Van Conversions – Where to Start

Setting Design Objectives

Guest blog by Feta Brown from Vansformation

When interviewing van converters for the Vansformation podcast, one of my favourite questions is their one top tip for new converters. Thus far, the most frequent response is to determine what your specific needs are in a van conversion before you start.

Clear objectives protect the project from distractions, wasted time and avoidable frustration. They guide you through the decisions to come, as well as being particularly useful when debating with your dearest the relative merits of keeping 650mm of bed width over a second sink.

In this blog article I’ll go through the system I developed to take the dreams from social media posts, Pinterest boards and sketches and turn them into a few clear design objectives to direct the campervan build.

Clear objectives help you keep your van conversion on track

The Three Lists You Need for your Van Conversion

The first part of setting your design objectives is to write three lists. This requires no special equipment, but does require some time without distractions for intentional focus.

It may be helpful to look back over your inspiration boards before starting. But, it isn’t essential, and sometimes surprisingly unhelpful right at the start of list making. If you are like me and particularly sensitive to the gravitational pull of staring at gorgeous vans, it is actually better to just crack on with the process. A slot of uninterrupted time is a fragile and precious thing. There’s work to be done here!

Examples are provided here to illustrate the process in my own van, undoubtedly yours will differ as you create your own unique camper.

1. The ‘Must Have’ list

As the title implies, this is a list of the essentials in your campervan-to-be. The ‘Must Have’ list contains all the elements your van needs for the work, expense and sacrifices of building a campervan to be worth it.

An excellent way to arrive at your ‘Must Have’ list is to consider what a typical day looks like when you are using the van. Envisage in detail exactly what you would do from waking up all the way through to falling back asleep. Consider:

• What would I use every time I go on a trip in the van?
• What have I used previously on similar experiences (e.g. camping, campervan hire, experiences in unfamiliar locations)
• What is needed for activities which are directly linked to why I’m converting a van? (e.g. outdoor activities, long distance travel, work activities)
• What is required for my daily personal maintenance?
(e.g. sleeping comfortably, eating, personal hygiene)

EXAMPLES
Cooking facilities
Comfortable bed
Way of keeping food cold
Good storage space
First aid kit easy to hand
Light space we can see out of even if it is raining
Toilet
Woodburner, if at all possible
Solar powered system
Space to write/draw/use a laptop

Your ‘must have’ list might include beds for 4 like Thelma in this pic

2. The ‘Want to Have’ List

A foggy zone exists around the ‘Must Have’ list. Here live those features of your future campervan which would make your campervan more fun, beautiful or unique but aren’t quite really critical enough to make the ‘Must Have’ cut.

Fear not! Those features have a home in the ‘Want to Have’ list. The beauty of a hand-crafted campervan is the ability to add cool features you love – at least some of them.

It’s easy to forget a campervan is one compact room. The ‘Want to Have’ list is the place to write down campervan features important enough to live in that room with you. These are the features you genuinely hope to build into the van, but could compromise on if needed.

Let’s do this. Questions to ask when making the ‘Want to Have’ list:

• What would make the van more fun, comfortable or cool in some way?
• What would you use regularly if it were there but could travel without, in a pinch?
• What could you add gradually as the van build progresses if time, money or materials run out?

EXAMPLES
Flip up ‘biscuit table’ with just enough room for a cuppa and a biscuit
Dedicated art supply storage
Powered running water
Method of showering in the van
USB charging points
Custom storage on doors

beautiful wooden campervan kitchen Maybe your ‘want to haves’ include veg baskets like the lovely Emma

3. The ‘Fringe’ List

Some UK Festivals have a ‘Fringe’ festival which has become almost more popular than the primary festivals which spawned them. Fringe festivals feature performances that are too wacky, underfunded, edgy or otherwise outside of the main festival focus.

Having a ‘Fringe’ list for your van design features is the place to dream. Here is the place to write down what your van converting heart desires, unbound by the practicalities of money, time or your skillset.

Since those two more practical lists are done, now it’s perfectly acceptable to have a little cheeky gander of all those van inspo collections. You’ve earned it. Then scribble down what you would love to have, if you could.

Please don’t skip this step. It can seem a waste of time to allow yourself to wish a bit. However, the ‘Fringe’ list informs the ultimate design objectives by giving us a sense of what we really love. The ‘what if…’ musing on the Fringe also may inspire an idea to make some aspect of a fringe item come to life.

campervan fridge with bespoke front Your fringe list might include a patinated copper fridge front!

