There is No Box

Thu 02 April 2015
By Derek McTavish Mounce

I was born just outside of Seattle, and while I grew up largely in Arizona, I have lived in all four corners of the States plus a bit, and I’ve driven across a good portion of it (mostly on a scooter and motorcycle, but that’s another story.) Nomadic life is built into who I am. So when the notion to drop out of art school and move to Montréal came about in 2009, my brain didn’t have to try very hard to convince the rest of my body to tag along.


My move to Canada was my first time living outside the country, and also my first time renting an apartment. Montréal is a great city, made all the more appealing by its low rent; at that time, it was uncommon to pay more than a thousand dollars per month for a studio.

Fast-forward through five years and my fair share of Québec beer and late night poutine, and we land upon yet another nomadic movement, this time to New York City — big opportunities, triple the population on an even smaller island, so many hipsters you actually get tired of making fun of them (no you don’t), and rent. Real rent. Scary rent. “Who on Earth would pay that?!” rent.

Wide New York City

Well, as it turns out, I would. For my first year, I did what everyone else does and what seemed like the only option; I rented an apartment in Brooklyn. It was grand — and even a pretty good deal for something that wasn’t a closet- but I couldn’t help shedding a tear at the first of every month when I wrote that gargantuan cheque. There had to be another option. There really had to be, and I just couldn’t shake that thought.

Wide Loft

The tiny home movement has always been fascinating to me. Shipping container homes are brilliant. Don’t get me started on tree houses. Frankly, any kind of alternative living space gets me floored. Several times now I’ve nearly moved onto a sailboat, inspired in large part by my parents who did exactly that for several years before I was born. A while ago, some pictures of an architecture student who gutted a school bus and transformed it into a minimalistically swanky motorhome floated around the Interwebs.

My brain: DEREK! That’s the coolest thing ever. Derek! ARE YOU LISTENING? We should do that too. DER—

Me: Shut up Brain, I know. But…

It seemed insurmountable to pull off anything like that in any major urban hub, let alone this NY freak show.

Wide Smart FourTwo

Around Christmas time, just 3 months before my apartment’s lease was up, I bought a Smart car. Fantastic little bugger. It’s cute, can park anywhere, gets good mileage, and having a car provides a feeling of freedom that’s a welcome relief from tubes and gridlock and people. Interestingly, I discovered, the Smart also supports an aftermarket tow hitch and is capable of tugging along a modest heft. That got the mind-butter a-churnin’ — wait, could it actually be possible to ditch my apartment for a trailer towable by my new car? Is that mostly crazy or all crazy?

So I did some research and found that not only was I not crazy, but in fact wasn’t even the first person to have an idea like this. In 2011, a group of glasses-wearing, thrift store-shopping, dandy youngin’s were spattered across various publications for organizing a sort of make-shift trailer park in the Bushwhick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Another swift kick of the Google produced numerous accounts of people escaping rent by living in street-parked motorhomes.

Unfortunately, any of the trailers light enough for a Smart to tow were abysmally small and not livable. Harrumph. I contemplated how I would design a tiny apartment-replacing trailer and wondered if I could actually pull off building one myself.

Wide Shop

Growing up, my dad (an aerospace engineer) always had a very well equipped shop, and I had learned to use a fair number of the tools and machines. However, as a software developer and also as someone who's been living in city apartments for a while now, I have neither an arsenal of tools nor a garage or shop of any kind. So this is where the software consulting company I work for comes in; back in 2013, they opened an industrial design division in Waldwick, New Jersey and equipped the 10,000 sq. ft. space will all the latest and greatest, including laser cutters, tube benders, and a really cool CNC router (giant murderous robots, basically.) Giant murderous robots I had access to. Suddenly, this whole crazy idea seemed plausible.

Wide Laser

I got to work. Autodesk offers a free learning edition of their otherwise mind-numbingly expensive 3D CAD and solid modeling software Inventor, and over about two months, I spent my evenings designing the complete trailer down to every nut and bolt (literally, all 400 of them) in the computer.

Wide Design Sketch Wide Design Render

One of the great things about software is that building it is free; go download Python, Ruby, Node, etc., grab a text editor, and you’ve got this infinitely blank canvas that you don’t even have to buy paints for. You can just go. With programs like Inventor, that same freedom is available for designing things destined to exist in the real world; I had built the trailer virtually and knew it worked. I could open and close the door, I could make sure everything fit together — I could even calculate the final weight of the thing- all without ever spending a dime on materials and parts before I was ready.

Trailer Assembly 1 Trailer Assembly 2 Trailer Assembly 3

With the design complete, it was time for the aforementioned giant killer robots. I ordered the aluminum, cut it all to length, and programmed the CNC router to drill all the holes exactly as they were in the computer. Slowly a bunch of raw metal became this thing I had been staring at in the computer for two months: a four by eight foot box that was to be my tiny little home, an escape from outrageous rent, and most importantly, a reminder of the freedom found in being able to build something from nothing.

Trailer Outside 1 Trailer Inside 1 Trailer Inside 2

This trailer been my home for just a month as of this writing, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Sure, there are things I want to change and improve upon, and I will; I’m already working on a second design, and I’ll be documenting the entire adventure on this blog.

Wide Trailer Outside 2

Want to be notified about updates to my blog?

* indicates required