This is the story all about how Alex and I converted our van. There are lots of photos further down the post for you to enjoy.
We bought our Renault Master Luton van in September 2013 and started converting it in October, a bit later than we had expected and in hindsight we should have started once we bought it (better weather for one reason!).
We bought a medium wheel base van because we weren’t sure that a long wheel base would fit in our driveway. Turns out it would have, which at first felt like a bummer because it would have gained another meter in length but it was a blessing in disguise. A medium wheel base van fits perfectly in to normal car parking spaces which makes it far more convenient.
Alex and I spent a couple of evenings talking about what we wanted in the van and how we imagined it to look. At this stage we hadn’t written any plans down on how to make it a reality. I wanted plans, my whole life was made up of a combination of plans and lists, but Alex is different to me and doesn’t really like to work from any other plan other than what is in his head. If there was a plan, I didn’t know too much about it!
Alex went to work on the van one day with no previous experience of building a home inside a van. He’d built a couple of music studios but turning an empty box in to a beautiful home took his skills to a whole new level. Alex gathered some helpful knowledge from people who had built their own vans and had posted their conversions online, talking it through with friends and researching a lot of things online.
Inside the van, we knew we wanted:
- A music studio. Alex is a music producer/DJ/beatboxer/MC and I’m a voice over artist. To make money whilst travelling we needed a music studio capable of dealing with our creating and recording needs. The studio needed to be as high quality as our ‘static’ studio we would be leaving.
- Hot water
- A shower
- Comfy bed
- Sofa that turned in to a spare bed for guests
- Loads of storage
- To be able to keep warm in the snowy mountains and cool by the sun trapped lakes
- For it to look and feel beautiful
Alex’s determination and natural talent for creating made it all possible.
My input included:
- Sealing the van. This meant me up a ladder in the freezing cold with a blimin’ sealant gun that’s impossible to use). I wasn’t keen on this job!
- Many trips to B&Q to the point that they knew me by name. I would often be sent with a list of items to buy, I’d buy them and then be told by Alex that I’d bought the wrong items. It’s funny now but this often made my cry.
- Trips to the recycling centre. A place where a smile is always appreciated. We recycled everything we could and we would search for items needed for the van. Items we took from the tip include our steps, drawers and bed slats. We found our kitchen surface from someone selling it for a tenner on Gumtree.
- I made and delivered many cups of tea, home-baking, hot breakfasts, lunch and dinners to the van.
- I completed the paperwork for the van. This included re-registering the van from a commercial vehicle to a camper, sorting the van’s insurance and tax.
- I made our curtains, sofa covers and cushion covers. This included sourcing the foam and fabric. We agreed that we wanted our van to have an ethnic feel to it. It’s a style we both love. Finding a fabric to agree on was hard and time consuming but we’re both happy with our final decision.
- Official hugger and encourager. This was a joint effort with our wonderful friends. Our lovely house mates and I would drag Alex from the van to join us for yummy Sunday dinners. Good for morale!
I believed in Operation Freedom (Alex came out with this one day and it stuck) as much as Alex did, but most of the hard work could only be done by him (using power tools correctly etc). One thing this project made me realise is that I have been conditioned to think that there are certain jobs for men and certain jobs for women. I’m under no illusions that I am alone with this thought. I had no interest in using power tools, even though it meant helping Alex and our joint dream and I felt so bad for it! No matter how hard I tried to adopt a different approach, I felt such resistance in doing any DIY work and I knew this had to be a learned behaviour. I was grateful for the lesson and would like to challenge myself on this way of thinking. I think this topic will be an interesting future blog post!
I was working full time and happily took on the jobs that we shared before the van came along (food shop, cleaning, cooking etc). When I got back from work, I’d spend the evening cooking, eating together, tidying up and often Alex would ask me to spend some time researching items or make a trip to B&Q to stock up on materials. I was happy to do this although I was often lost researching topics and items I didn’t understand.
If I tried to help with the building, I would usually mess it up at some point (no experience) and that would mean buying more materials (and more money), so we kept my DIY jobs to a minimum. I was good at using a sander and liked the quick transformation. I realised I am not very patient and Alex is a saint!
Alex worked on building the van 10 – 12 hour days, every day for approximately 4 months. There wasn’t a detail he left out, he made a self sustainable, beautiful home for us.
Building our home nearly broke us and made us closer than ever. Alex often felt isolated building the van and he was alone a lot of the time in cold, wet and very windy conditions. It was easy for me to say ‘you’re doing so well, you can do it’ ( I believed in him more than I knew) but I will never understand what the process put him through. That sounds dramatic and perhaps it’s a good place to say here that Alex loves music and he loves fishing. Building the van took him away from the things he adores and earns from, for over 4 months. With any project you take on, there are daunting times when you feel you just can’t do any more or have no idea how to do something and with no one to show you, it took his toll on him. It was knackering work. Of course these times were always followed by fluidity and positive outcomes. The polarities existed and during the good and bad times we knew it was still worth it.
The van came with an electric tail lift that we sold for about £700. We had toyed with the idea of keeping it and having it as our garden but the extra weight would slow us down and cost us more in fuel. Goodbye tail lift, the world will be our garden!
Here’s a list of what had to be done:
- Seal the entire van – every bolt, every join. Water coming in the van is a very big no no. Our wonderful friends, Esme and Paul donated their time to help seal the van for Alex’s birthday pressie!
