually think is the most important work that’s happened in Los Angeles in the last 75 years. But I remember he said “the problem with your generation is that no one is interested in building monuments.” And that was a profound statement for me because I was not interested in creating monuments [laughs]. My work, even as a graduate student, focused on these ideas of temporary structures or smaller, more compact spaces, things that moved. And I remember thinking, my work—or the work that I hoped to be doing in my career—is not about skyscrapers. Maybe that does set me apart?

And also, I am working in factories and factory settings. That is a bit of a challenge itself, and a bit of a double-whammy in terms of trying to push boulders up hills, because I’m trying to change another set of systems, which is the factory system.

DS: So actually, we were going to veer away from the topic of being a woman in architecture!

JS: I don’t mind the topic! I guess I’ve just been talking about it a lot.

VQ: I think it’s the nature of the prize as well.

JS: Which is what’s amazing about the prize, because there is no prize like that that recognizes women in the field. So it’s magnanimous of this concrete company to promote and recognize that. It’s the only place that’s done that, from what I’ve seen.

DS: To move in the direction of your actual work—often mobile homes are seen as a mark of low income. So is the pre-fab “mobile home of the 21st century” a way of changing that narrative, and if so, how?

JS: Yes. I believe it does. I have been interested in the idea of communal living for most of my career and I believe that the trailer park is a terrific American representation of that type of environment. There’s a great writer, J.B. Jackson, who wrote about the American trailer and applauded it for a number of reasons. You know, for a lot of people, it’s the first and only new home they will ever own. And it also offers a sense of community in terms of shared gardens and neighborliness that maybe a large apartment block doesn’t offer. People are very much aware of who’s living next door to them, and say hello. Also a lot of older people live in trailer parks because that’s all they can afford but then—it’s like a built in family.

I often look at the trailer park as a great environment for a university student. If every student came to school and was able to buy into a trailer park, and either sell that or take it with them as they move on, they would save tremendous amounts of money in their four years or six years of education. When I started my work, looking at manufactured housing and manufactured classrooms, I realized that the structural components that made these buildings were pretty fascinating, but it was the materials and the way that they were finished, interior and exterior, that relegated them to a very low economic status. That’s why in a lot of ways we think of trailers as being expendable.

My work has been about the materials, and also the space—making bigger windows, or making more of a connection between indoor and outdoor, choosing different types of volumes. So I haven’t necessarily rethought the structure, I’ve just rethought how the materials are introduced. That has, I think, been the genesis of so much of the work.

VQ: So you’d say that it’s the choice of the material that has a significant role to play in altering the stigma? Because there is somewhat of a stigma around it, right?

JS: A huge stigma. There was a whole movement in the 1950s with the case study houses in Los Angeles. There was a magazine, Arts & Architecture Magazine edited by John Entenza, that approached a series of architects who all thought about pre-fabrication. Then that concept dissipated […until] Dwell opened the box again with some of their first issues. They were talking about the same kind of structures, but they called it ‘pre-fab,’ so it was a little bit more pop, and a bunch of people, including myself, were involved in that conversation already, but they brought it to a mainstream. So I do believe that there is a greater recognition or understanding now of what manufactured housing can be—all the way down to the Tiny House movement.

DS: How have your mobile structures been received outside of the architecture field? How have consumers responded—are they typically using them as permanent homes or are they using them as vacation homes?

JS:  Okay, there’s two parts to that answer. One is, there are different categories of the work. Some of it is factory-built, modular systems. Those come in any number of modules depending on how I design it, then those go to the site and typically it’s more about the delivery system than it is about moving to the next location. So those tend to be more permanently sited once they arrive.

I’ve also worked with refurbishing or upcycling truck trailers or old manufactured homes, and those structures have been used for classrooms, but those continue to move. I also have a line of smaller prefab playhouses for children that are taken from the aerospace industry. They’re called Unit Load Devices (ULD); I re-skinned those for kids. Those move, go around your yard, or whatever.

Mobile ECO LAB. A donated cargo truck trailer turned mobile classroom. The 8’ x 35’ trailer travels throughout Los Angeles County.

Courtesy Benny Chan

Courtesy Benny Chan

And I’ve just signed a contract to start a new project with a group to create the world’s first fully-autonomous prefabricated home–a  luxury home. So that will be completely off the grid and completely self-sufficient, and built to extremely high standards. My role is the CDO, the Chief Design Officer. The company is called Wildernest, so we should be rolling our first prototype of that out in the fall of 2016.

VQ: Do you have any renderings of that?