EXAMPLE
One of my ‘Fringe’ list items was a bathtub. Despite what you may have seen in articulated-lorry sized American motorhomes, a full bath is a completely impractical thing to put in a campervan. It takes up a huge amount of space, is perilously heavy when filled and – being too huge to fill with onboard tank water supply – would require obnoxious amounts of water from a hook up.

But, in thinking about my imaginary bath I came up with a portable, lightweight design which provides a good clean using items that stow away when out of use. This was the direct result of dreaming of a rolling spa.

Whoop! That’s most of the work done. These lists usually shift a little during the course of a van build: new possibilities, priorities and limitations tend to emerge. What doesn’t change is the Design Objectives we’ll do in the next section – those function as a compass through the entire build.

The Design Objectives

Start by reviewing all three lists.

Don’t worry if you’ve gotten this far and you don’t have time to do this section, it can be beneficial to have some time to reflect and revisit. Set a time in your diary to come back to it! (Bonus points if you set an alarm on your trusty mobile device as well.)

But, if you do have time there is momentum in setting at least the draft objectives right away. I think it is powerful to review them IN the van. Aside from being an excuse to hang out in your beloved van, being surrounded by the vehicle itself is a powerful way to envisage it’s future transformation and remind you of what you like about it as a base vehicle.

Look back over your lists and take notes on the following:

• What you want the build to accomplish.
• What themes unify the lists of what is most important to you?
• What do you know you want to have in your campervan conversion?
• What drew you to the base vehicle? Is there something about it you want to preserve?

Those notes are the basis of your objectives. Looking back over them bring them together into 2 to 3 unifying goals for the campervan conversion. It may be useful to draft them and then have another look later to confirm they capture what is most important to you.

They need to be open enough to act as guiding themes but specific enough to help rule out anything that contradicts with the design objectives.

Once the objectives are reviewed and feel right, I find it’s best not to change them. Trust yourself, you’ve worked hard to do a proper analysis and put these together!

The objectives for my current campervan build were:

1. Feeling of spaciousness, despite being only a mid-wheelbase sized van
2. Very good kitchen facilities
3. Woodburner, installed to a safe standard (A relatively specific one, but the van design essentially revolved around it, so it was used as an objective)

During the course of my build these objectives have helped several times when making tough decisions about how to allocate space, what to put in and what to leave out. There are still many things I want to add and tweak with the van but overall I feel invested and satisfied with how it came out because of the careful consideration of what was really important.

Your work in making a thoughtful van conversion makes the world a little cooler for everyone. I appreciate all you are doing.

Want to know more? Head over to the Vansformation blog for articles on the entire process of creating a conceptual plan from a van conversion dream.

Even better, there are still a few tickets at time of publishing for the 2018 Camp Quirky festival, where I’m running a workshop. Would love to meet some of you then!

-Feta Brown
Twitter: @VansformationHQ
Instagram: @Vansformation
Pinterest:@Vansformation

2 thoughts on “Van Conversions – Where to Start”

  1. Hello, there

    I haven’t converted a van, but I’m considering it. With that said, I get a little frustrated watching people convert vans or buses, frustrated at the poor design.

    One of the main issues that is never addressed is weight. If you want to explore the hills and dales of this beautiful country, weight must be considered in the overall design. Fuel consumption, speed, the wear and tear of the vehicle will all affect your bottom line. Designing the kitchen area the way you would in a house is utter folly in my opinion. Having a cutlery drawer when there are only the two of you is laughable. Are you planning a dinner party or something? A kitchen sink? Mixer taps? Grey water container? What, when you can just throw a bowl of waste water outside? Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have a clean look – a place like home – but you are GLAMPING, you’re not in a there-bedroomed semi. I’m considering living in my van, and I will find a way of doing this so that weight is kept to a minimum while still having all the comforts.

    Another thing: surely in such a tight space, every single fixture should have a minimum of two component uses. Let me explain.

    For instance: a seating area which hides a murphy bed which hides a wardrobe and drawers, beyond which is an area for tools and batteries and inverter (accessed from the rear).

    Yes, very difficult to engineer, but not impossible. And yes, it encroaches on the overall space; but because that space has four uses, it can be smaller. When the bed folds up, the seating area will seem large compared with a van where everything is screwed in place. The wardrobes will be behind the murphy bed, so an area for that in the kitchen/living area is not needed … I could go on.

    There are many more space saving solutions, some of which are already out there.

    These are things I’m considering for my own build, and I will record my progress and post.

    Regards
    Mark

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