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Project Vanlife Academy

Project Vanlife - Manual for building your home


Vanlife. The big adventure of the camping lifestyle begins while searching for the ideal vehicle to suit your plans and desires.

Apart from all the excitement and joy this brings, it is important to take some things into consideration. The most important thing is the car's wish list.

In this manual, we try to take you in our thought process and the sequence of construction. We would like to note that this is not a standard manual for building a camper, it is a personal journey towards owning our dream vehicle.

We tried to write down a Step by Step approach: 1. Preparation 9. Sitting Area

2. Purchase of the Vehicle 10. Kitchen

3. Floor 11. Bathroom

4. Insulation 12. Heating

5. Wiring 13. Upper Cabinets

6. Walls 14. Electrical & Solar

7. Ceiling 15. Finishing Touches

8. Interior 16. Curtains

1. Preparation

What are the requirements for your vehicle?

- Number of seats, sleeping places, maximum dimensions/weights, brand (for spare parts)

- Headroom / lifting roof / roof tent

- Budget

These basic requirements usually result in only a few types of vehicles suitable for you.

As soon as a vehicle is on the shortlist, you can take a closer look to see if you can include all your wishes in terms of interior / layout. Nevertheless, you will always have to make some compromises.

- Do you want a shower and which type? A full cabin, an outside shower or a rack-mounted shower?

- How much space do you want for the kitchen? For example, do you want a fixed or a separate fridge, do you need an oven and how many gas burners?

- The bed is important. The most essential choice here is whether you want space for a fixed bed or whether you want to convert the sofa into a bed. With the latter, you save a lot of space, but then you don't have storage for your things, which in turn is an advantage of a fixed bed.

So the advantage of a fixed bed is, besides a lot of storage space, that you can use a slatted base and a solid mattress (when converting a bed, you often use the cushions of the sofa).

- If you decide to have a fixed bed, you will also need space to sit and eat somewhere. It can be useful to choose to rotate the driver's seat and/or co-driver's seat. But if you decide to have a shower cabin, it might be wiser to build it directly behind the driver's seat (because of sight-lines and spaciousness).

These are the parts that take up the most space on the bus. We recommend taking millimetre paper and a pencil. Fancy 3D drawings or software is not needed at this stage.

You start by drawing your top view/floor plan. We use the scale 1 on 5, so 1cm equals 20cm.

This drawing clearly shows how much space you need for each part you want in your ideal bus and/or where you might have to make compromises.

Also, the weight of the bus still has to be taken into account, in the Netherlands (and many other countries) you have to obtain an extra driving licence for a bus that is 3500 kg and more.

Depending on your wishes and destination you should consider buying a 4x4, this is often more expensive.

All these wishes, in combination with your budget, will make the search for your ideal house on wheels a lot more straightforward and easy.

So - there's plenty to think about.

2. The Purchase of the vehicle

Our advice is to start with a decent basic vehicle. It has to be in good condition. Look especially at the following aspects:

· Technical condition of the vehicle

· Maintenance history

· Number of kilometres

· Bodywork / Rust

· What was the vehicle previously used for? (if it was not a camper)

· If necessary, have a technical inspection carried out by a third party

Luckily we were able to choose a Mercedes, it is a reliable vehicle and can be repaired all over the world because parts are easy to find.

3. Floor

Your choice depends on what kind of flooring is in the vehicle and its condition. Unlike most vehicles, our Mercedes ˝Bruce˝ has a wooden floor. We replaced it before putting in a completely new interior.

Most vehicles have a steel floor with ridges in it. You can choose to flatten the flooring by filling just these ridges with insulation material.

You can choose to insulate the floor, we have decided not to do this and have laid Linoleum directly on 19mm wooden panels of waterproof plywood.

Other materials that you use as a floor:

· Click laminate

· Carpet

· PVC or Linoleum. Preferably in one piece, to prevent expansion and contraction.

· PVC tiles

· Wooden floor

If you travel to areas with a lot of humidity or periods of drought and temperature changes, choose a floor in one piece. Otherwise, there is a risk of warped seams. If you do opt for loose tiles or planks, keep a 1 cm distance along the wall.

First, put the floor in the whole vehicle.

By doing this, you save a lot of skirting boards, it is more controllable in case of leaks or if you drop something, it doesn't run into the seams.

So you build the interior on top of your floor. After laying the floor, put some floor protection before going to the next step.

What we've done is we've drawn the layout with tape. It gives you a 3D image of the layout and you can check if anything needs to be changed. You can also do this with pieces of cardboard.

4. Insulation

The purpose of insulation is to keep noise and cold outside and heat inside. Insulation helps to keep the temperature stable.

A thermal bridge conducts cold from outside to inside. This means that a piece of iron going from the outside to the inside brings the cold directly to you.

