Homes: Runaround Sue
This vintage Airstream was restored using sustainable materials.
Story: Jodi Heckel
Photos: Nick Burchell Photography
Enjoy nature in a way that is both stylish and “green.”
This renovation project took a vintage 1961 Airstream trailer and refurbished it, providing it with both a beautiful and functional interior and environmentally friendly features.
Julie Birdwell, co-owner of New Prairie Construction in Urbana, thought such a project would both expand the business and its customer base and provide an interesting, creative project that would challenge her employees.
A friend found an Airstream for sale on eBay. It was in Arizona, and it had been abandoned for years and was in worse condition than Birdwell realized. “It was a mess. We couldn’t really trailer it safely,” she said.
After work on the axles and brakes made it roadworthy, the Airstream was moved to Illinois and put it in storage until New Prairie Construction had enough workers available to begin the renovation. The trailer was housed in a rented warehouse space in Champaign while it was undergoing the renovation.
“The bones of the trailer were good. The chassis had very little rust,” Birdwell said.
But the plywood subfloor was rotted around the edges. Birdwell’s team lifted the trailer off the chassis and subfloor, took up the plywood subfloor and replaced it with a new subfloor, then lowered the trailer back onto it. That required making a frame to support the lightweight aluminum hull, which would have shifted and warped without support.
“We had to make a very meticulously crafted interior frame to support the arches and bottom part of the trailer perfectly,” Birdwell said.
The original exterior aluminum skin of the trailer was buffed to look like new. The Airstream’s electrical wiring, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems were replaced.
The original interior of the trailer was a precast fiberglass shell that fit the curves of the walls and ceiling – standard in Airstreams but “not particularly attractive,” said Birdwell. The bathroom featured a small, pink, molded fiberglass tub.
Birdwell decided to make the replacement interior skin from aluminum, to play up the retro feel of the Airstream and because she liked its reflective quality. That required creating aluminum strips that would go between the original ribs of the trailer, to attach the rivets that would hold the aluminum skin in place. Silver Machine Shop in Champaign made the pieces.
“Airstreams are kind of like a bullet or a hot dog. They have all this rounded end coming down,” Birdwell said.
“It was by far more complicated to do all this riveting and piecing and cutting of aluminum, but I love this reflective (quality),” she continued. “I feel like it makes the trailer look so much bigger on the inside.”
There were similar issues with making the cabinets and casework for the Airstream.
“One of the big challenges to building the cabinets and casework is there is nothing straight, no straight lines anywhere,” Birdwell said. “We were constantly cutting wood on the curve. Constant design decisions had to be made that we had sit and talk out. How to get it to sit up against this curve to look like it was made to be there.”
The cabinets in the trailer are made from bamboo plywood, with aspen or white pine framing. The wood trim is maple.
The dining table, kitchen and bathroom countertops, bathroom bench and shower console are made from reclaimed redwood. New Prairie Construction was removing a redwood deck for a customer, and Birdwell had the wood milled, cut into strips and glued back together into sheets. The table, bench, shower console and countertops were cut from it and finished with tung oil.
Birdwell chose to make the interior door from wood, to echo the countertops.
“I love the notion of a door being kind of a statement,” she said. “When you see doors painted different colors, it becomes this inviting presence. ‘Come visit us.’”
The exterior of the door, by necessity, had to be aluminum, but the interior is maple veneer, stained with a plant-based dye and finished with tung oil. The color is visible to those outside when the door is latched open.
A custom-made aluminum visor over the door angles rainwater away.
The basic footprint of the trailer was not changed. But the kitchen had to be redesigned somewhat to accommodate the appliances.
The design tried to “make use of every possible nook and cranny for storage,” Birdwell said. For example, tip-out drawers in the kitchen provide storage for silverware. A drop-down countertop next to the seating area adds to the counter space. The sink has a cutting board and a drain board that fit inside it. The bathroom’s curving walls don’t provide a good spot to mount a standard mirror, so it has a retractable mirror on an articulating arm that folds against the wall.
Birdwell designed the bathroom door, which is made from maple and plexiglass. Because the large windows are at either end of the trailer, she wanted something that would let light into the middle of the trailer while still providing privacy. And she wanted the door to reflect the curves of the trailer’s ceiling.
Along with making the Airstream look beautiful, Birdwell was committed to making it environmentally friendly.
The renovation included adding solar panels to the roof that store energy in deep cell batteries located inside the back of the trailer.
The Airstream has both a 40-gallon fresh water tank and a 40-gallon gray water tank. Water used from the kitchen and bathroom go into the gray water tank, and the bathroom has a composting toilet. As long as the trailer’s occupants are using environmentally friendly materials, such as biodegradable soap, the contents of the gray water tank can be dumped anywhere, not just at a campground station.
That was another of Birdwell’s goals: Ensure the Airstream could be used to camp in an area with no facilities.
“You can camp off the beaten path and enjoy nature without all the campground things to deal with. We thought that was a really attractive feature,” she said.
Among the other environmentally friendly features in the trailer:
* LED lights.
* Couch cushions made from latex and upholstery made from sustainable materials, neither of which contain VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. The throw pillows were handmade by a former New Prairie Construction employee from organic cotton stuffed with kapok, a natural fiber.
* Linoleum flooring with a natural jute backing, laid with a low-VOC adhesive.
* A Nyloboard subfloor, which is hypoallergenic and made from recycled carpet fiber.
* Two fans on the trailer’s roof which run off solar power and pull in fresh air, much like a whole-house fan.
“We achieved our goal in that we were able to completely redo a vintage Airstream trailer with entirely new systems,” Birdwell said. “The exterior skin was saved. The look of the trailer was saved. So you have the look of the old with the performance and quality of the new.”