Mobile Home Design and Build

In June 2020 I made the radical decision to purchase a used Ford Transit Van and embark on a design and building challenge to turn it into a campervan #vanlife

I began my Master of Teaching in March 2020 (yes, just as the pandemic was kicking off). I had been reading about #vanlife and #tinyhouses and had visited a few of these at about this time. I admired the design, minimalist and sustainability aspects of these curious structures and decided that it would be a great challenge to undertake whilst studying at home!

The van

Meet Milou. Her namesake is a very articulate and courageous 13-year-old climate activist from Castlemaine I had the great honour of meeting at a regional leadership summit.

Mission: To design and build a tiny home-on-wheels with the most sustainable products and systems feasible.

Model: Ford Transit LWB High Roof Manual Diesel 2012
Purchase price: $19k

Phase One: Research and Design (R&D)

Okay I mean technically you should do this phase before outlaying any capital, but what are you going to do, I was excited.

What do you need?

First you have to ask yourself what you need in your tiny home. I mean, it is TINY. You have to be selective.

This is the list I came up with:

  • Bike – number one consideration which affected the bed length and height. Every person will have something (a surf board, a pet, etc.).
  • Water – about 80L. I wanted to have the flexibility of being off-grid for up to a week.
  • Gas – 9L (2 x 4.5L gas bottles). I needed gas for a shower, BBQ and cooktop to last about a month. I also needed to consider how to legally and safely store it.
  • Electrical – I needed to create space for an electrical ‘hub’ for two 100Ah LiFePo4 batteries, 2000w inverter and solar charge controller.
  • Fridge – I decided that a ‘chest’ style fridge was more economical, cheaper and fit better in my space. 45L was a good size for a solo-traveller.
  • Sink – I decided to use a foot-pump, 20L fresh-water, 15L grey-water system.
  • Cooktop – I decided that I would be cooking a lot and so a permanent, in-built cook-top with two burners would be best suited to my needs.
  • Storage – I don’t own a lot of things but I did have a lot of hiking gear, bike gear and books/electronics associated with my study that I needed easy access to. I also needed to make sure my ‘pantry’ space and kitchenware space was adequate, with ample drawers and upper-cabinets.
  • Dirty clothes – okay not on everyone’s list but there was no way I was sharing such a tiny space with my dirty clothes. I needed a secure non-stinky place to store them.
  • Toilet and shower – I decided that I would need a shower and that gas would be most economical. I was looking at camping in remote places and just in case there wasn’t a river or sea to swim in, I needed to keep clean. I decided I did not need a toilet, that a bucket would do well-enough for over-night. If I were to do it again, I would go the opposite to this: have a toilet but no shower. I never needed a shower but I abused the bucket AND some motorhome sites required you to prove that you had a toilet. So I had to be very evasive with questioning and make my bucket look very legit.

Now that you have the list of what you want in the van, the fun of measurements and design to actually fit it all in begins! You’ll be doing a lot of sketching, researching, searching for appliances (both online and physical), measuring, more sketching and probably watching a lot of YouTube (it is unavoidable!).

Below you can see a couple of my early sketched floor plans, some ‘3D drawings’ and finally my SketchUp design. There were many many versions of the sketched floor plan. Turning this ‘2D-draft’ into a ‘3D-final plan’ was another challenge entirely and at one point I even made boxes the approximate width and height of the cabinets to make sure I was happy! This phase took WEEKS and also involved the progressive ordering of all of the components (i.e. fridge, sink, cook-top, fibreglass gas box, shower).

You also need to consider how you’ll make it comfortable, I mean beyond a few nice cushions. Ventilation, heating and cooling are all very important factors here.

Here is what I came up with:

  • Ventilation: There are legal requirements of ventilation which vary from state-to-state which I won’t get into here, however, I calculated that I would need two fans and a vent near to the floor. The fan above the bed, to keep me comfortable at night and a fan above the cooktop to keep out bad smells and prevent condensation.
  • Insulation: I did a lot of research on insulation and decided on using predominantly treated (i.e. please don’t go tearing wool off of innocent sheep!) sheep’s wool, given its relative environmental sustainability compared to other options. I used this in the walls and ceiling and in the floor I used XPS rigid foam board insulation. The combination of these two elements really made a huge difference in the temperature of the van. I also ensured that I purchased a high-quality curtain to separate the cab from the living area. Without this heat would have streamed through into the living area during the day.

Phase Two: Build

Now you have a solid plan of what you are going to do (this is a joke, obviously it’ll change!) you have to get started! You’ll need a good amount of space – for the project and all of the storage (I filled an entire spare bedroom, don’t underestimate this!). You’ll need a bunch of tools. And you’ll probably need people on hand to recruit for the bigger tasks.

Cleaning, rust treatment and cutting big holes.

Milou was a second-hand van. She had dirt and scratches and dents and a bit of rust. This initial part of the build took about a week. I had to tear down the old plywood panels, take out the floor and remove the bolts – demolition style. I then swept and scrubbed every single inch of the inside. You would be surprised where road dust can end up! The final cleaning stage was rust treatment and painting over the scratches/holes with enamel.

I also cut three holes in the van body. Each of these tasks was an event and collectively probably the scariest part of the build! The first was the hole for the Maxx Air Fan above the bed, the second was the round hole for the Dometic Extractor fan and the final was the hole on the passenger-side panel for the gas box. For all three holes I used a jigsaw with fine-toothed blades for cutting through steel, followed by a metal file to smooth edges and a coat of enamel paint to ensure no rust. For the roof vents I used a butyl-based tape to create a good seal between the metal roof and plastic and all three got the Sikaflex treatment. There was a lot of Sikaflex used in this build, in fact I’d go as far as to say that the van is held together with it!