Besides, the goal is to prevent condensation, caused by cold directly on warm and vice versa. The main goal is to change the temperature from outside to inside as gradually as possible. Make sure there are no open spaces by sticking something directly against the steel outer plate. Everything has to be connected to reduce the chance of condensation.

You can find hundreds of materials on the Internet and every one of them has advantages and disadvantages. A well-known natural material is wool. In our experience, glass wool retains moisture and sheep's wool keeps the warmth.

Besides, there are a lot of artificial materials. We use Armaflex (more expensive) on the tricky areas and corners and for the larger surfaces, we have used XPS foam sheets.

One material we have also heard good stories about is X-trem Foam.

5. Wiring

After insulating the vehicle, we started with the wiring, to have as many wires as possible out of sight.

First choose the location of your technical room and lay down all the wiring.

The goal is to keep all wires accessible in case something breaks down, but the wires for the ceiling light, shower light/extractor, reading light in the middle of the wall, are attached behind the walls and above the ceiling.

For this, you can use some strong tape. If it is necessary to pull wiring through rafters, prevent it from rubbing against steel parts. Then use a hose for protection.

If you are using solar panels, pull the wiring from the technical room to the passageway in your roof.

6. Walls

First, decide what you like. Flat plate, hardboard,… There are plenty of possibilities.

Always make sure there are ventilation holes so that moisture, if it gets behind the wall, can dry.

In our opinion, you should use glue. You can also provide extra reinforcement by screwing in the rafters, but good glue is enough and is aesthetically the best. The only disadvantage of gluing is that it is fixed in place and not easy to remove, but that's the risk we took.

7. Ceiling

First, locate the skylight and put it in place in between the rafters (otherwise you reduce the strength of the bodywork).

You can choose between slats, plates or carpet for the ceiling and preferably glue it. We opted for white slats and didn't regret it yet.

On many vehicles, there is a pre-shaped ceiling plate. You can remove these in one piece and we recommend to work with stretchable fabric in your desired colour.

8. Interior

We opted for a fixed bed with a slatted base and a decent mattress. Make sure you make holes under your bed for ventilation. (Under the slatted base you put a large white plate with ventilation holes towards the garage).

Provide a wide beam over the width of the bed for reinforcement.

The size of the bed, of course, depends on you, but at home, we have a standard 1-person mattress 90cm width, 70cm is sufficient and so we have a 2-person bed of 140cm wide. We have opted for 2 single slatted frames with a 2-person mattress in one piece.

If you want a closet above your feet, keep a minimum of 30 cm clearance. If you want storage above your head, measure it to avoid bumping your head at night.

Tip - a skylight above the bed is enjoyable for stargazing

9. Sitting area

Once again, your wishes are important. Try to play a little with the design.

Think of the railings you might need for supporting your back and arms.

We have chosen a double train seat, where you can lower the table to have a full sofa for 3 to 4 people. We have also kept the size for a single extra bed (70 cm width).

Useful tip: make sure that the seat and back cushions together are the length and width of a bed. Opt for firm and thick cushions, for when you have a guest staying with you.

Also, it is important for your comfort that you test and measure your seat height and depth. Because many vehicles have wheel arches, we deliberately mounted the train seat on top of it. As a result, we have two large storage compartments underneath the train seat, with a flap at the top. In the middle, you can choose to have a telescoping table that you can move up and down. Another option is a pull-out table that disappears under your bed into your garage. However, this takes up quite some space and you miss the middle part of your train seat for the conversion to a couch/bed.

But again - this strongly depends on the personal wishes for your vehicle and the necessities.

10. Kitchen

The kitchen size is depending on how much space you want for it. We like to cook and do it a lot, so we opted for a kitchen on both sides. It is convenient to have everything with water on the same side (sink, toilet, and bathroom) in your vehicle. Between the sink and the bathroom, we have a large section for cutting.

On the other side, we opted for a cutting section, a combination of an oven and 3 gas burners.

Tip - We have a board made from the same wood as the entire kitchen that you can put over the sink for extra cutting space/kitchen top. It creates extra space when you are not using the sink.

You can opt for a filter system for your water. We don't use this because we drink from large 20-litre bottles and do the rest (washing-up, showering and flushing the toilet) with water from the tank.

But there are many water filtering systems, you can install one at the entrance of your water tank, between the water tank and your tap or even on your tap.

We need gas for our oven and cooktop. We consciously opted for this, because refilling or exchanging gas cylinders is convenient all over the world. But check if this is also the case for the destinations you are going to visit.

We have attached the gas bottle in the back of the garage in a separate, well-closed, cabinet with a gas alarm and ventilation opening in the bottom of the gas locker.

