When I first received the email asking me to green Peg Wyse’s home, I stared at it in disbelief. A trailer??? Everyone knows trailers are the most toxic of home environments–full of formaldehyde-emitting particleboard and other less-than-natural materials. Thankfully, I ignored my first impression, dug into the story a little deeper, and discovered a wonderful opportunity to help a woman achieve her goal of living in a healthier, greener home–on a budget.
This trailer’s biggest asset by far is location, location, location. It sits on a beautiful ninety-acre farm in the rolling hills just north of Frankfort, Kentucky. “I love this place like I’ve never loved anyplace else,” says Peg, a former English professor at work on a third novel. Although this area is completely rural, it’s only an hour’s drive to the urban amenities of Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Deer, wild turkeys, hawks, hummingbirds, foxes, coyotes, and other animals and birds all consider this place home,” Peg reports. Along with the wildlife, she shares her spot with three cats, a friendly Doberman, and a flock of Black Australorp chickens that lives in a henhouse Peg made from an old van.
Peg welcomed me to her home with a smile and a hot bowl of Kentucky burgoo, a country stew made from whatever meats and vegetables are at hand. Homemade biscuits were in the oven, and she served them with butter and honey. Though we’d just met, we held hands and said grace before eating.
Quick, cheap shelter
When Peg retired from teaching in 2001, it was a logical choice to move to her son’s farm; she had lived in the Lexington area most of her life. She bought a used trailer for $11,000, an affordable way to set up shelter fast and have a place of her own. And it fit in with the local vernacular architecture–trailers are widely used in the deep country where Peg lives.
Peg’s 1,280-square-foot, single-wide trailer, which was manufactured in 1990, is flimsy. Even with “tie-downs”–devices that secure mobile/manufactured homes or park trailers to ground anchors to resist wind–these trailers are known to blow away in winter storms. I could see why. Peg’s trailer is basically a frame made of two-by-fours with an aluminum shell on the outside, vinyl-coated sheetrock on the inside, and a few inches of insulation in between. “It gets terribly hot in the summer, and the wind blows through it in the winter,” Peg says. She had already attempted to fill the cracks with spray-type foam insulation to reduce drafts.
The trailer’s positioning and layout work perfectly for Peg. The master bedroom and bath are on the east end, giving her a solar alarm clock. A large, high-ceilinged area in the middle of the trailer–dominated by a solid wall of books–holds her kitchen, dining table, living room, and work space. On the west side is a storeroom and a guest bedroom and bath.
Peg had already made many improvements. Outside, she installed a gravel lane, a septic system, electric poles (though there’s plenty of sunshine for solar power), and a small garden where she grows roses and vegetables. She put a porch by the kitchen door so she can sit and admire the view and the wildlife. She also collects rainwater in two four-by-four-by-eight cisterns, which provide her with enough water for washing and flushing. Inside, part of the trailer’s floor has been replaced with oak flooring.
With this ideal location and layout, Peg wants to spend the rest of her life here. Limited finances reduce her options for building a standard frame house, so she’s chosen to fabricate whatever improvements she can to make this trailer a comfortable home.
Sniffing the air
Since she moved to the trailer, Peg has developed asthma, and her greatest concern was outgasing of formaldehyde from the trailer’s interior, which she thought could be making her sick. I’ve heard reports of trailers being filled with formaldehyde-emitting materials, and I went to visit Peg ready to solve the problem.
However, there was far less formaldehyde in this particular trailer than I expected. The walls were made from the same sheetrock used in conventional building, although in this case, it was covered with vinyl wallpaper. The subfloors may have been particleboard, but I could not tell without ripping up old carpet and vinyl flooring. Peg told me that when her son laid the oak floors, he put down a plywood subfloor, which meant that at least half the trailer’s floors were particleboard free. I was pleased to see that, after all the complaints I’ve heard about the excessive levels of formaldehyde in trailers, newer models contain far less of this toxin.
I did find particleboard in the kitchen cabinets and other built-in shelving, which could be replaced easily enough without affecting the building shell. Peg said it would be possible for her to do that by making open shelves (which she preferred) from local cedar sold at a nearby sawmill.
All the materials used to construct Peg’s trailer were at least five years old, so much of the formaldehyde has already outgased. Because visual observation and a “sniff” test revealed very little formaldehyde, I suggested she get a simple home formaldehyde test kit. I recommended that she find out how much formaldehyde was actually in her home before she undertook any remedial efforts because her asthma could be caused by something else–perhaps mold.
If formaldehyde turned out to be a problem for Peg, I suggested that she apply AFM Safecoat Hard Seal–a brush-on clear finish that blocks formaldehyde fumes–to all of the surfaces on the inside and outside of all of her particleboard cabinets and shelving units.
Next, we crawled under the house and found quite a bit of mold growing in the crawlspace. Because the trailer has so many air leaks, mold actually gets into the living area. I recommended that more vents be installed in the foundation structure to allow air circulation to retard mold growth.
Fixing floors and walls
The floors throughout the trailer were a hodgepodge of oak, sheet vinyl, and old carpet. Peg’s son had installed the oak; I sug- gested she ask him to continue with the rest and replace the old particleboard with more substantial plywood subflooring at the same time. I recommended finishing the oak with a water-based wood floor finish.
Peg wants to put Mexican pavers in the kitchen and bath. I agreed, but warned her against using the toxic sealant recommended for this type of tile.
Peg’s walls need significant reconditioning. Seams in the trailer’s outer aluminum shell have let in moisture, and the sheetrock is falling apart in some places. In addition, the insulation is insufficient to protect against the extremes of heat and cold that are characteristic of the Kentucky climate.
Peg has some experience with home improvements and is eager to improve her walls both for protection from the elements and for visual appeal. I suggested she work on this project room by room as time, energy, and finances allow. I told her to rip off the old sheetrock and insulation, fill cracks on the inside of the outer shell with a low-toxicity caulk (such as DAP Acrylic Latex Caulk with Silicone), install a vapor-moisture barrier, and put in new formaldehyde-free insulation. She could use the trailer’s existing framing or build it out even more to allow for a thicker blanket of insulation. Then I recommended she cover the new walls with sheetrock and seal them with joint compound to achieve air-tight walls.
Into the garden
Peg has the skill and desire to grow much of her food in an organic garden. She has plenty of natural fertilizer in the henhouse, as well as the resources needed to set up a sustainable food production system. The problem is that she has osteoarthritis, and it’s difficult for her to do garden work.
The solution was literally lying at her feet. The site has a lot of stone, and one of Peg’s sons helped her create raised stone beds that cleared the area and raised the planting level to a height she can easily handle.
I can just see Peg writing her novels, faithful dog at her feet, enjoying eggs from the henhouse, roses from her garden in a jar on the table, and a homegrown harvest in the salad bowl. Life looks great. She’s at home.
Debra Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and the author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004). Visit her website at DLD123.com.