Introduction: The Snail, Our New VanHome: Convert a GMC Savana Into a Home

About: After few years working in community project in Quebec, I've decided with my girl friend to move and try to discover other projects. Being 2 years in cooperative shop, I've learned few things, but is mostly m…

When choosing to go on a trip, the choice to move in a truck is consistent. It defines that it must always be able to park it, it also involves quite a lot of additional costs that it is for the insurance, the gasoline, the expenses of passages sometimes. But choosing a truck is also a choice that seemed to be more consistent for a long-term trip. For it is not 2-3 months that we leave, but for an indefinite duration. It is good then to have more business than what one can put in a backpack.

After a few months of reading it, after a few months of living in it, we realize that, although on board the choice of moving by truck may seem more polluting, it is an alternative habitat that allows us To be more in agreement with our choices of life than an apartment. We produce our energy, our needs go in a dry toilet, apart from gasoline and once the car is acquired, our ecological footprint is less than a city dweller.

The snail is an animal that goes slowly and takes its time. He also carries his house on his back. Image of the decay, it is the name that we give to our truck traveler.

Development of a truck for a trip, a project

We decided to leave to realize a dream, a trip, but also a project: Horizon Trantion

It is a project of voyage from which a project of discovery was born. We have both been involved over the past few years in alternative and community projects in Quebec City, and we now want to see what is being done elsewhere. See what is done elsewhere and share the experiences of each.

We start from the observation that it is collectively and collectively that we move faster and more surely, but we are often isolated when we want to start a different project. One does not know sometimes what exists in its own city like initiative, then know what is done elsewhere!

The goal of the Horizon Transition project is to go to the various projects we meet and discuss with the members of these projects. Discuss, witness and meet each other's experiences. It is not necessary to always have to rethink everything from the beginning, it is important that we can have the testimony of those who tried before us, whether they were successful or not.

You can follow us on our website or our facebook page and see our videos on our Youtube channel. The original site is in French, but we are slowly translating it and it is also possible to read in more detail the stages of transformation of our truck on it. We will put the finishes and other improvements that we will make as we go.

Step 1: Choosing a Vehicule

When leaving on a big trip, the choice of a vehicle is of utmost importance and that was our starting point. After looking at a few vehicles, we realized that we needed a fair bit of space, given the fact that our trek would be a long-term one. After visiting dealerships, we wanted to find a vehicle tall enough for us to stand up inside of it. As you can imagine, when the weather is bad, or just for comfort’s sake while we’re cooking, the ability to stand up and not be constantly crouching was not an option.

The idea behind buying a van for the trip rather than hitchhiking or depending on public transport or bicycles is that we could make it into our new (temporary) home, one that we can take with us. Another reason is because there are certain things that we wanted to take with us, and carrying them in a backpack would have been difficult. As well, after a lot of reading and discussion, we agreed that we wanted to create our own space that was just ours, over which we could have control. Thus, it needed to be adapted as much as possible.

Step 2: Cleaning

In order to get off to a good start on the transformation of the van, we had to start by deep cleaning it. To tell you the truth, we never thought we would go as far as we did, but it had to be done. We could only see the van’s true state after completely stripping it.

Our starting point was a simple piece of plywood screwed to the floor. Not too difficult to take off, right? Looking back on it, it was something that we couldn’t have neglected. If you truly want to clean something, you can’t skip this step. It’s important to know every inch of your vehicle and pick a familiar starting point to be sure that you can put everything back in the right place afterward. It took a good half-day of work, since the rust had caused the screw to break. Luckily, the weather allowed us to open the doors and let the dust blow outside.

During the second day of cleaning, it was time to attack the plague of all cars in Quebec – rust! Even though the van hadn’t clocked very many kilometres, it was still a 2002 and had spent a lot of time exposed to the elements. Taking off the flooring on the driver’s side gave us the chance to see how close we were to the ground! We had a big day of buffing ahead of us. In a case like this, it’s important to use a wire brush to remove the rust without removing the metal. Masks and safety glasses were called for, because the dust coming from that rust wouldn’t be good for our health! The brush wasn’t the miracle solution, apparently. People tell us that in shops that specialize in this type of work, they go with sand blasting. However, we brushed every nook and cranny very thoroughly, sometimes using a hand brush.

