We were delighted to be invited by The Rolling Home to write our very own advice column for their journal.
The journal is a celebration of alternative living and van life in its many forms. In collating the answers from owners and our friends in the business we ended up with far more fascinating content than we could fit in our assigned word count. The solution? A series of blog posts, starting with this one which tackles the essence of good campervan design…
The question asked was this:
“Could you give some advice how to fit weight, ecological aspects, costs and style in one?”
Craig Faulkner, converter/owner of Ashleigh
There are some things in a camper van that are essential and cannot really be scrimped on. But there are also things that can be scavenged or created from something else. It’s nice (and easy) to blow most of your budget on really cool expensive kit, but then running out of cash could result in a sudden change of style from smart and snazzy to shabby chic.
Make a list of all the items you need for your conversion. Things like leisure batteries, a way to keep them charged up (a split relay), solar panels? Electric hook up (do you want mains electric?), insulation to keep you warm and dry (absolutely essential) an area to cook a simple meal, with a safe gas supply, some sort of heating, a bed to sleep in, windows, do you want/need a fridge?
Once you have these items sourced and priced up, and you have managed to keep within your budget, (well done, I never have) you can then go about deciding where they are going to fit. Be rigidly flexible about your layout. If it doesn’t look or feel right, change it. Your camper-van is an extension of your personality, a place for you to sit back and relax, whether it’s for romantic weekends away for two, or a family home on wheels, it must suit you.
Keep an eye on your weight, not the amount of biscuits you eat with the frequent cups of tea, but the amount of kit you put into your van and where you put it. You want a well-balanced van that doesn’t lean to one side and stays within your legal weight category.
Dean Crago, master converter from House Box
This is a really interesting question. If I’m honest, after 6 years of building our homes on wheels for some lovely people, it’s not so much a specific question we ask ourselves but more the entire theme for the build and an equation we try to solve throughout the process, from start to finish.
Some of the more pragmatic items (like the heavier system components such as battery banks and water tank) will be sized against the scale of the build itself. For instance, if we’re building a large 7.5t horse-box conversion for full time off-grid living, we are afforded the weight allowance for big heavy battery banks with large solar arrays, or a full-size rainwater harvesting system with a decent size water tank, so that the inhabitants can remain stationary somewhere beautiful for months at a time if they wish without having to move to top-up their resources. At the other end, if someone wants a smaller vehicle converted that is designed to be more mobile more regularly, then a smaller water tank will work as there will be more opportunity to refill it and keep weight down. Similarly, a smaller battery bank (batteries most often being the single most heavy item we add in a conversion) can still be efficient even for full timing by the addition of a split charge alternator so it tops up the juice whilst driving (We don’t generally use these in our large conversions as if a battery bank is too big it can put too much strain on a vehicle alternator and cause premature failure)
When it comes to style, I think we’re probably most renowned for all the natural timbers we harvest, shape, and use in our conversions. I loooooooove wood. Of all the materials, I get the pleasure of playing with in my weird line of work, wood is king; however not synonymous with traditional motor caravans, primarily because it can be weighty. To answer the original question, this is probably the most useful example. There are hundreds upon hundreds of species of wood, each with their own entirely unique properties and pros and cons for each application. To try and keep things ecological, we always try and source wood as locally as possible and species that are perfect for the task at hand. On our current project we are just finishing, we needed some strong uprights for the wet room wall frame that have good durability, are not too heavy, and are decoratively beautiful. For this, I literally only had to stroll down the road from my home here on the Somerset levels in the south west of England, and fell some small lengths of Alder. It had zero miles to travel and it grows in abundance round here on the peat moors so I was essentially coppicing, encouraging further growth. To keep it strong, light and beautiful, I stripped the bark with a drawknife and left it in its natural round knobbly form – when wood is at its strongest; and less machining mean less energy used processing it, less wastage, and lower cost for the customer – but, perhaps paramount, it looked absolutely stunning when installed. I try and take this approach to all the timbers we use. We have a lovely 2” thick slab of sequoia as a kitchen worktop, which looks great but weighs a tiny fraction of a comparable hardwood like ash or oak. Another cool example are the boards we used to deck the roof terrace – we chose a locally milled home-grown Japanese cedar. As well as offering excellent structural strength at really thin thicknesses, the timber itself has this incredible natural citrus fragrance which will repel mosquitos and midges, which can be a real pain when wild camping.
Essentially, balancing all the things mentioned; weight, style, ecological credentials and costs, is just a way of building for us now that has been worked on and developed throughout all our projects, and will always continue to do so. There is always more to learn and no one person has a monopoly of information on this. The most wonderful thing about the field in which we work is the community of builders, makers, designers and dreamers with whom we share in this endeavour; so ask around, never be afraid to be humble and seek advice and think outside the box. Every part of every build is completely unique, and there is rarely a single correct answer to any problem, so be imaginative and dream big!
Jamie Walker, Quirky Campers Director and converter/owner of Maya
It is easy to produce a stylish design by using reclaimed and recycled materials. Be it rustic, vintage or shabby chic, to name a few examples.
If you can find a good reclaimed timber yard e.g. Bristol wood recycling project, you can find good value materials that will help you achieve a beautiful finished product and as they are recycled and sourced from a small local business, you are being both ecological and ethical.
With weight, it is very important you know how much your base vehicle weighs to begin with, what the max gross weight is, e.g. 3500kg, and what sort of payload you want once your conversion is complete. For the latter, I would say 500kg absolute minimum.
Choose your materials carefully and consider paying a bit more for items such as fridges, batteries and cookers, that way you can have quality products that weigh less than their cheaper counterparts and you can be assured you’re not going to have to change them a few years down the line. Remember to factor in the weight of full tanks of water and fuel as this contributes a fair bit, and of course your case of beer and a few bottles of wine!
Of course, to see all the other great content, and the rest of the advice column, you’ll need to buy the journal ☺