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Runaround Sue: Vintage Airstream Renovation Project

Scroll all the way down to see before, during, and after picture galleries.

In the winter of 2009, New Prairie took on a challenging new project: renovating a 1961 Airstream Safari. Our goal was to create a beautiful, healthy, and practical space with as many environmentally-friendly features as possible.

Polished vintage Airstream with striped awning

She was in bad shape when we found her.

She’d been docked and neglected a long time in Arizona, exposed to all kinds of weather. We brought her back to Champaign-Urbana through a dust storm, where she waited patiently for us to begin restoring her.

The body of the trailer had to be removed from the chassis to do extensive repair work. We replaced all the wiring and plumbing, as well as the stove, refrigerator, water heater, air conditioner, furnace, propane tanks and holders, steps, and awning. A new heavy-gauge aluminum trailer pan protects the plumbing and HVAC ducting.

That was just the beginning.

Airstream dining area before Dining area in Airstream with cushions and plates

We gutted the interior and replaced the fiberglass and plastic skin with new aluminum cladding. The original exterior skin was buffed to a mirror-like shine. Soybean-based polyurethane foam insulation was added for increased air tightness, strength, and energy efficiency. And then we began meticulously handcrafting all of the furniture, cupboards, doors, and trim.


One of our main concerns while restoring the Airstream was reducing the level of VOCs. VOCs — Volatile Organic Compounds — are the toxic chemicals that cause the “new car” smell. VOCs off-gas from all kinds of household products: cleansers, disinfectants, air fresheners, dry-cleaned clothing, carpeting, and upholstery, to name just a few.

VOCs are suspected to be carcinogenic, and they can cause a host of other symptoms — headaches; nausea; dizziness; eye, nose, and throat irritation; visual impairment; fatigue; increased problems with asthma and allergies; and possible damage to internal organs and the central nervous system.

So that the future owner of Sue could breathe easy, we used the following products:

  • “Nylaboard” subfloor, made from recycled nylon and other materials, is rot-proof and VOC-free
  • Marmoleum Flooring (linseed-oil-based flooring with jute backing)
  • All casing and trim is finished with tung oil and VOC-free solvents. 

Staining is done with VOC-free aniline dyes.
  • Cushions in trailer are 100% natural latex, which doesn’t off-gas.  Upholstery is post-industrial and -consumer recycled polyester, and is both Cradle to Cradle Certified (overseeing sustainability) and ScS Indoor Advantage Certified (indoor air quality). (For more information, visit Burch Fabrics Quandrant Collection.)

Along the way we also added a lot of features that eco-nomads will appreciate, including:

  • Countertops and shower benches made from reclaimed redwood
  • Cabinets constructed from “plyboo” — plywood made from bamboo
  • Marmoleum flooring
  • Gray water tank
  • Solar panels with deep cell batteries power most lighting, as well as the water heater, refrigerator, furnace, and fans.



22 feet long

40-gallon water heater

Awning, jacks, and air conditioner

One pull-out bed and one other bed; sleeps 3-4


Besides the obvious environmental advantages, a composting toilet allows the trailer to go without a black water tank. Instead, the Airstream features a gray water tank, which means the water can be dumped directly on the ground without environmental harm. No need to go somewhere to get it hosed out! If you’d like to know more about the toilet and how it works, visit Nature’s Head.