Informal Practices and Space in the Bakken

This weekend I read another selection from the Kostis Kourelis Book Club: V. Mukhija and A. Loukaitou-Sideris eds., The Informal American City: Beyond Food Trucks and Day Labor. MIT 2014. The book is packed with astute observations on practices that shape the informal (as opposed to formal, regulated, and standardized) life of American cities. These range from gardens in vacant lots, perpetual yard sales, hidden apartments, and spaces beyond the reach or interest of formal zoning policies. 

The book got fueled my excitement about housing practices in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota which is rife with informal practices motivated as much by the absence of regulation (or personnel to enforce existing regulations) as the need to adapt existing institutions, spaces, and places to the needs of a dynamic workforce.

Over the past 2 years, I have been working on a team that is documenting workforce housing in the Bakken. I have been particularly romanced by the architectural invention that takes place at what we call Type 2 camps. These camps typically consist of RVs and trailers arranged in lots with power, water, and sewage. The informality of these spaces comes from the ad hoc efforts to winterize the units, the techniques done to articulate spatial boundaries, and, most dramatically, the architectural additions designed to expand the space of the RVs and to make them more suitable for longterm habitation.

Peter Ward’s contribution to this volume, “Reproduction of Informality in Low-Income, Self Help Housing Communities,” caught my attention and opened up some new questions about life in Type 2 camps. Ward’s article looks at colonias and “informal homestead subdivisions” in the US. These are subdivisions which often lack utilities but are sold to low-income individuals and families at low prices and with irregular financing arrangements. They are typically associated with Hispanic communities in the borderlands between the US and Mexico, they also appear throughout the US at the periphery of cities where underdeveloped land is inexpensive and unskilled labor opportunities exist. While these settlements differ from our workforce housing camps because the residents actually own their land, they are similar because the residents typically engage in all sorts of informal architecture ranging from shacks built from plywood to RVs and mobile homes. In most cases, these practices represent an effort to gradually develop their property and housing with limited resources. The use of blue tarp, scrap wood, pallets, and other material that could be rearranged and reused for other purposes ensured that the investment was both modest and the structure itself served as a kind of provisional discard conserving useful material for other projects as needs change.   

Ward’s rather quick discussion of these forms of informal vernacular got me to wonder how certain practices – like the construction of mudrooms and other plywood and scrap wood additions – move around the country. Perhaps it is borderland colonias that developed this important, sustained tradition of ad hoc, vernacular architecture, and it moved northward to the Bakken following the route of oil patch workers from the Texas oil fields to those elsewhere in the US. 

During our last trip to the Bakken, we talked with the new management of one of our study sites, and they explained that they were trying to standardize and “clean up” the spectacular array of mudrooms present at their site. They argue that the large mudrooms are safety hazards and often act as extensions to the RVs to accommodate more people than they are designed to accommodate. During our visit, we noticed an abandoned mudroom that was set up for just this purpose. Note the use of blue tarp, the sale price of $1000, and the bed. There were two rooms in this mudroom both set up for sleeping.

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On the one hand, we suspect an actual concern for safety in the camp as plywood mudrooms can represent a real fire hazard especially when they feature irregular wiring, are heated with gas heaters, and have inadequate insulation and ventilation. On the other hand, it is in the best interest of the camp to reduce the number of residents per unit. This not only increases the amount of rent collected per resident, but also lowers population density of the camp taking pressure off the basic infrastructure (trash removal, water, electric, parking et c.) and making keeping order in the camp easier. It was a useful reminder that safety, order, and regularity are not incompatible with profitability. The formal American city, like the formal man camp in the Bakken, is not without economic motives. 

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