Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What I’d Change About my Van Build

Now that my van build is complete (photo gallery), I wanted to look back on what I’d change (and what I’d keep the same). Some day, maybe once vans are electric and self-driving, I’ll end up building another.

Most of what I’d “change” is simply to spend more time prototyping and refining my craftsmanship. This is mostly a matter of experience. Many of the furniture in the van went through several iterations before its final state. Things still break every few weeks thanks to my novice trade skills.

That said, there are a few key decisions I’d reconsider next time…

Layout

In my van, the sofa-bed faces the sliding door on the side. We enjoy pulling up along some beautiful scenery and look over it while sitting on the couch (or bed).

Azuli jumps into the van while we drink coffee on our laptops looking out from the sofa bed.

It’s also nice that this means we have a very open layout, and can walk from the front doors to the back (unlike many vans, where the bed gets in the way of using the back door).

However, the kitchen being in the back is pretty tight for two people. My good friends Brandon and Lindsay over at LittleMapLines took everything three steps further by doing a 3D render of their van build ahead of time to get a feel for everything:

It seemed over-kill at the time, but I’d definitely take the time to do the same on the next van build. Brandon even hooked the 3D render up to an Oculus so that he could “walk around” the virtual van in VR. Personally, I like the Murphy-bed-in-the-back layout (the alternate design which they did not end up using):

Brandon and Lindsay’s Murphy Bed van build / design.

I’m not sure this would be the exact layout I used next time. But I’ve realized there’s a good reason many people have the kitchen in this location, across from the sliding door: it gives a lot more room to move about. With two people, this is an important feature.

I also like the large amount of table space they achieve with the above design. Our current mobile office design is good, but not great. If we combined the two designs, adding swivel seats and an additional table to the above layout, there’d be plenty of room for two people to get things done.

Electrical

When I designed the off-grid electrical for the van, I wanted to avoid using any gas for cooking. This means investing heavily in the the electrical system, including 540W of solar power and hooking the alternator into the house battery.

I’m happy with how this turned out over all, but wish that we had saved some roof space. It’d be nice to be able to climb on top of the roof and look out over some nature, or even store some outdoor equipment on the roof.

Kitchen

I already mentioned that the kitchen (and cabinet) area is a bit small for two people. All our clothes are also stored in the back area:

van kitchen and cabinets
Looking from the front to the back, with the kitchen on the left, and couch + cabinets on the right

This means that there’s only about a 3’x3′ square area to stand when making food, changing clothes, etc. The above layout would do a lot to fix this problem.

We also don’t have heated water, which makes washing dishes hard. It also means that the water tanks can freeze at night if we’re not careful (see below). I might still see about changing this.

Controversial Choices I would NOT change

  • Plywood walls and heavy-duty insulation. I like the homey “wood cabin” look, and the van stays about 30 degrees (F) warmer than the outside temperature at night. It’s not until about zero degrees F that the water inside the van starts freezing. And in hot temperatures, we’d rather be outside anyways.
  • No gas. I already mentioned this above, but I like being electric-only. I’m not a big fan of open flames inside the van.
  • No electric pump for water. From everyone I’ve talked to, these end up breaking a lot and being more annoying than helpful. A cheap foot-pump works fine for us.

Things I’d Look For in a New Van

I bought the 2018 model of the Ford Transit 250. The 2020 models now have options for swivel seats (so you don’t need to use aftermarket parts) and even 4×4 all-wheel drive. I wish we’d had these options, especially the latter. We’ve never actually gotten stuck, but we’ve definitely been cautious about where we drive with rear-wheel 2WD.

It seems that Mercedes-Benz and Ford are both investing even more in the vanlife market. Some pre-built vans have even been shown off. I would not personally buy a pre-built van, as I find most professional builds to be extremely sterile — functional, but not pleasant to live in.

Some vandweller friends chose a diesel engine. I like this as an option because diesel fuel is relatively safe. So they are able to tap directly into the diesel fuel line and use it to run a heater and even a stove.

I am looking forward to the day when autonomous and electric technology makes its way to vanlife. An electric vehicle would mean much less wasted space on house batteries and electrical systems (an electric van’s battery would be an order of magnitude larger than any house battery). And being able to do our work while a computer drove us to our next campsite… well, then we could spend all our free time enjoying nature.

About the author

(zane) / Technically Wizardry

I've been a game designer, startup founder, and @Airbnb for 6+ years. This blog documents my hobbies of building a vanlife van, "magic" home automation, and interesting software to control it all.

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