Van Build: Our Experience – Part 2

Getting our van to the point where it was ready to build was a battle in itself; however, a full-blown construction project where the two people working had limited (the nice way of saying no) experience: guerilla warfare. 

Being a self-proclaimed fanatical list-maker, our first step was to start planning. We already had Pinterest boards and a long list of Instagram inspiration photos. We watched You-tube van tours and hours of How-To videos. Jake and I decided to make a list of our “must haves,” our top priorities for the build. We wanted a stationary bed, something that we didn’t have to unfold or pack away each night. We wanted a table where we could both sit down to eat a meal or work on our laptops. We wanted it to feel like a home, not a mess of wires. 

The next step: measuring….everything. We had measurements of length, width, height, where the doors are, the size of our mattress, how tall Jake was when he was sitting, and more. I drew our van to scale on my large sketchbook. I actually drew it to scale several times. With a key of all the measurements on the margin of the page, we sketched up multiple potential layouts for the van. Our favorite one jumped out at us: it was practical, hit every priority, and left plenty of room for storage. 

Our bed would be stretched across the back doors. Out from the bedframe, we would build a pull-out table, like a drawer. A little bench next to the side door. Then, a long, large kitchen (large for a van). And that’s it. Easy, right? Time to build. 

Well, actually, time to deconstruct. The people who owned the van before us had clearly tried to start a van conversion. There were a few boards of laminate flooring screwed to the walls. A flimsy bed frame was haphazardly screwed to a side wall; you couldn’t even sit on it without it collapsing. Wires hung everywhere, along with oxygen tubing, supposedly a tribute to the ambulance’s original purpose. Jake, my brother, and I started ripping things out. 

It was messy. Mouse poop was scattered over every surface. Pointy screws poked out of pretty much every wall. A yellow, tacky glue was stuck over the walls and floors. Tear down took us DAYS. We even had to get creative, using a carjack to pry up the solid wood subfloor that was bolted to the ambulance. 

We saved whatever we could, scrap wire and wood, but a lot of the original materials had to be recycled. After scrubbing every inch of every surface, we were working with our space now. We decided to start with the floors. We bought insulation and waterproof vinyl flooring that looks like pale hardwood. When picking the floors, there is a lot to consider. Between hardwood, tile, laminate, and vinyl, there are a lot of options. A few factors led us to vinyl floorboards: cost, durability, appearance, and thickness. 

I cannot express to you how easy and fun it was to install the floors. Jake and I had a great time doing it, and it honestly did not take long. It was the first step toward bringing our home to reality. It was tangible. 

We couldn’t bask in achievement for too long. There was still everything to do. Our to-do list stretched across pages. Jake and I were sinking at least twelve hours a day into the van. The only reason we ate anything was because my parents fed us twice a day. We woke, worked, ate, and slept. Sometimes at night, we would try to start a movie. Jake would never make it through. After a few weeks, we bounced from my parents’ house to his parents’. 

When I think of those months of work, a few words pop into my head: exhaustion, gratitude, toil, and Lowe’s. I wish I were sponsored by Lowe’s with the amount of time (and money) we spent there. I think I could draw an aisle by aisle, detailed map of the store. It was August; it was hot. Jake’s mom plied us with ice water and Gatorade. Jake’s dad helped out on a few of our projects. Long days stretched into long nights, often working until well-past midnight, one in the morning. We didn’t give ourselves one day off. 

Jake and I spent the days working together, but we often split up the tasks. Like the wiring system…I could barely explain it if you paid me a million dollars. Jake tackled that one. We worked, and the interminable to-do list slowly shrunk, day by day. Our research, planning, sweat, and hours, they all morphed into a home. 

The day came when we moved into the van. Packing was so satisfying. The white walls were spotted with our art. The closet was filled. The plates and silverware found homes in the kitchen cabinets. 

Living in a van is fun. Everyday feels like an adventure. In three weeks, we have been to seven states, three national parks, five state parks, other big attractions like the Mall of America, Mount Rushmore, and Mackinac Island. Full disclosure: we have also spent our fair share of nights in Walmart parking lots. When I think about this past summer, the feeling of being so tired that it reaches your bones, and I feel happy. The challenges we faced made us want this lifestyle more. We finally have free time, a home that we own and built, and freedom to find adventures every single day.