- Insulate the van. We used polystyrene and cellatex to insulate every internal surface. Keeping warm and cool is a very big yes yes.
- Carpentry – the whole van is a pine haven filled with windows, drawers and cupboards. We had some help from Alex’s very talented brother Ross (of Young and Norgate creators of contemporary handcrafted furniture – http://www.youngandnorgate.com) to help build 3 large, strong drawers and our snazzy shower unit. Ross donated some window frames he made years ago (whilst he was studying) which add a charming touch! Our friend Ferg is a Carpenter and he helped us by building the back wall of the van and the door. Thank you Ross and Ferg!
- Plumbing – Alex fitted a water tank to the bottom of the van for drinking water and washing water. Alex installed all the plumbing. We had a professional do a thorough safety check of the gas boiler and oven/hob.
- Electricity – Solar panels on the roof give us all the electricity we need. Lights, charging laptops/phones, running a music studio. Alex has always enjoyed electronics and knew enough to get going. Our friend Westy gave us his knowledge and time to help with the more complex aspects of the set up. Thank you Westy! We have SMD LED lights on the ceiling, LED light strips under the kitchen cupboards and in the cupboards/shelves/ladder steps at the back of the van. These create a gorgeous warm glow in the van. Our gas detector alarm is constantly hard wired in to the electric system, our boiler runs on gas but is sparked by the electricity and we have 4 plug sockets that use 1kw inverter.
- Underneath the van, we had the exhaust pipe moved to make space for the 120l water tank (we also have a portable 30 litre water tank that we store inside when it gets too cold outside), we had a reinforced belly box fitted with the help of our friend Chris (a welder) which holds our leisure batteries (charged from the solar) Thanks Chris! We also had some welding work done by Chris on the back of the van where we keep our bikes to make them more secure.
Everything else was hand made by Alex and I’ll be sure to point out the bits that I made!
I think it’s best to now show you what I’m rambling on about….
Cutting an irreversible hole in to your home is one of those moments where you hold your breath. Measurements had to be exact and oh my gosh you do not breathe until a fully functioning window is fitted!
Our shower is so good! Super powerful and super hot! We have it down to a tee now how to have a great shower in super speedy time. Water on – get wet – stop water – apply soap – water on – rinse – done! Not wasting water has become very important to us, especially when you see how much you use in a day.
We always knew we wanted to build a mini chalet inside the van. Pine is natural, neutral and has such a great energy about it. The top of the sofa lifts up and gives us 6ft long storage. This is filled with all of Alex’s fishing equipment and in the winter we store our snowboarding equipment in here.
Alex followed the grain of the wood throughout the front of the kitchen units. Extra special attention to detail. Alex made all the cupboard doors. Work surface from Gumtree. Drawers at the end for our clothes and our little wood burner installed.
Still to do:
- Fit the floor
- Tile the kitchen walls
- Sink unit to go in the work surface
- Ladder up to the bed to be built
- Book shelf to be made
- Lots of other things!
You can see here the beautiful arch window frame made by Alex’s brother. We had the double glazed glass made to measure and Alex fitted them. The square window frame (also made by Ross) is the window for the shower. Under the arch window you can see a mini door. This was a very clever idea of Alex’s. This little door opens up and takes you in to the underneath of the sofa. So when Alex has wet fishing stuff he doesn’t have to lug it in to the van, it just slides nicely under the sofa from the outside! Genius! Inside, you can see some cupboards up top being built for storage.
You can see that Alex built a small desk at the back of the van, below the bed and you can see the flue of the wood burner.
Alex grew his beard during the making of our home. He said he wouldn’t cut it until the van was complete. Maybe it became his friend. He stroked it a lot while he pondered over what to do next! You can (just about) see the back wall has been completed with a nice wooden front door.
This was taken about two weeks before we headed off to France. Lights lit, bed made, little collapsible table up, guitar on wall, little trinket drawers in bedroom, books in shelf and speakers installed.
Alex placed willow branches around our kitchen window to give it a really natural, rustic look. The curtain I made for this window simply rolls into itself and sits nicely at the top. The little felt man stood in the window is called Peter Pippin.
My Granny made it up the steep steps to have a good look inside. This was taken a couple of days before we left for France.
The curtains over the arch window finished. I thought it would be great to have our curtains hung from branches so we collected the branches and fitted them! You can also see the sofa cushions I made. We chose a chocolate brown fabric because we knew they’d get dirty pretty quickly and the fabric was hard wearing.
We chose gorgeous aqua green tiles, put some hook ups for our mugs and the sink works perfectly. We collect our waste water and get rid of it in aires.
For the floor we lay down a wood effect lino. It’s easy to wash, lightweight and was a pretty good bargain. It wasn’t all smiles and rainbows fitting the lino. For anyone who’s tried, it’s a pretty tricky job, however it was one things I can confidently say that I fitted better than Alex!
So there we have it. Our story about how Alex and I (mainly Alex!) turned an empty Luton van in to our stunning wooden chalet on wheels.
As I write this post, we have lived in the van for 3 months and it couldn’t be better.
I look forward to sharing our adventure stories of living life in and outside our van with you.
Coming up will be about my first month living in the van (where we went, who I met, what I experienced), what I’ve made and our three weeks spent on an organic farm.
P.S. If you or someone you know are thinking about or are converting your own van and have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.