JS: No, I literally just started it yesterday. They’ve been researching the technologies for the last four years, so there are things that weren’t on the market two years ago—in terms of water purification systems, or electrical systems. It’s aimed at someone who, let’s say, owns an island in some place, but doesn’t want to hurt the environment with infrastructure. But ultimately the goal, down the road, is to develop at this high end, but then offer versions that are more affordable that could be used as refugee housing, or relocatable housing. So almost like a Tesla model: you develop it at a super high end and then you release more affordable versions once you’ve got that under your belt.

VQ: Is that a central part of your mission statement as a designer, affordability?

JS: Yes, I’ve always been interested in that. More out of my own lack of funding for my own projects that I’m interested in, but don’t necessarily have the money or the backers. So I use materials that I can find, or work with students, or find a client that’s non-profit, that needs something and can put some money into it. But I’ve always—I grew up in that world of Paulo Soleri, who started Arcosanti in Arizona, or even Buckminster Fuller. I think that’s a kind of mentality about frugality, of being forced to make do with less, so you become forced to be inventive.

DS: I wanted to ask who your target demographic is, though it seems that you have a wide range.

JS: Yeah, I think that my target demographic at this point tends to be the Millennials, the people who are going to be using buildings in new ways. Buildings that are more responsive to our bodies, embedded with intelligence. […] So, I think that this newer generation understands this term, which I call compact spaciousness. You live in a smaller place. You still have a sense of the bigger outdoors, but you make do with less stuff, less clutter. So that might make more sense to people that haven’t already accumulated masses of furniture and things that hold them down.

VQ: Do you feel aligned with the Tiny House Movement? Do you feel that you’re sharing a similar philosophy?

JS: Yes and no. I’ve been doing this work for a really long time, and the fact that there’s a movement right now with tiny houses is interesting. It’s definitely a response to the shared economy, what’s been happening with Uber and Airbnb. Those are people that are sort of do-it-yourself-ers, and they’re not going to hire an architect, obviously.

But, I understand this idea of public space versus private space and property. I’m very much interested in how we can rethink the zoning issues about what is private and what is public, and how cities make better use of their public spaces. It addresses all kinds of issues from homelessness to temporary structures. I think the idea that we are rooted in one place, and our ancestors grew up there and died and that we have to remain there and maintain that tradition, is not that applicable in American society. And I think that our buildings need to be a lot more responsive to the way that we really live today.

VQ: That’s interesting, because when I think about a mobile home, I’m thinking of it in a rural context, going from place to place. But it would make a lot of sense that a mobile home be a part of an urban context, especially when cities are changing so rapidly, and space is present and then filled and then replaced. So it’s interesting as a possible way to approach urban housing.

JS: Right, and there are some great examples from the 1960s, early ‘70s, from Archigram’s work. They were talking about “plug-in cities.” There was a group at the same time in Japan called Metabolists. That thinking has been percolating for a couple of decades.

It’s interesting, all of these energies at this moment in time are coming together—in terms of who’s making decisions, where we are politically, how public and private use of land gets divvied up, who’s paying taxes, who’s not paying taxes, and it all sort of rubs together. I also think it kind of goes in line with the death of the suburbs, that people are moving back into cities.

I just finished my house in Venice Beach. It’s a vertical, modular addition to my house, because I’m really interested in showing people about densifying a city like Los Angeles. We can go above just a single story, and it’s a very easy thing to do with a modular system. And it goes in in one day, basically. I think then I can provide space for Airbnb, or extended family, or friends. I can grow my house pretty easily today, and it has a lot to do with cities’ codes and who’s making suggestions. So the more that we’re allowed to do these things, I think the better our cities will become.

OMD’s Prefab ShowHouse. Venice, CA.

Courtesy Benny Chan

Delivery of OMD’s Prefab ShowHouse.

Road Runner. Venice, CA. Jennifer Siegal’s home. Attached to the house in the back is a recycled 200 square feet truck trailer.

Courtesy Marvin Rand

DS: You’ve said that: “Wheels are an important part of OMD’s design approach, examining ways that any city environment can be made more usable and more dynamic if it can be hitched-up, towed, pulled, or driven from place to place. For me, mobility is not about erasing everything that exists, but adding to the infrastructure in a more environmentally sound way—a more intelligent way of inhabiting the landscape—resting lightly on the ground.” This is an interesting contrast to historical ideas of what makes cities, which is an idea that seems inherently based on a level of permanence, at least in the structures that make up urban space. In what ways can the mobile home be a part of an urban experience in the American context?