Step 3: Isolation of the Snail

On this 8th day of working on the Snail, we are still making progress on the insulation. As we said before, we put fibreglass insulation on the floor and roof, and we covered it all with a vapour barrier in order to keep out the humidity.
It was the first time that we had ever installed this type of material. It’s not the easiest stuff to work with, especially when you’re installing it in a van, because the lines aren’t always straight. If we were to do it over again, we would pay attention to fully stretching out the vapour barrier and to making sure that it takes the shape of the van. We also should have made sure that the wooden battens were holding the fibreglass better. Actually, we should have done a lot of things, but live and learn.

Not knowing much about electricity, and not having well-established plans for the way we wanted to run the wires, we ran them along the sides. They are BX brand wires that we found. They have a metal sheath that makes everything safer. Having put them in ahead of time, we were able to install them in the metal structure of the van, behind the fibreglass and the vapour barrier. They are well hidden!

We decided to give the van an entirely new look, so we took out most of the shell that was left on the front doors. We gave ourselves more work by doing this, but it allowed us to insulate the van to the maximum. We also want to make the most of the space up front, and not cut from front to back, like some van refurbishers do. Redoing the wooden doors will also allow us to hang stuff on them.

We had visions of sun, palm trees, beaches, etc., at least that was our aim. Most of the time we would be able to say that sleeping under the stars in a place like this was idyllic. Imagining living in the van over the long term, you can imagine that we would sometimes have to actually be INSIDE the van at some inopportune moments. The sun can be a real scourge inside a metal box. For this reason, we decided to tackle the insulation of the snail as the next step in its transformation. We were thinking mostly about protection from the cold, but also the heat and noise.

Several options were open to us in terms of insulation. Polyurethane foam insulation on the walls would have been the ideal solution. You spray it on, and it foams up and hardens and stays in place. It seems that you can even nail pieces of wood into it. You nail them on and then, when it sets, you can use them as a step. The cost was high, though, around $450 for the van. That’s the price we were told. We didn’t really shop around, but it still seemed a little too expensive for us.

After consulting several web sites that talked about refurbishing vehicles, we opted for fibreglass and Styrofoam. Fibreglass is less expensive than polyurethane and it also has the advantage of being a better insulation from vibrations. As well, it can be easily moved around if there is need. Imagine making a hole for a pipe or for ventilation and all you have to do is push it and move it around to the desired spot. Polyurethane has to be broken up, taken off, and then sprayed again.
But when you’re insulating, there mustn’t be any holes! With the problem of having a breech in the metal of the floor on the driver’s side, a friend gave us a solution! He gave us a steel plate that Laurent was able to cut to fit the breech. After it had a coat of anti-rust paint, the plate was then riveted to the floor, and the problem was resolved.

Step 4: Vapour Barrier

The advantage of doing a project like this, whether it’s my girl friend or me, is that we are complete novices at it and we learn something new every step of the way. So, now we know: if you insulate, it’s important to protect the insulation from humidity. This is done with a vapour barrier. It could be paper or plastic on the one side, but the other side will always be aluminum. The vapour barrier serves to keep humidity from getting in and rotting away the insulation which always needs to be kept dry.

here were several types to choose from and, after reading about remodeling vehicles, the multilayered type seemed to be the best solution, but it isn’t to be found in Quebec. We therefore opted for a simple plastic vapour barrier that is very resistant. The bright (aluminum) side goes on the inside! Once we had put fibreglass insulation from wall to ceiling, we tackled the vapour barrier.

The wooden braces that we used to hold the fibreglass proved to be like faithful friends, because we were able to staple the plastic onto them. We thus avoided huge bubbles. (Later on we would realize that we hadn’t done a very good job of this, which would complicate things during the next step). There is sticky red paper that is used not only to cover the cuts in the vapour barrier but also to cover the holes that are bound to pop up (notably around the staples), so you end up with a van that is decked out in its finest clothes.

