Part 2: Layout/Design
Now that I knew which van I had, it was time to decide how everything inside was going to be laid out based on what I needed. Having a background as an application designer I know how critical it is to be diligent during the design phase so that you can set yourself up for success when you finally start to build. That being said, don’t let perfect get in the way of good. That’s something I struggle with… a lot.
What I did, what I used, how long it took, and how much it cost?
I decided to layout my van into three major sections: garage/bed in the back, kitchenette in the front, and a living space in between that includes seating and table space. You can see the full layout that I mocked up in the photo above, which is taken from the perspective of the front, passenger side. Note: In order to view everything in the diagram, both the passenger side door, the ceiling, and the front cab where the driver and passenger sit have been removed.
In order to visualize everything, I used the SketchUp web application, which is free online once you set up an account. I have some background in computer-aided drafting so getting to understand the program wasn’t too bad and mocking up the layout only took a couple hours. That being said, this was after I spent about a day fiddling with the design on paper based on measurements taken, requirements, etc.
Since I did it all in SketchUp, the design was free ninety-nine!
Why I did it (including counterpoints)
Garage and Fixed Bed: Right off the bat I knew I wanted a fixed bed so that I didn’t have to hassle with setting it up whenever I wanted to get some sleep. I think modular beds are great, especially if you’re not living in the van and instead just taking trips, but knowing I’d be sleeping on this for a year straight, I wanted to make sure I had a nice comfy bed. Moving on to the garage, it was super important to me to get all my outdoor gear in the van and stored easily. This includes gear for camping, backpacking, climbing, biking, etc. There’s a lot of it and knowing I would only need it when I’m headed outside the van it just seemed like a no brainer to get it out of the way of the living space. Additionally, I wanted to make sure the bikes fit inside the van so I didn’t have to worry about them being outside and messed with, so a stationary garage that was big enough to fit two bikes was the plan.
Kitchenette (Counter w/ Cabinets and Overhead Cabinets): Unlike most builds I’ve seen I’m very happy with having a modest kitchen. I'll get into this in more why in a later post, but i just knew I only needed a small space to make sure I could have running water and cook on a stovetop, so I set up the kitchenette to just be a simple countertop that will have a sink on one side, and a overhead cabinet to hold all of my food.
Living Space (Table and Benches): Given I’ll be living in the van, having a place in the van where myself and others can sit down comfortably at work, eat, or talk at a table was crucial. Again if I wasn’t in it every day I could see myself sitting on the bed or ground or camping chair often, but being in it everyday there just needs to be a way to relax in my mind without lying in bed. I decided to have the seating be large benches which will double up with storage below them, and I have a pull out table that comes out of the garage area so I don’t lose a lot of room in the layout because of the table.
(Lack of) Bathroom/Shower: My setup is quite simple and I’m 100% aware that if I made it a bit more modular and tight in some places I could have an answer for the number one question people ask me when I say I’m going to live in a van: where are you going to go to the bathroom and take a shower? In speaking about the bathroom first, this just seems like a non-necessity given where I’ll be most of the time. I will be living in a van full time, but I’m also not working while in it right now. This means I’ll mainly be either outdoors or with friends in various places around North America, which means bathrooms are never far away. Yes, I have an emergency toilet in the van, and of course a spare large water bottle. As for the shower, I’m planning to have a gym membership that allows me to shower in a ton of locations nationwide. I’m still looking forward to keeping up my fitness routine to an extent during the trip, so that will get me to the gym to workout and shower at least once or twice a week. That paired with tons of experience not showering for days at a time at festivals, on camping trips, or during my sabbatical just doesn’t really have me too worried. I’ll also have a sun shower just in case I do get a little too gnarly. All this combined, and my lack of enthusiasm with setting up hot water or dealing with a black tank means no bathroom/shower for me and more room for activities!
What went well
Seating Space: I haven’t even lived in the damn thing and I’m already loving being able to sit down across the table from someone inside the van. Sure, you can sit on the bed, in the driver/passenger seat, or outside, but there’s something about being across the table from someone and having a conversation with them while looking them in the eye. Love it.
Bench in Front of Passenger Sliding Door: I don’t think it’s depicted well in the layout photo, but the bench on the passenger side sits out in front of the sliding door. What I mean by that is that when the door is open, you can see the bench jutting out into the frame of the door. I saw this first on a few builds online and I was skeptical, but once you see how big the sliding door opening is it makes perfect sense. No need to waste that space just because the door will be open from time to time!
Sliding Table: My one piece of my layout that is modular! As I mentioned up top, modularity is great especially if you have a lot you want to pack into a small space, or as in this case, you have something you don’t want to get in the way all of the time. Keep an eye out for opportunities like this all along the way, and they’ll pay off big time if you decide they fit your build.
What didn't go well/What I might’ve done differently
Excess Storage: After really putting pen to paper on what stuff I have and where it can all fit, I’ve found I don’t need a lot of the overhead storage that I planned for. Consequently it was in my original layout, but I realized in time to decide to not build or install it. Additionally, the garage is massive! Which I think I will certainly fill, but boy is it big. At the end of the day, I’m a big believer that storage space will always naturally get filled, so sometimes less is more.
Bench Size: With the benches in now, I’m realizing they may be a bit large. One of them needs to be so that we can fit the cooler under it, but it just goes to show you that sometimes, even if it looks good on paper, it might still not turn out exactly how you planned. More details about fixing this issue below.
Cabinet Doors: In my layout I never visualized what cabinet doors would look like when they are open instead of closed. In a larger space this doesn’t matter quite as much, but when your ceilings are low and space comes at a premium, make sure you fully understand how everything lays out in all orientations.
Obtaining Measurements: Early on when getting your layout ready, be sure to get all your measurements. This goes for everything in the van (be sure to get multiple measurements of surfaces in the van especially as not everything is straight) and also standard measurements for items you’re thinking about building. For example, I went around my apartment and got all the standard sizes for cabinets, counters, chairs, etc. and this helped me tremendously when trying to size everything up and figure out how big things need to be. Most of the time you’ll need to size down in the van so keep proportions in mind if you do size down. For example, if you shrink the depth of your counter by half a foot, what does that then mean for how close you are to an overhead cabinet and the cabinet door when it is open?
Prototyping Layout: So just as I mentioned above, visualizing space is paramount when all the space in your van comes at a premium. For example, if I would have visualized what the benches looked like in the van before building them (even with just a cardboard box cut to the same dimensions) it may have changed my decision on how big or small to make them. I did some prototyping on the overhead kitchen cabinet after realizing this, and it really helped me dial in the size of the cabinet during the build.