Category Trail

non-descript white cargo van

One of my core life algorithms is: spend time to save time and invest time to increase capability, seeking to avoid repetitive hassle.

The reason why I started mobile living in the first place was because of constant re-location. I was taking 2-4 consulting contracts a year in different locations, and spent days packing and unpacking between each, not to mention hunting for short-term apartments and long-stay hotels. Within the first year I moved all my stuff into an RV just to save time. Eventually I discovered there were many unexpected time-savings to be had as Mr. Mobility. For example, I was rarely stuck in traffic; I'd just pull over and do something else until the congestion cleared. And my transit was almost cut in half in general, since I never had to make a round trip back home.

In Desired Vansion Modes we discussed what we expected to be using the Vansion for. In this article we clarify what's really important and some tradeoffs involved in the design decisions. I'm using my dream van as an example. If you're doing your own van conversion, you should go through a similar process, though you'll probably have different answers than mine. So bearing in mind that time-saving and capability are key attributes I'm looking for, here's what's important to me:

One of my core life algorithms is: spend time to save time and invest time to increase capability, seeking to avoid repetitive hassle.

The reason why I started mobile living in the first place was because of constant re-location. I was taking 2-4 consulting contracts a year in different locations, and spent days packing and unpacking between each, not to mention hunting for short-term apartments and long-stay hotels. Within the first year I moved all my stuff into an RV just to save time. Eventually I discovered there were many unexpected time-savings to be had as Mr. Mobility. For example, I was rarely stuck in traffic; I'd just pull over and do something else until the congestion cleared. And my transit was almost cut in half in general, since I never had to make a round trip back home.

In Desired Vansion Modes we discussed what we expected to be using the Vansion for. In this article we clarify what's really important and some tradeoffs involved in the design decisions. I'm using my dream van as an example. If you're doing your own van conversion, you should go through a similar process, though you'll probably have different answers than mine. So bearing in mind that time-saving and capability are key attributes I'm looking for, here's what's important to me:

G-C) Convenient and Clean

Everything I need to do in the Vansion should be convenient. This implies:

Minimal Internal Transformation
deliberately avoid common reconfiguration hassles like tables, seats, and pads. Strive for multi-purpose with less time, like using the laundry machine as a hamper
Low Maintenance
further entailing active control units, automatic motors, and easy access to infrastructure
Quick Use
a foot pedal faucet to release a burst of water, movable components on easy swivels, etc.

Right after being too hot, my next complaint with the Turtle Shell was the constant dirt. I like driving with the windows down, so whenever I drove dust blew around the inside. I also aired the van when stationary, which let in a lot of particulates. Even after putting up a sturdy curtain and netting, all it would take is one stiff breeze to mess things up. I spent a lot of time just keeping that van clean, so I want to take a completely different approach with the Vansion:

Sealed Envelope
a conditioned space insulated from the unconditioned space, just like a building
Controlled Ingress
climate-dependent ventilation patterns, filtration on all exterior vents, and a single door for security
Mud Area
before the front door is a shoe rack, coat closet, and stuff to clean and freshen up

The sealed envelope idea is such a huge departure from a typical setup it bears further elaboration. Most van conversions try to maximize interior room by making the vehicle's envelope and the living space's envelope one and the same. That means that whenever you break the former by opening a door or window, you also break the latter. What we'll basically be doing is putting an entire room *inside* the van; let's call that living space the cabin. As long as the front door is closed the cabin remains sealed, even if we completely open up the vehicle. This approach carries a huge downside: it significantly reduces the available interior living space. But consider what we gain in return:

Environmental Conditioning
less volume also means faster response using less energy and smaller units
Soffit Flow
if we create soffit (floor) and ridge (roof) vents, natural thermal convection occurs just like an attic.  This can be aided by solar activated fans
Fume Aeration
not only avoids unpleasant odors in the cabin, but also improves safety when burning propane and using coach batteries
True Stealth
ports normally on the outside of an RV can be situated completely inside the van on the cabin exterior
Segmented Security
items in the cabin are better protected against theft, especially when getting your vehicle serviced
Independent Drainage
useful during irregular events, like storms, spills, or accidents. This dovetails nicely with the overhead water tanks

Thus, we end up with a different interpretation of the van doors. Only one is an entrance; the rest lead to a storage shed combined with easy access maintenance panels. The area between the cabin and van walls is well suited to storing long and flat items, such as outdoor furniture that's often cumbersome otherwise. Recessing the cabin away from the rear doors creates a rectangular-faced volume for larger bulk items. Smaller cubic-like items are situated under the bed, either inside (plastic boxes) or outside (batteries) the envelope, depending.