Step 5: Plywood

At the very beginning of the project, we had in mind to finish the van in wood panelling. With time going by, and seeing the ton of work that it would be, we chose to use 3/8” pine plywood. As for the floor, it is also done in plywood, but a ¼” thicker so that it is more resistant, since we need to walk on it. We started by looking at panelling, which would have been quick to install, but it was too heavy for everything that we would have to put on it. Plywood is light and resistant, a real advantage in a refurbished van.

The biggest problem for finishing the walls was that the walls of a van are not straight along the whole length. How many times when we were insulating the walls we wished we had a cube truck instead! The walls are rounded in both directions, along the length as well as the height! We’re going to need a stroke of genius to install it correctly, and it was at that moment that we realized that the insulation could have been done better. That would have made installing the panelling easier.
After thinking about it, we came up with a plan. We will do the walls working with the height. We will attach the panels directly onto the steel structure that supports the whole wall. It will allow us to screw the planks in directly, without the screws sticking out on the other end. By using the height, we will have only one curve to deal with, the one that goes from bottom to top. By putting several planks along the length, we can avoid dealing with the curve on the length.

We’re going to have to take measurements after each plank, and be careful to watch for gaps so that our screws go in the right place and the panels can rest on the structures equally. We’ll also have to cut around the wheels and cover them up later.

Even though our pieces of plywood are relatively thin, they’re not thin enough to take on the shape of the van, even in one direction. We are therefore going to striate all the planks on the inside. It’s a technique that arches the wood to get it to curve more easily. The technique consists of going over the inside of the wood with a blade repeatedly, not enough to cut it in two, but just to take away one layer of thickness along the whole length. Thus, by creating a little gap, it will be easier to bend the wood. The walls are around 1 metre 40 cm high, we’re going to striate the planks in the middle, around 15 of them.

nstalling a plywood floor is not an “easy peasy” job; you have to deal with the different curves that a van like this one has.

Even though we striated the planks, it’s not always easy to get the curve right or to properly screw in the plywood. The pieces that were framing the Savpropeana don’t always stay in one piece, and sometimes you can make a mistake when cutting it, and the plank blocks your view of what’s behind it. When this happens, you end up putting your screw into thin air. However, as the work moved forward, it was gratifying to see at the end of the day that we did make progress in spite of the swear words that escaped our lips.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, so we are giving you a plethora of words. We put around 3-4 days of work into it, at our modest speed. It is surprising to see how easy it is to fill up big spaces quickly with plywood, but the smaller nooks and crannies are the most difficult, and take the most time. There are lots of indigestible curves for the Sunday workers that we are.

Step 6: Floor

Once the walls and doors were finished, we were able to move on to the floor. After reading up on what can be done, we chose ¼ inch Styrofoam that already has one side covered in vapour barrier. According to what we read, you can walk on it and the insulation is very good for heat and vibrations. It was our choice to insulate the snail, and we knew that we wouldn’t always be going to sunny destinations. Our insulation isn’t meant to allow us to live in our van in -30 temperatures, but if happened that way at least we wouldn’t be living in a fridge. The insulation is also good to block out heat and noise.

Installing Styrofoam (or hard polystyrene) is a lot easier than fibreglass and vapour barrier. You just have to be careful in your measurements, and cut according to the shapes of the wheels and steps. You feel like you’re making a lot of progress quickly! However, while you’re installing it, you have to avoid walking on it as much as possible so that you don’t break it and to keep the pieces whole. You therefore have to do the floor quickly before you can move around inside.

Step 7: Preparing the Structure

Refurbishing a van is done in several phases, and progresses according to your priorities. As members of the Atelier Co-operatif La Patente, we were lucky enough to have a garage to keep the van in so that we could work inside when it was necessary. The first steps of this refurbishing were focused mainly on insulation and working directly inside the van, as you have seen from our earlier blog postings. The farther we went, the closer we got to the step of finishes, where we will focus on furniture. This work will be able to be done outside, and then we will install the pieces.

