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Taking it to the Streets

To spread their mission statewide, AIA Vermont is transforming a vintage Airstream trailer into a traveling architecture center

By Nalina Moses

Architecture is usually about making things that are firmly rooted in place. But AIA Vermont received one of eight component 2013 AIA National Innovation Fund grant awards with its proposal “Archistream: A Mobile Design Gallery and Education Center.” While the name for the vehicle is still under discussion, the project is well underway. The organization purchased an Airstream trailer in October, and now it’s preparing to redesign it. When complete, it will travel throughout the state, delivering programs that advocate for local architecture, design, and planning.

It all started at last year's AIA Vermont annual retreat, when executive director Carol Miklos asked members to brainstorm about projects to support the Repositioning the AIA initiative, thinking specifically about its Innovation Fund program. One member suggested turning an Airstream trailer into a portable architecture facility. Diane Gayer, AIA, who attended the retreat, remembers, “The idea kind of leapt off the page. We thought of this as an idea that we should not let go [away].”

Gayer wrote a proposal outlining the purchase, redesign, and operation of the trailer. Miklos supported the idea passionately, but could hardly believe it when AIA Vermont found out it had been selected for the $42,750 grant. “Finding out that we received the grant was a big surprise,” she says. “People still think of Vermont as one of the smallest, most rural states, and we got the largest grant. So it's quite a feather in our caps!"

“Too darn shiny”

The trailer's signature curving aluminum outer shell serves as a key design inspiration. “The image of the Airstream, so iconic, rallied our energies for the project,” says Gayer.

Joshua Chafe, Assoc. AIA, volunteered to find and purchase the trailer. He began by searching for Airstreams online but looked at other vehicles, too. “Due to the price and complexity of the Airstream, I urged the board to consider other alternatives, such as a box truck, car hauler, or other camper,” says Chafe. “But, alas, ultimately the Airstreams are just too darn shiny to resist. They are eye-catching and timeless.”

After searching for trailers throughout the Northeast, he found the 1969 Globetrotter that was purchased close to home, in Castleton, Vt. It’s in particularly good condition. “The body is nice—needs to be polished but it has all its rivets, which is a big deal,” Chafe explains. “The owners were a large part of it, too. They had put a lot of love and work into it, and it was obvious.”

Savvy clients

This month the trailer will be hauled from Castleton to Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. Then, in January, it will be redesigned and refitted by 12 undergraduate architecture students as the core of a spring design-build studio. Tolya Stonorov, a principal at Stonorov Workshop and an assistant professor of architecture at Norwich, is teaching the studio.

The project will immerse students in the everyday professional realities of schedule, budget, and program. And it will bring them into conversation with AIA Vermont board members, who are leading the project. “Having AIA Vermont as the client will be a unique interactive learning opportunity,” Stonorov says. “The students are lucky to have a client with expertise in the fields of architecture and design.”

The project also offers the opportunity to shape a thoughtfully calibrated and crafted micro-interior for the vehicle. Stonorov notes that the school's model shop is equipped with advanced fabrication equipment such as 3D printers and a 4x8 CNC router, and that these technologies are enhanced by the region's traditions of construction. “I see the trailer's new design as a joining of the high tech and the handcrafted,” she says. She imagines that the students might work with materials like felt, resin, and hardwoods to fashion a warm interior for the vehicle to contrast with its streamlined exterior shell.

Connecting communities

AIA volunteers and students will take the trailer on the road in the summer of 2014 to build awareness of AIA Vermont (and of architecture and design in general) amongst communities across the state. “In Vermont we're sometimes lacking connections between AIA members, or outreach between the AIA and our various [professional and civic] communities,” Gayer says. “But now we'll have a vehicle to make these connections with.”

Part of the vehicle's program is to display AIA award–winning design projects. But Gayer emphasizes, “It's not intended to be a static exhibition space, but to create a dialogue about architecture with different communities.” To develop programming for the vehicle, AIA Vermont will collaborate with other local organizations, such as the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Vermont Arts Council, and might also work with guest contributors.

The possibilities seem limitless. The trailer will be equipped with state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment. It will be available to visit schools, town halls, and fairs. And it will have the resources to host meetings and seminars, showcase innovative design materials and technologies, lead outreach and education programs, and screen videos and lectures.

A Vermont kind of architecture

In Vermont, raising the profile of architecture and design means addressing the needs of rural communities that are especially vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather; the state was hit hard by Hurricane Irene and flooding in 2011. So architecture in the state engages community planning, land conservancy, energy management, disaster response, and emergency rebuilding.

Sustainability remains a central concern in the project. There are plans to fit the vehicle with solar roof panels to generate its own energy, and AIA Vermont is considering purchasing carbon emissions offsets. The board purposely acquired a secondhand vehicle, and doesn't intend to hold onto it forever. The proposal includes one-year's funding for expenses, including fuel and insurance. After that, another organization—perhaps even another AIA chapter—might use it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for this roaming architecture center is to advocate for contemporary design in communities that value tradition.

Karolina Kawiaka, AIA, a Vermont native who practices in White River Junction, Vt., and teaches at nearby Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, hopes the project will promote discussion about what 21st-century Vermont architecture can be. “Much of even new architecture in Vermont is nostalgic in style,” she says. “This project will help rural Vermonters to become more conscious of the built environment and actively promote innovative design.”

What could be more fitting than an immaculately and inventively refashioned Airstream, itself a nostalgic design icon, rolling through the Vermont hills?

Members of AIA Vermont pictured above, from left to right: Carol Miklos, executive director; Diantha Korzun, AIA, past president; Tom Bachman, AIA, president; Lisa Rovner, AIA, secretary/treasurer; Diane Gayer, AIA; Cam Featherstonhaugh, Assoc. AIA; Larry Dean, Assoc. AIA; Katie Hill, PE; Maura Wygmans, AIA, vice president; Earl the Dog; Kevin Racek, AIA; Steve Clark, AIA.

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Members of AIA Vermont with the Airstream trailer. All images courtesy of Carolyn L. Bates Photography.

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The Archistream trailer.

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