Van Life: Green Remodeling: Planning

Just around the three year mark of life in my van Leviathan, I decided to remodel the interior. I took over my friends’ driveway for roughly 6 weeks (I’d estimated it would take me 3) and spent all day, every day, ripping out the old and putting in the new.


Before I started, I spent a few weeks lurking on camper-van forums (which range from truly-DIY to places where rich people trade expensive ideas). I thought long and hard about what I wanted out of a living space. Most conversions I’ve seen aim to basically squash an RV’s worth of gear into a utility van: sink, stove, fridge, even toilet and sometimes shower. What I wanted was comfortable aesthetics and storage.

A view from the back door of the bed and floor before rebuilding.
A view from the back door of the bed and floor before rebuilding.

What I already had was: a 2003 Dodge Ram Van 1500, converted for family travel. There was a second AC in the back, a slightly raised roof, and originally there was a ton of “entertainment system” things like a VCR and DVD player and flatscreen in the back. I ripped out all the entertainment system stuff, as well as the original furniture, years ago already. The interior was carpeted and I’d built a bed that went across the van (side to side) over the back wheel wells. I’d also already made blackout curtains, which are invaluable for stealth camping, avoiding breakins, and insulation.

I’m writing this approximately 6 months after completing construction, so my memory is hazy on a few specifics like the amount of wood I used and things like that, so understand some of this is guesswork.

Being “Green”

I decided I didn’t want anything that would off-gas into my rather tiny living space. I wanted healthy, natural products, including formaldehyde-free wood paneling and flooring, natural stains, and no fiberglass insulation. I call this “green” rebuilding because this kind of thing gets called “green,” but hopefully no one is actually fooling themselves into thinking that living in a vehicle that gets 14.5mpg is “green.” Or that going out and buying new wood (or new anything) is particularly “green.” So my rebuilding is “green” as in it fostered a healthy living environment, not green as in eco-friendly. Strange how capitalists intentionally confuse those two things to sell us expensive products.

My main enemy ended up being VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds. Basically, poisonous shit that’s in like 3/4 of what’s made in industrialized society. These are probably not a huge deal for our health all the time, but my van is tiny with very little ventilation, so poisons can creep around the air pretty easily. I was actually having some strange respiratory problems before the remodel that have more or less gone away since… I don’t know if this is owing to the plastic and glue and poison I pulled out or if there had just been some mold living in my van. Either way.

My choice to eschew VOCs meant most of the quick-and-easy van remodeling methods were closed to me, including spray insulation, cheap plywood, foam underlayments, and even most wood stains. So I meticulously researched alternatives, which I will explain in this blog series.

What I went for

  • Skylight/vent
  • Hardwood floors
  • Wooden walls and ceiling
  • Insulation
  • Storage space
  • Small desk
  • My existing bed

A skylight/vent was the cheapest alteration and probably the one that improved my quality of life the most. A venting skylight allows heat to escape and, when I open one or two of the tiny little vent windows in my van, gives a great deal of airflow. This summer has been the most comfortable in my van by a remarkable amount.

the completed interior space, with shelf and desk
the completed interior space, with shelf and desk

I’ve been jealous of vans with hardwood floors and wooden walls for awhile now. Old carpet is gross, and the gray fuzzy walls made me feel like I was living in a bad sofa. What’s more, it’s easier to clean spills off of wood. The laminate flooring feels great on my bare feet, too. The only downside is, with the lack of friction, more of my stuff has to be strapped down while the van is in motion.

My van was barely insulated, what’s more. While there was plenty of airspace between the steel walls of the van and the upholstered interior walls, that space was mostly just filled with random cables and dead air. There were a few spots of pink fiberglass here and there, but overall my van basically wasn’t insulated. Insulating keeps my van cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and improves my quality of life.

I’d been dreaming about a shelf that kept milkcrates for a year or so, and it worked out even better than I’d hoped. The desk, while rarely ending up used as a desk, gives me a lot more space for short-term storage as well.

What I decided against:

  • Fridge
  • Sink
  • Toilet
  • Stove
  • Further raising the roof

RV fridges are usually “three way” fridges that can run off of AC, DC, or propane. Because they can run off of propane, they require things like, you know, propane. And vents to the outside. Also they take up a lot of space. Sometimes I wish I had a fridge, but honestly not that often. Most trips where I might want one, a cooler with ice will do just fine.

I’ve never once in my 4+ years of vehicle life found myself wishing I had a sink in my van. I wash dishes at spigots at campgrounds, at streams in the backwoods, and at my friend’s houses in the city. I keep drinking water in jugs and can rinse out a dish over the ground without any real difficulty.

Sometimes, of course, I wish I had a toilet. That “sometimes” is far, far too rare to imagine sectioning off a section of my van for a toilet. Some people get small chemical toilets, and I suppose that makes some sense. Personally, I use a wide-mouthed pee jar (here’s an article about how to pee in jars safely) and in an absolute emergency I resort to the old squatter trick of shitting in plastic bags. Most of the time in civilization there are toilets nearby and most of the time in the woods you can dig a hole somewhere. So it rarely comes up.

I can see the advantage of having a stove, but real estate in a van is far too tight for me to seriously consider it. I keep a folding table in the van in addition to two propane burners and set up outside when I need to cook. If I’m traveling, I can do it at rest areas under pavilions. If it’s cold and rainy and I don’t want to go outside, I’ll probably just eat something previously prepared.