Most van conversions can comfortably entertain 4 people and handle 6 at a stretch. The sealed cabin configuration is targeted for couples; even 4 people would be uncomfortable. For me this is perfect, as I'll only sleep in the cabin or lounge in bed, and do other activities elsewhere. Your own van situation will determine whether this configuration is for you. If three or more people commonly dwell inside the van for several waking hours, this is probably not viable. Whereas if you are a couple (retired, dinks, or otherwise kid-free) this is a very attractive option, especially if you are outdoorsy types.

G-S) Sleep and Sex

The most important design consideration in a van conversion is the size, placement, and utility of the sleeping quarters. Two very common approaches is to have the sleeping area be multi-purpose and / or low profile. For example, the mattress might be split and transform into a couch, or an over-cab area might double as storage during the day. This allows dynamic re-tasking of limited space as needed, but carries the cost of time and effort to re-configure. That's massively inconvenient and Homey don't play that game.

My comfort while in bed is one of my top priorities; I spend more than half of each day there. Thus, the base target is a queen sized bed (60"x80") raised to a height of around 20"-24". Moreover, the entire area above the bed should have a minimum clearance of 24" for free turnover during sleep. At least one long axis needs a head clearance of 50" to account for kneeling re-positioning and sitting / stretching. One edge requires an entry width of 20" to get on and off. And speaking of getting off, these numbers also judiciously allow for (ahem) gymnastics.

The bed is situated on the far wall away from the front door. Thus, there is a single 20" wide hallway at least 70" long to the bed in the middle of the cabin. The hall is split roughly into thirds, allowing for six total unit spaces. On the side with the sliding van door is a fridge / pantry on a lazy susan, pantry / microwave / cooker on a lazy susan, and the composting toilet on an L-pivot / soft storage above. This groups together the units needing exterior ventilation and with dual indoor / outdoor use. On the other side is the shower / water wall, washer / wardrobe, and sink / storage, consolidating the plumbing. Since we want full head height in the hallway, the water tank is split in two on either side of the hall, and half the ceiling garden is over opposite edges of the bed.

Thus we see that placement of the fixed bed combined with system grouping completely determines the cabin layout. The bed space is where all the real action occurs:

Comfortable Bed
foam mattress and pillows in high quality sheets, with light microfiber blankets / heavy comforter, and thin protective mattress pad
Leveling Frame
a stiff metal frame with a hydraulic jack in each corner. This self-levels, allows mattress breathing, and can lift high enough to access storage underneath
Computer
on a swivel so keyboard / monitor can be folded against a side wall. A desk swivels from the other wall
Projection System
with AC 5.1 sound connected to the computer. The screen at the foot of the bed can also be used for privacy
Bedside Items
like cup-holders, phone chargers, devices, reading lights, shelves, and other stuff we want in easy reach like coach system monitors and controls
Under Bed Storage
Mostly in 2-3 rows of clear plastic boxes, with high access near the hallway and low access requiring a bed raise. Under the head is an envelope shelf, creating more outside cabin storage

Note that our first two goals are highly compatible. The sealed envelope provides a controlled environment for a seriously good night's sleep. Active control systems should be able to keep the cabin at both a comfortable temperature and humidity. And a fixed bed you don't have to make or transform is concordant with the convenience mindset.