At this step, we are working on the structure of the furniture. We did try to do a sketch of the vehicle, but with the non-conventional shapes that we dealt with in the plywood floor, it is difficult to make blueprints that can actually be used. We therefore took advantage of the time we had inside to make the bases of the furniture that we could then bring into the workshop to work on.

After reading several blogs on refurbishing vehicles, comparing different refurbishing projects according to the size of the vehicle, but also thinking about the length of the project that we wanted to undertake, it’s a job that you have to talk through as you’re doing it.
In the best of worlds, we would have liked to have a vehicle that allowed us to stand up inside it, but vehicles this size turned out to be big gas guzzlers. They were just plain out of our price range. This is why the choice of the Savana van seemed okay to us. It was a better than average-sized vehicle, and we are aiming at spending as much time outside as possible.

After some discussions with friends, it also seemed important to us to make sure that the entrances to the van were unencumbered, as we would end up having stuff in the way anyway during the trip. It’s better to not clutter it up too much before we even leave, and keep in mind the mess we are going to have in the future.
It’s not a 10-wheeler, so we don’t have an infinite amount of space. We had to choose what would really be necessary: a bed, a place to eat, a toilet, and a kitchen. We will also give ourselves the luxury of having an “office space” for our computers, crafts, and games. Generally speaking, we will have 4 pieces of furniture:

Our bed will be a bit like a Murphy bed. During the day, it will fold halfway to form a bench, leaving some room to get by in the van at all times. At night, we will completely unfold it to make a bed like our one at home!
We will have a small pantry behind the driver’s seat. The gas stove will be on the side door so, when we open the door, we will be able to cook outside, but we must remember that we always forget ingredients inside. If we place the fridge/pantry at arm’s reach, there will be less to-and-fro. We will also have a desk/storage unit that will allow us to work on our computers, but also to have a multifunctional inside space when the weather isn’t so good. There is a lot of space in the Savana between the two seats, especially since we took everything out of it. We could picture a piece of furniture that would come between the two seats while we were driving, which we could move out of the way during our stops. We could also store stuff of all types in it.

Step 8: Bed

We looked at several possible fixtures, lots of truck fitted out make the "classic"; Benches around a table that can bend down and become a bed. Or, more in the sprinter, simply have a bed in the back overlooking the door, which does not move but with storage underneath.

Given the size we have, it seemed important to think of several scenarios. What do we want in the truck on a rainy day? Promote space or comfort? It takes a place to circulate, but also room for work mode or when cooking inside. It was then that we came across a structure called "step bed", the bed intertwined. This not the unfolding futon, but the principle is the same a sofa that becomes a bed. Rather simple construction and adapting to what one wanted, it was the idea that was applied. It has been modified somewhat in two sections, which would make it possible to have sometimes a sofa, sometimes an L, or a bed.

Step 9: Pantry

This piece of furniture will be located behind the driver's seat, in front of the door on the side. The idea is that it contains the fridge and everything needed for eating and cooking. We want to be able to continue to eat as much as at home, the kitchen space is therefore important for us, it takes a maximum of space.

As a refrigerator, we finally opted for an electric cooler because small 12v refrigerators cost too much, even used, and then smaller, more affordable home refrigerators would empty the battery simply at startup. We will buy / find the products as we go, so all in all we do not need a huge space in the cool, just for the minimum, and in case. The electric cooler has the advantage of being compact, transportable in case and can even keep warm if needed! Given the weight that it might have, it goes without saying that it must be as close to the ground as possible.

One important thing to think about when going on a trip like this is water! Hydration, you can not do without it and you do not necessarily find water all the time. So you have to have good reserves. It will be in the bottom of the cabinet with the fridge. We would like to find a pumping system so that we do not have to put our glass out of the earth to use, we will notice later.