I already have a slightly-raised roof. I’m often jealous of the really hi-top vans, though, which would let me stand up. My interior height is somewhere around 5’2″. I’m 5’10”. I would have had to raise the roof by a pretty large amount. My options would be to buy a fiberglass top (either new, for a ton of money, or from a junkyard, for a slightly smaller but still rather hefty sum of money) or raise the top I already had and put in a wooden riser, which would have been tricky as hell, non-aerodynamic, and make it pretty obvious it was a weird DIY campervan. So I decided against further raising the roof.

Stuff I hope to do sometime

  • Swiveling passenger seat
  • Solar
  • House battery
  • Rear ladder
  • Roofrack

I thought a swiveling passenger seat was going to be easy. I figured I’d buy some kind of cheap seat swivel, mount it, and be on my way. Nope. There are a few “universal” captain’s chair swivel mounts, but they’re not quite so universal as they claim, apparently, and there are two major complications. First, a lot of captain’s chairs can’t swivel because there isn’t enough space between the chair and the frame of the vehicle. Second, my van (and many others) has a cable that runs into the two front seats to detect if anyone is in it, so it knows whether or not to deploy the airbag in case of an accident. This cable needs to be lengthened and dealt with to install a swivel seat. Oh, and those swivels are ridiculously expensive. Oh and they raise the front seat up, often uncomfortably high. I still want to do it someday, but it’s low priority.

Solar. I know it’s just a stupid dream or whatever, but I really want to get my van hooked up to solar. Install a second battery and then I can basically camp as long as I want and still write on a computer, watch movies, and have electric light in the van. It sounds dreamy. It’s also expensive and not quite as effective as I might hope. But I’ll do it one day, and I’ll share my decision-making around batteries and switches and panels and all of that then.

A rear ladder isn’t really very important, but not everyone is as happy as I am scrambling up the back of my van by climbing on the door hinges. Plus they just look so cool. (Oh, god, I must be old.)

Roofrack. If I put up solar panels, then I’ll have a lot less real estate on my roof. But I’ve been kind of wanting a roofrack to haul around bikes or kayaks. Or so I can put a lawn chair up there and sit around on my roof with a plastic champagne flute of fancy juice like the wingnut I am so clearly meant to be. But I’ve learned that installing a roofrack on a fiberglass top is tricky and would likely involve me actually fabricating the damn thing: the weight can’t be on the top of the van, it has to be attached to the sides (still in the fiberglass). If I get around to making a roofrack, I’ll write about it.

Tools and supplies I ended up using

  • Hammer drill (I used a regular cordless drill for the first half, which was much worse)
  • Circular saw (for most cuts)
  • Jigsaw (for curved cuts)
  • Measuring tape (for everything)
  • Large carpenter’s square (for everything)
  • Boxcutter (for cutting insulation and underlayment)
  • Caulk gun (for roof sealant with the vent)
  • Gloves (always)
  • Respirator (for cutting wood and fiberglass and for pulling fiberglass insluation)
  • Safety goggles (almost always)
  • Pencils & Notebook (for measuring)
  • Broom and dustpan
  • Shopvac
  • T-55 bit (for removing seat belt bolts)
  • Lots and lots of screws of various lengths. (2″, 2.5″, 1″, 3/4″, other lengths)
  • A bunch of angle brackets and non-angled brackets (for framing and furniture)
  • Many feet (24?) of 1×2 wood (for framing and furniture)
  • 80ish sq feet of secondhand, low-VOC laminate flooring (I believe I found bamboo at the used building supply store)
  • A giant roll of UltraTouch denim insulation (which is treated with Borax to resist mold)
  • Dropcloth plastic to wrap the insulation (3mil? not sure)
  • various types of tape (for sealing and securing the insulation)
  • A big roll of Quietwalk underlayment
  • So much goddam formaldehyde-free plywood. 1/4″ for the walls, 3/4″ for the subfloor and furniture (I think.) I want to guess it was 5 sheets of the thin stuff, 3 of the thick stuff. But I honestly can’t remember.
  • A length of galvanized steel flashing (for trim at the door well)
  • Low-VOC wood stain
  • A ventline ceiling vent
  • Butyl seal tape (for the ceiling vent)
  • EPDM rubber roof lap sealant (for the ceiling vent)
  • Superglue (for the furniture)
  • Shelf brackets (for the furniture)
  • 1″ black webbing (roughly 12′ of it. for storage spaces.)
  • 1″ plastic buckles, 6 (for storage spaces)
  • Needle and thread (for the webbing straps)
  • Washers. I used bike chain plates because I had them around. (for the webbing straps.)

I borrowed the more expensive tools, bought the cheaper ones at the flea market. I spent a fortune on plywood. Home Depot, at least in California, carries a formaldehyde-free brand: PureBond, by Columbia Forest Products. It’s not cheap. The underlayment and insulation weren’t crazy expensive but weren’t cheap either. Any links I make to products (especially on amazon) is not to recommend you buy them from those vendors, but just to show you the product I’m talking about.

In the end, I estimate I spent $600 on the project. Most of that went to wood.

Next up: Demolition and Underlayment

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One thought on “Van Life: Green Remodeling: Planning”

  1. $600dollars, not bad at all. Compare that price as if a company or other person would have charged you for the same do it yourself. I’ve been thinking of remodeling my van for a while now. You have inspired me to do so. I’ll post when I’m done and thanks for the tips. Good luck to me… .

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