G-E) Efficient and Ecological

The last design goal is to make the entire structure as resource efficient as possible. We also want it to be ecologically friendly, harmoniously harnessing its surroundings where it can. Here are some major efficiencies to keep in mind:

Gas Mileage
target 20+ miles per gallon combined. For me, this is mostly highway
LEED Principles
incorporate well established green building design
Redundant Systems
from low resource situational to high resource unconditional fallbacks

Redundant systems are desirable for three reasons, despite greater cost and consuming more volume. First, implicit in redundancy is no service interruption if any one unit fails, and reduction of peak load requirements on individual units. Second, we choose solutions that range from minimal energy (but are situationally specific) to high energy (but work everywhere), which effectively gives us low energy options with high availability, since we often choose where we go. Third, this gives greater flexibility for exterior usage independent of dedicated interior systems. For example, a solar oven is lightweight and portable, enabling remote cooking under the right circumstances. Here's some redundancies we built into the design, in resource order [with reminders]:

Cooling
shading [natural and artificial], garden, thermal mass [radiation control], venting [circulation], evaporative [driving, stationary], vehicle AC, cabin AC
Electrical
solar [awning, roof, sheet], grid, batteries [high cycle] with inverter [true sine], alternator with isolator [wire guage], [grounding, breakers, surge protection]
Heating
blankets [body heat], thermal mass [radiation control], incidental [cooking, electronics, engine], space heater [floor?]
Lighting
natural [sun, moon, star], man-made [streetlamps, signage], LED [mood, bright], sunlamp interior, LED exterior [head, flood, fog], emergency [LED flashlight, siren, flares]
Internet
network cable, wireless, cellular, antenna [amplifier, repeater]
Entertainment
vehicle radio, computer, audio system [dual exterior], projection [swivel, dual]
Cooking
solar oven, barbecue / hotplate, microwave

Plumbing is complex and capitalizes on several deviations from a normal setup. First, there is no black water. [No stinky RV crap, YAY!] Composting toilets separate urine from feces and operate dry. The toilet is mainly a seat and last resort in urgent or irregular situations. Thus, our grey tank contains mostly shower / sink / laundry water with cleaning agents in it, which is ideal for washing off dirt and spatter. An outlet hose from it can be used for remote drainage as well as pressurized spraying, with an optional RV drain connector. Note this gives us great re-use of water for exterior cleaning: first using gray water then finishing with white water spray. If I can find laundry detergent that is completely non-toxic and biodegradable, then I'll use this arrangement for the exterior cleaning of dishes, ensuring food particulates rarely get into the grey tank to begin with.

Second, we want endless hot water using minimal energy. Our solution is to utilize solar heating in a long dark solar hose looped around the roof, atop a solar reflector that also separates it from conductive contact. This then gets routed into a spot heater with active temperature control, either tankless propane or electrical. The hot water pipe is then divided and one route is fed into the laundry machine. The other gets sent into a foot pedal faucet leading to a flexible hose with shower head attached. This is then used both for shower and sink, enabling short bursts to avoid running water. A temperature monitor on the roof loop circulates water to prevent it from freezing. We'll also have a bypass and can drain the loop entirely if needed, say for extreme weather conditions.

Third, we utilize water from natural sources. The typical setup only inputs water from a pressurized source, say municipal water or RV station. We want to gather water from rain, snow, and unpressurized water bodies like lakes or streams. This adds another layer of complexity to the roof system. We'll need a large bed for gross particulate filtration, coupled with a treatment stage for water purification. However, because we have two tanks it pays to be extra safe. We designate one the clear water tank (only from trusted sources) and the other the white water tank (potentially from natural sources), with a one-way back-flow valve between them. A dedicated hose from the clear water tank leads to a high quality water filter and then into the fridge, resulting in safe cool drinking water. All other water is drawn from the white water tank; the hot water cycle is another layer of disinfection protection.

Fourth, the overhead water storage means the plumbing can operate without power, using gravity and siphoning to create the desired flow. The plumbing has an optional pump assist near the white water tank, and a required pump on the exterior siphon hose. This promotes lower water and energy use during normal operation, while still retaining a wide range of pressurized use on demand. Thus we can have practical uses like cleaning shoes, feet, and hands in the mud area, and fun uses like misters and sprinklers outdoors.

We now have a clear idea of both the function and layout of the Vansion. Now let's explore some choices that really get into nitty gritty details.

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