Type of fridge

The fridge is a big investment. We have a 110-litre compressor fridge with a small freezer compartment. It gives you plenty of space and we noticed that the freezer is quite useful.

There are three types of fridges.

· Compressor fridges are often a bit more expensive, but very suitable for boats / campers (can better withstand movements) and has a low energy consumption.

· A normal fridge is energy efficient but is less able to withstand imbalances and movement.

· An absorption fridge can run on gas and electricity. However, power consumption is often high.

11. Bathroom

If you have the space to put a bathroom, take a minimum size of 85cm x 70cm (for us this is the width of our Thetford Cassette toilet).

We advise making a shower tray with many layers of epoxy so that the floor, wall and ceiling become a whole. Because of this method, you don't have any seams, so your chance of leakage is zero. The bottom of the door is 10 cm above the floor, creating a bowl. By doing this, the water does not run into the vehicle when standing at an angle.

In theory, you can install any type of shower. We do recommend a small extractor and a light on the ceiling.

Even if you shower in a tub, always use a shower curtain. This also gives you more freedom to make a nice door that leads to the living area. We have chosen two louvre doors, which makes the bus a lot more attractive in terms of design.

Keep in mind that you use about 11 litres per minute for showering, by not opening the tap fully and only using water when rinsing (not during soaping), you can take a long hot shower of 5 minutes.

There are in fact three types of toilets.

· A composting toilet, there are different types and even ways to make one yourself. Check the Internet to see what's best for you.

· A toilet with an outside tank, which you have to empty above a special cistern (often on the campsite). You also have the separate well-known Porta Potti toilet which offers a compact and convenient solution, especially if you choose not to have a bathroom.

· A cassette toilet. With a cassette toilet you can choose what products you use for the tank, nowadays you can find environmentally friendly stuff.

One of the latest, more interesting development, is the Kildwick, where pee and poop can be separated. One part goes in a tank and the other one in a compostable bag.

12. Heating/hot water

After a lot of research, we chose the Webasto Dual Top Evo 6 - a boiler that heats air and water and runs on diesel. This is of course not the best option from an environmental point of view, but it consumes so little and you don't need electricity or gas for the boiler, which offers advantages.

In general, there are countless possibilities to generate hot water and air in your vehicle. You can heat both separately or with one device at the same time. Below you will find a brief overview of the possibilities.

Different options to heat water:

· electric

· gas (geyser)

· engine coolant system

· diesel / petrol

Different options to heat air:

· Diesel / petrol parking heater

· gas heater (however, this is not allowed everywhere in the world)

· wood burner

· radiators and water heater

Above all, choose what suits you best and how much space is available. Of course it is very attractive and cosy to build a wood-burning stove with a chimney, but it does take up a lot of space.

13. Upper cabinets

There are many options for choosing upper cabinets, but this is all about taste and how much storage space you need. In any case, make sure that all upper cabinets are lockable and the latches are very important here. The vehicle goes back and forth the hardest at the top, so it has to be a combination of easy to open and tightly closed. A push-lock closure is one of the many solutions (we don't have this)

At the very end of this article you will see some video's of our electrical department.

14. Electrical & Solar

Setting up your electricity is very important and it's all about good equipment for us. A good quality electricity system is expensive but safer and more sustainable in the long run.

Calculate your energy consumption in advance, a well-known method can be found here.

We recommend that you buy all your devices with as little watt-consumption as possible. Because with more watts, you need more batteries and therefore also more/larger solar panels.

We have chosen the brand Victron for the batteries and inverters and we never have any problems on the road. It is a reliable system.

Our power is generated by driving the car, by the sun and possibly shore power if necessary. When the sun shines, we are completely self-sufficient and, when the sun doesn't shine, we can live about 4 days on two full 12-volt batteries.

We designed and made our switch panel in the living area of the vehicle by ourselves, but there are also ready-made versions.

Tip - in terms of energy consumption, use LED lighting.

15. Finishing Touches

The colours, materials, details, accessories and other small things are all to your own taste. If you want to keep the vehicle spacious, place your bathroom in the front or the back and use light colours as a base in combination with a wood colour for the doors/kitchen top.

16. Curtains

We have chosen Busgordijn / Vancurtain.

This lady makes curtains, based on a fabric of your choice, with magnets that fit perfectly on your metal frames.

The other windows and skylights are from the brand Dometic. There's a mosquito net and curtain attached. Dometic makes double layer windows (no glass), which is very helpful with insulation.

Don't use any glass, it's pretty cold unless you're traveling in nice weather.

We hope that this manual has helped a little in designing and building your ideal vehicle.

If there are any further questions, please contact us: brucemeetsworld@gmail.com.

Good luck and see you on the road!

Semora, Bart & Bruce

Video's Here some video's of our interior and electrical & solar set-up.

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