Young urban professionals like the idea of a £30,000 retreat in the country but hate the idea of owning a mobile home. So architect Buckley Gray has designed one that will change their mind for them.
Suggest to a design-conscious, urban professional that they might want to buy a mobile home, and you'd get a curt response. It would probably go something like this: "These things are a national disgrace. You are out on a walk in beautiful, unspoiled Countryside and you go over the brow of a hill and are greeted by row upon row of nasty tin boxes. They look appalling and naff, with little net curtains and gnome-filled front gardens. The people who live in them are either retired and can't afford a proper home in the country or holidaymakers who are too broke to stay in a bed and breakfast. Why do you think the Americans coined the phrase trailer trash?"

Ironically our snobbish yuppie probably aspires to a second place in the country too – but can't afford it. Architect Buckley Gray is the first to recognise this gap in the market and has reinvented the mobile home to make it appeal to the smart urban set. "We genuinely believe there is a huge market for this," explains Matt Yeoman, partner at Buckley Gray. "People want to escape to a bolt hole and relax in beautiful surroundings. The problem with this is the cost is very high, both in terms of the actual property and to the local community as city dwellers outbid the locals. We see a new market for young, aspirational, design-conscious people. The existing mobile home makers aren't making an effort to tap into this – caravans are absolutely awful, very behind the way people live now in terms of design."

Buckley Gray's answer, named Rural Retreat, is a sleek and modern concept light years away from ordinary caravans, yet it conforms to the planning rules that allow mobile homes to be built for a fraction of the cost of a permanent house (see box). Furthermore, Buckley Gray wanted its concept to cost no more than £30,000 for a two-bedroom home – which meant it had to come up with a much more efficient way of assembling it than traditional methods.

Forget sardine tins. Buckley Gray's mobile home of the future looks more like a conventional home than a caravan and has large areas of floor-to-ceiling glazing. Each home is shaped like the letter "H" in plan and is made from two separate halves with a courtyard in the middle. "The problem with existing designs is there is always a lack of personal outside space," explains Yeoman. "This gives you an external exposed space with a sense of privacy." A narrow glazed corridor running through the middle of the courtyard joins the two halves, with doors through to the courtyard. The courtyard has decking underfoot and timber brises-soleil above. The brises soleil are hinged and fold down like shutters over the sides of the corridor for security when the owner leaves it empty during the week.

Buckley Gray has created a modular solution where a home is made up from several standard units measuring 6 m long and 3 m wide. The smallest two-bedroom home is two units separated by the courtyard, and is 9 m long and 6 m wide. One unit contains a bathroom and two bedrooms, the other a kitchen and living area – all for £30,000. The largest home has four bedrooms arranged in two "H"s joined together side by side. There are two bedrooms on either end of the property separated its own courtyard, and a large living space in the middle. This measures the maximum 18 × 6 m.

The key to the concept is the individual standardised unit. Costs are kept down, as each unit is identical, including the positioning of the solid areas and glazing. Yeoman visited several caravan-makers and was surprised by how basic and labour intensive the construction process is. "It seemed expensive," he says, "They had people doing what they would do on a building site." A conventional caravan starts off as a rolling chassis to which the floor, walls and roof are added. The walls are made from individual timber studs with Formica attached to the inner side and the metal skin on the outer with the services run inside the walls.

Yoeman wanted to find a less labour intensive, more prefabricated solution. Instead of painstakingly building up the walls using timber studs, he opted to use the Tekhaus structural insulated panel system. First, the floor is placed on the chassis with all services located under the floor including underfloor heating. Then whole walls (made from a single structural insulated panel) are attached to the floor, the glazing is added and a Tekhaus panel placed on top to form the roof. The waterproofing solution is particular neat, a PVC membrane is stretched over a stainless steel frame, and this is then placed over the roof as a complete unit. The Tekhaus panels are supplied with wooden veneer already attached to the inner leaf and timber cladding is fixed to the exterior. Yeoman points out that other materials can also be used – an advantage if a development needs to blend in with the surroundings.

Another improvement is that the Tekhaus panels, which contain generous amounts of insulation, will ensure the homes are warm and snug. Mobile homes have to conform to BS 3632:1995 specification for residential park homes rather than building regulations. As a result, their walls are made from 30 mm square section studs with barely any room for insulation. Anyone who has ever stayed in a caravan in winter will have vivid memories of the freezing cold and walls streaming with condensation.

Buckley Gray has also come up with a new type of foundation for mobile homes that dovetails with the way the homes are bought. The traditional approach is for site owners to lay a concrete pad and supply services to a site. The plot buyer then buys a caravan and parks it on the pad. Alternatively the site owner also provides the caravan and the purchaser buys the whole package – or it can be rented to holidaymakers. The architect has dispensed with the concrete pad and instead the site owner installs a box section rectangular metal frame 18 m long and 3 m high containing services, "like an umbilical cord sitting in the landscape waiting for the units to arrive," as Yeoman puts it. This solution has the advantage of accommodating any size of home the purchaser wants, up to a maximum of four bedrooms.

The concept is already attracting interest. Site developer Charter Oak Estates plans on testing the market with up to 15 units in a 300-unit site near Newton Abbot in Devon. Yeoman says these will be installed around an artificial lake with generous spacing in between. Buyers will not be able to see the more prosaic units on the site and will have their own access route.

Yeoman sees small sites as the way forward for the concept. He says there is also interest in the idea from site owners in Ireland, Suffolk and even Namibia. The idea seems destined for success. Indeed, I've got a confession to make: I wouldn't mind living in one myself.

Why are statics mobile?

Contrary to what some people might believe, mobile home parks do need planning permission. There are two types of permission: permanent and for holiday use. Permanent residence is extremely cheap as the homes do not have to conform to building regulations. The permission for holiday use allows a maximum continuous occupation period of 60 days. Yeoman says councils are more likely to grant planning permission for holiday use than permanent use because it is seen as promoting tourism, plus the residents are less likely to need expensive services such as schools.

Mobile homes do not have to be particularly mobile, hence the ludicrous phrase “static mobile home”. All they have to do is conform to the Caravan Sites Act 1968. The act defines two types of mobile home, both of which must not be more than 3 m high. The first must measure a maximum of 18 m long and 3 m wide and be capable of being moved by road. This type of home looks just like an overgrown touring caravan and comes complete with wheels. The second type of home must come in two parts and be capable of being moved within a mobile home site. This second type can measure a maximum 18 m by 6 m. This type of home does not have wheels and looks like a post-war prefab.

Buckley Gray’s two-bedroom units come in two pieces and easily meet the terms of the act. The four-bedroom units present more of a challenge as although they can be assembled from more than two units they must still be able to be moved in two pieces once assembled. Yeoman reckons this will just be about possible.