Structure: Floor, ceiling, walls and bed.

The structure of the build – the part which would have been a thousand times easier if I was a carpenter and also the part that used the most tools. Tools used to go from ‘van’ to ‘home’ include (but certainly isn’t limited to):

  • Tape measurers… yes plural. I kept loosing them.
  • Nail/staple gun and air compressor.
  • Quick clamps.
  • Carpenter squares and pencils.
  • Power tools: jigsaw, circular saw, drill, impact drill, miter saw, orbital sander, planer, grinder, multitool and hole saw.
  • Liquid nails and Sikaflex.
  • Stanley knife.
  • A lot, A LOT of screws.

And then there is the timber and plywood. All carefully selected to suit their use. If the plywood is too thick it will add too much weight to the van. In fact, weight is a constant consideration with materials selected. Similarly, if the thickness of timber chosen is too narrow, it will not be able to support the weight it needs and will break. All timber was coated with a water-based cabothane to protect it from sunlight and water. Timber and plywood used for this build are:

  • 30mm treated pine timber for the floor battens (pink).
  • 12mm structural plywood for the floor.
  • 6mm structural plywood for the wall panels (reclaimed).
  • 12mm pine lining for the ceiling.
  • 350mm and 450mm structural timber and 12mm structural plywood (reclaimed) for the bed.

Services: electrical wiring, gas and water.

Electrical

Electrical wiring occurs before, during and after the structural part of the build. You need to run the wires before you put any panels up or you will have a bad time. 12V electrical wiring will probably be the most interesting (and expensive!) part of this build.

I spent many, many hours reading books and watching YouTube videos explaining how to size up and wire both the 12V system and the solar components. The diagram below is close to the final configuration I ended up with, less a couple of changes to the number and size of fuses I used.

This part of the project involved mastering more new skills and tools, and deciding on components – and that’s before even considering the things those components will be connecting! I chose to go with Renogy, mostly because it was way cheaper than Enderdrive but also not so cheap that I was worried about underperformance and/or death by fire. I decided I’d need and could fit four 100W panels on the roof (I didn’t btw – WAY oversized), 200Ah of batteries (again, didn’t need that much), a 2000W inverter (just right!) and a DC-DC battery charger (which has – because of the other two oversized components – never been used). For the electrical switches and fittings I used a whole range of products, however, mostly BlueSea Systems because their gear is awesome!

In summary:

TOOLButane torch + solderLOADBlueSea 12V dual USB charger socket
TOOLMultimeter and test lightLOADBlueSea 12V charger and USB socket
TOOLCable cutter and wire stripperLOADDeck Tech 60 LED Strip Light 1m – cool white
TOOLHeat shrink, connectors, lugs, terminalsLOADLED Downlights x 6
TOOLElectrical tape and corroCOMPONENTBlueSea Systems Fuse Block 12 way
TOOLFuses (midi and mega) and switchCOMPONENTSMART LiFePo4 battery 12V 100Ah x 2
CABLES2G for battery hook-up, ground and inverter, 6G for DC-DC and Fuse box, 10-12G for 12V loads, 8G for solar chargerCOMPONENT400W 12/24V Solar Panel Premium Kit with MPPT
COMPONENTDC-DC Battery Charger w/o Solar input (12V 20/40A)COMPONENT2000W 12V to 230V Pure Sine Wave Inverter (with UPS function)

The ‘electrical hub’ was set up vertically underneath the bed in a protected corner. The batteries were secured with leftover timber so again, inertia would be prevented from doing its thing and inadvertently causing death. Which is you’ll notice a theme here.

Gas

The only part you can’t legally do yourself! The first component I purchased here was Thetford Topline 2-burner Hob. From here I realised that a permanently connected cooktop would require a secure fibreglass external-access only gas box, which I ordered from DIY RV Solutions and installed myself, cutting a hole in the side of the van with a Jigsaw, securing with a bolt to the bed and sealing with Sikaflex. I got a local certified caravan gas fitter to do the actual gas fitting.

Water

Keep it simple silly (KISS)! Well that’s the strategy I adopted for this part of the build. Starting from the top, the tap itself is simply a copper pipe I found in the shed (upcycling?). The copper pipe is connected to a food-grade plastic hose which has then been secured to one end of a foot pump. Another plastic hole connects the foot-pump to a 20L fresh-water tank (blue). Simple!

Furnishings and cabinetry

This is the final stage of the build. You have to make many important decisions, balancing style and practicality in your design. This includes considerations about upper-cabinets (doors or no doors, how deep/wide, what side, how much weight can they take, what will they be storing), lower cabinets (how to secure doors, drawers or doors), seats (permanent or fold-away), fridge storage (on wheels, raised, on floor, underneath seat, weight distribution, electrical connection), bed (height, length, bed-side storage) and table (permanent or fold-away?).

As you can see with my design above I really personalised it for my own purposes and unique style. Being a Geologist, of course the backsplash was tiled with rocks, and the handles for the cabinet were dinosaurs. I created a significant cooking space because I love cooking, with a vertical pull-out pantry (LHS of cooktop cabinet), a pull-up table-top extension (RHS of the cooktop) and fold-up seat with the chest-fridge underneath.

I lived in the van for about six months, travelling around South Australia and Victoria volunteering on farms and a nature retreat. I then sold it in February of 2021 to a very grateful couple to take it for their own exciting adventure!

Mission complete.