To think that in the furniture, it is not necessary that things can fall, one is in a truck, although the snail goes slowly, it will move. So we made a drawer to put our bulk pots where they are contained to prevent the whole thing from shattering.

The furniture is to be at the end of the bed, we would also like to be able to use the side of the furniture in order to serve as easily accessible storage for stock.

Step 10: Office

This piece of furniture at the level of its confection is a little more complicated, because it must meet several needs! It will serve as the furniture where the computers will be and where we can work. It will also be the interior table when we need it, but it is also a general arrangement for all our crafts, books, souvenirs, etc. This cabinet is in front of the bed, but it also has two sides, one overlooking the back door and the other on the side door, which must be functional. The table should also be present if the bed is in place. The rear part of the furniture will be simple storage that will be easily accessible also the door open, while the other side will be arranged to be the kitchen area. Our gas cooker will be nested on one of the side doors, this way when opening the door we will be able to cook outside. So, if you can arrange the side of the furniture so that you can have everything by stretching your arm it will be great.

Step 11: The Snail Kitchen

One thing that we love is food and maybe our origins has something to do with that. We don’t eat processed food however or anything we don’t know the origin of. Food is our body’s fuel, so it’s important. Since we eat 3 times a day, we needed an adaptable system that would not take up too much room, that would be accessible and could be set up easily. We got inspiration from pictures we saw on the Internet, keeping in mind the kind of trip we wanted to do. At the same time, since we enjoy spending time outdoors in the sunlight, we wanted something that could allow us stay outside while cooking.

Then, we stumbled upon an image of a gas stove on a side door. You could just open the door and you had an outdoor kitchen. Our van has a double door and we didn’t want to obstruct the way in and out. The system is quite simple. It folds up against the door when we’re driving. When we need it, we unfold it and it can be used both inside the van or outside when the door is open.

Thinking about space, we realized that it was important for everything to be easily accessible. Spices are above and the plates, condiments are stored on the “desk” table. A cutting board is unfolded and can be used to chop the food or to put your glass of wine on while you cook.

Step 12: Roof Rack

Roof Rack

We chose not to have a van that allows us to stand inside so much to enjoy the roof! It is 11 feet long by 5 feet wide, which represents almost the length and total width of the truck. We will try to store 2 metal trunks on top that can be fixed in. It will also be possible to put a sheet of plywood on it and enjoy it as a floor for picnicking or sleeping. Adding a bit of weight and a little more visibility, it also allows us to have a storage of useful thing, but that does not encumber the interior space.

Step 13: Electricity

I don't know really electricity, it's was a real challenge for me. Hopefully I had some help from my friend to fix everything. So I will be fast on this part. I did all the connection, but the control panel has be done by my friend.

We installed a battery under the passenger seat. It could be charged while driving and whit a solar panel. Each cable going in the panel as a fuse, either that goes or out.

We bought a 5m led that we cut in six part and put in different part of the van,

We also have an inverter to charge the computer, camera and what could need 110 volt, but we mostly use for the computer while driving cause it use a lot of energy.

The battery is connected to the motor also, and we have an interruptor at the driver seat to set it off when we stop to not empty the car's battery when we are camping and using electricity.

It's was a big challenge for me to do it, even to pass all the wire after we did all the installation. It was an error that if I have to do it again i will not do the same. It's an important part that I shouldn't let on the side because I didn't know it.

But at the end, everything is working and all is good The solar panel is amovible, we put it inside while driving and we install it on the roof when we stop.

Step 14: Final Result

Finally, after 3 months of work in our cooperative workshop and a lot of help among the members, here is the end result. We have been on the road for 4 months now and there are still things to do and we are always in a state of flux.

The next project will be to create a terrace on the roof and try to integrate a solar oven and a solar PVC shower. But it's not for now.

We travel across Canada to meet transition projects, people who want to bring their seeds to change their daily lives and those of their communities. ^ _- to see all our articles on the projects we met :) or you can like us on Facebook :)

#Vanlife Contest

Second Prize in the
#Vanlife Contest