I had a good conversation last night with a friend. We talked about trailers. Well, mobile homes to be exact. During our conversation I realized that I had feelings about trailers. I feel sad that they are considered an acceptable place to live when really, they aren’t.

This past winter I heard a radio story on NPR about the cost of heating oil and the impact it was having on families and particularly the elderly. I remember the interview of one retired couple in Maine, trying to figure out how they could afford their heating bills on a fixed income. The bills were several thousand dollars. The radio report focused on the cost of heating oil and how it was a serious hardship for them. Barely mentioned was the fact that they lived in a mobile home. In Maine. This couple wasn’t heating their mobile home, they were heating the state of Maine. There is no way a mobile home would retain enough heat to keep them warm without a constant heat source… something constantly consuming fuel. Nobody asked why they were living in a trailer. The cost of heating oil isn’t the problem, the problem is that they are living in a trailer. Why do they have to live in a trailer? I don’t know.

But I know why survivors of Hurricane Katrina are living in trailers. FEMA is mandated to provide temporary housing to disaster victims. So we have FEMA trailers in FEMA trailer parks along the Gulf Coast. They are tiny and there are issues of indoor air quality as the materials used to make these trailers offgas toxic compounds (formaldehyde in particular). In the hot humid climate, the poorly-insulated trailers consume enormous amounts of electricity to run the air conditioners. The air conditioners require all the windows and doors to be closed in order to work, which traps the offgassed toxic compounds in the trailers such that the occupants suffer migraine headaches and worse. The only way to breathe is to open the windows (so the air conditioning won’t work). Then the occupants may be vulnerable to excessively high indoor temperature and humidity levels, which carries its own risks for the elderly and the infirm.

Fortunately someone with good sense anticipated these problems and came up with an elegant solution: the Katrina Cottage. The Katrina Cottage is a beautiful site-built small home that costs the same as a FEMA trailer to build, and they can be built quickly. It is durable, insulated, energy-efficient, and has good indoor air quality. I heard once that FEMA would not build Katrina Cottages instead of putting people in trailers because it was required by law to provide temporary, not permanent, housing. Shot down by a technicality.

Nonetheless, somebody thinks the idea has merit. If you want a Katrina Cottage, you can now buy one from Lowe’s.

So now that you can have a beautiful site-built home for the same price as a trailer, where do you put it?