The Plan to Build a Van

About a year ago, a friend first told me that he was buying a “sprinter van” to live in. Knowing the friend, I laughed and shook my head at the prospect — something I’d later learned is called #VanLife. Come to find out, there’s a whole community out there of people who convert vans into tiny homes.

Van Journeys

This page is mostly about how I built the van. It features:

  • Memory-foam mattress couch/bed
  • Blackout curtains, fan, and heater
  • Foot/hand pump sink w/ 14 gal storage & 7 gal “gray”
  • 510 Wh “theoretical” solar + 8.4 Kwh LiPO4 battery
  • Hidden-away mini-toilet
  • Swivel-seat passenger computer desk with monitor arm

Here’s a rough sense what it looks like inside:

The van today(ish)

Check out my instagram for what I’m up to these days:

Skip Ahead?

Jump to the bottom of this post for individual sub-topics, like plumbing and electrical.

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Why a Van?

Strange as it may seem, cargo vans perform the “tiny home” function well. While much smaller than RVs, they do not suffer many of the same limitations. Cargo vans are used ubiquitously as delivery vehicles, and can travel to / park in many places RVs cannot. Cargo vans also get much better gas milage than RVs and, with some planning, may be unconstrained by standard RV concerns (shore power, water, etc.). Imagine being able to park at the base of a ski mountain, the edge of the beach, or stop in a national park to see sunrise… and then drive back to the city and maintain all the comfort of home should you wish to stop and sleep overnight somewhere else.

Van conversions are still quite niche. There are companies which do professional conversions, but they’re very expensive and have a long waiting list. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would enjoy the effort of creating a tiny home with my own two hands. Besides, most of the professional conversions I saw were too industrial and cold looking for me. Instead, I was most inspired by warm, homey designs.

Inspiration

The first time I began to realize the potential of a van was when I encountered this blog post on Bearfoot Theory. Her open layout which manages to incorporate a work table, bed, shower, toilet, kitchen, and more while looking good was a revelation. Along the right side of this post, you can also see Pinterest pins of other things which have inspired me along the way.

Photo from Bearfoot Theory

I began having more conversations and was only mildly surprised to find that I had several friends who had either converted, or were planning to convert, a van. I was intrigued by creative solutions, like hooking a diesel-powered stove into the gas line of the van… which could also double as a heater. I’ve always had a fascination with high-efficiency, low-space, specialty solutions to specific problems. The unique space and resource constraints posed by a van conversion offered no end to these kinds of problems.

Some of the most useful resources I found were…

… and many others I’m sure I’ve forgotten at this point. I started putting together my own Trello board with ideas and inspiration. Before long, I realized I had mentally committed to the project without ever realizing it.

Priorities

There are so many van builds out there. Take the following picture of the van belonging to a friend of the family. It was built by Sportsmobile, one of the van buildout companies mentioned above. He prioritized a rugged vehicle that could survive just about anything, hauling his road/mountain bikes, and having all the amenities (microwave, kitchen, etc).

A Sportsmobile converted Mercedes Benz Spinter Van.

But my priorities were a bit different. I was willing to sacrifice some of the off-road ability and ruggedness for a bit more coziness. I wasn’t too interested in things like a built-in air compressor for tires or satellite TV. Instead, I decided to prioritize just two things:

  • Park-anywhere (look like a standard cargo van outside, be of a standard size).
  • True tiny-home (cozy interior, have good amenities, allow me to do work).

Notably, a low price point is not on my priorities. Many vandwellers get in to vanlife to save money, but my priority is more of a mobile home/workstation that lets me take short or long trips without sacrificing (much) comfort of home.

Choosing a Van

Many people advocate for the Mercedes Sprinter Van, which offers 4×4 drive and a great reputation for quality. I knew that I’d likely need to order my van custom to accomplish the trade-offs I wanted. My priorities were:

  • Tall enough to fit me comfortably, even after adding a floor/ceiling (I’m 6’1).
  • Fits within the width/length of a standard parking spot.
  • Drives well, with good amenities, so getting from A to B is not torture.
  • Easy to upkeep and repair.

The first point, in particular, is hard to find in a used vehicle but easy to accomplish when ordering a custom van from the dealership. Unfortunately, I soon discover that there’s currently a 1 year (or more) wait for a Mercedes Sprinter.

This long wait has something to do with a fascinating bit of history known as the Chicken Tax. The Wikipedia entry is a seriously fascinating read!

I later learned that the Ford Transit 250 has been rated higher and higher over recent years. Car and Driver magazine rated it as the best driving cargo van, and of course the domestic Ford brand would be easier to repair in the North Americas than its foreign counterparts. What’s more, because of these advantages this vehicle is increasingly chosen by fleets — which creates something of a network effect. The more people who buy the van, the more support arises around it, as more money is invested in infrastructure.

The wait for a Ford Transit was only about 3 months (for construction) and the only serious trade-off as opposed to the Sprinter appeared to be the 4×4 (all wheel drive). There are companies which will upfit a Transit to be 4×4, but it requires doing so on a new van (unconverted) with less than 5,000 miles, plus it costs over $10,000 at the time of this article. I eventually decided that this was one area where I’d forego the upgrade. The wait-time (another three months) and restrictions did not seem worth it. From what I read, the unmodified van should have no problem getting to Tahoe, national forests, and other interesting places with the simple addition of appropriate tires and shocks.

My Ford Transit 250 with 3 solar panels and a fan installed on the roof.

You can find my final order for a 2018 Ford Transit 250 Cargo Van here: 

Some of the relevant options include:

  • 148″ wheelbase (LWB: longer, but not the max length, which is too long for a standard parking spot).
  • Hi Roof: 6’7 clearance inside (though 9’2 outside, which is too tall for many garages).
  • EcoBoost: better fuel economy.
  • Heavy duty alternator & dual-batteries (more power availability).
  • In-dash inverter (standard wall-outlet plug for charging things).
  • Ford Sync package (CarPlay, nice sound system, etc.)
  • No cargo area windows. This one was a tough decision, but ultimately I decided that for safety reasons (San Francisco…) I wanted to keep my living (cargo) area very private. I can always open all 3 of the large doors when outside, and I plan to devise other ways to get natural sunlight.

I ordered the van in mid-October and received it early December 2017, for a total wait time of about 7 weeks, from Serramonte Ford (south of San Francisco). Since then, I’ve started the long process of actually building out the van.

The Van: MVP

Here are the steps it took me to get on the road. Though in total it took about a year, the actual numbers of days spent working on the van was roughly 20. I say “roughly” because, while I kept a detailed build log, not all the work could be easily accounted for or categorized. What I mean by “20 days” is: if I had nothing else to do, it probably would have taken me 20 days to achieve the same results.

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