JS: Okay, so this goes back to this question about infrastructure, and the ability to plug-in or unplug. What has been occurring for the last twenty years, I suppose, in technology, is the untethered-ness of communication devices. You know, wifi is now available everywhere, and that wasn’t the case twenty years ago. My vision is that our buildings will exist at that level. That’s part of the reason that I’m joining forces with this group, Wildernest, to come up with a series of solutions for autonomous homes and autonomous structures. Because I can envision a place where there are undeveloped parking lots, parking structures—some of the most useless structures in terms of a 24-hour cycle of the day—and yet there’s tremendous amounts of them all over the country. Why couldn’t we be using them at night time, where people plug in their house before the next cycle of people come in. A multi-tasking, or blurring of programmatic elements of buildings, will begin to occur.

I also believe in this idea of not bulldozing or erasing everything that’s already been constructed. I think that there’s a lot of leftover space that we haven’t even addressed yet. There are back alleys in every single neighborhood in Los Angeles that don’t really offer much back to the citizens of the city, and those spaces could easily be used as […] places that you could have plug-in or off-the-grid housing units. So I don’t think it’s a question of ‘we don’t have the space’ or ‘or we don’t have the resources.’ I think we just haven’t rethought the way that we’re using a lot of public space.

Also, look at the way restaurants have evolved. The food truck right now is a common sight. It’s not just a lunch truck anymore. It’s a gourmet experience on the street. And those structures pop up and they move and then they go back to the lot that they inhabit at night. It gives a much more democratic approach, in some ways, to dining.

I think that that that movement is spurring a lot more mobile retail, as well. I did a project in 2000 that was called the iMobile, and it was a take on what Apple could be doing, creating mobile store-fronts. As cities become more dense, you still want choice, you want things brought to you. Getting into your private automobile and driving off to some mall location is ridiculous. I think that that mentality needs to be rethought.  […]

DS: I want to ask you about the homes themselves. Is each one designed to be suitable to every environment?

JS: I don’t think that everything is applicable to every single place. Obviously there are extreme climates. And I’ve been focused on my own backyard, which is Los Angeles, which has a pretty mild climate. So, I get that question a lot, especially when I’m lecturing in the middle of a snow-laden environment. But it’s more about the way that a roof is angled or the thickness of a wall, and all of those elements can be negotiated or shifted, depending on where the structure is going to be nestled.

I have a project I did as a sort of prototype show house here in Los Angeles. Then somebody wanted it and brought it to Joshua Tree, which has a very different climate, more extreme weather conditions. And it has fared very well in that location because of a couple ideas—one continuous sloped roof and, at its highest point, an operable skylight, which lets air circulate very passively. […]

I’m still interested in sustainability in terms of positioning of doors and windows in smart locations in buildings, but I’m also concerned with what sustainability means in the built form: how are we going to live lighter on the land? So smaller to me makes more sense, and temporary makes more sense, as long as we’re not leaving a trail of trash behind us.

Buildings that are built in factories have a lot less material waste. They just go to one location. They’re much more precisely crafted, and you get a quicker turnaround time, and therefore you save more money in these buildings, and the delivery is much quicker. So for example, my house here in Venice Beach, I had a crane. It installed in one day. So that’s a lot less impact on the neighborhood, a lot less impact on the environment. […]

I have a kind of global approach to mobility. I’m interested in trucks, I’m interested in factory built systems, I’m interested in upcycling. So it’s really all about materials. Ultimately I’m just interested in bringing high-end materials to a low-end structure.

VQ: What do they run on? Do they depend on natural resources or gas? How does that work?

JS: Yes, I mean, all trucks run on gas, at this point. I haven’t been able to track that yet. But you want to quantify carbon footprint, is it less fossil fuel to deliver a fully-baked home versus having ten or twenty construction workers driving around the city getting to these different locations? I’m sure we could spend the time doing that study, but I’m guessing that it’s probably less fossil fuel.

You know, I drive an electric car, and I really think that idea will start becoming popular as well. Or, maybe I won’t even own a car in the future. Maybe we’ll all just be sharing cars, which makes a lot of sense.

I feel like in some ways I’ve taken on the ideas of the future thinkers from the 60s and 70s, even going back to the Italian futurists at turn of the century; they were talking about mobility in a very new, novel way. But it’s really now–because of mobile technologies–that people are starting to imagine that our buildings can be different than they used to be. They don’t need to be fortified by stones. Society has changed in tremendous ways, and my argument has been that buildings need to respond to our human needs and not vice versa. We shouldn’t be stuck in a place because our buildings are so heavy.

Venice SwellHouse in Venice, CA

Courtesy Undine Prohl

Seatrain. The Brewery, Los Angeles, CA

Courtesy Daniel Hennessy

Courtesy Daniel Hennessy

Courtesy Daniel Hennessy

Courtesy Daniel Hennessy

Taliesin Mod.Fab.Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AZ. The result of a design/build studio class co-taught by Jennifer Siegal.

Courtesy Bill Timmerman

Courtesy Bill Timmerman

Courtesy Bill Timmerman

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