How to build your own mobile home and workspace for less than $12,000
Being chained to a desk job you hate and earning barely enough cash to cover your rent is hardly what we’d call living the ‘Murican dream. So Boston-based art director Zach Both, with some green in hand and a filmmaking dream on his mind, decided to break free from the shackles of conformity and join the thousands of adventure-seeking free spirits flocking to the #vanlife.
The hashtag alone has some 600,000 posts on Instagram from people across the globe showcasing their nomadic lifestyle, free of everything but gas bills. And that was inspiration enough for the 23-year-old, armed with nothing but $12,000 and YouTube instructional videos, to make his killer mobile home/workspace into a reality in the space of just a few months.
We’re talking full kitchen, solar power, WiFi, bed (for two), couch, office and all the trimmings. And with a background in art direction, the interior of the van is stylish AF. Better yet, the self-described perfectionist did what no human before him had the patience, skill or time to do and documented the whole experience to create The Vanual - a complete guide to buying, building and living in a van.
The free site launched just recently and we caught up with the budding filmmaker to get the lowdown on becoming a 21st century vagabond.
THE RED BULLETIN: Current location
ZACH BOTH: I’m outside of San Diego and heading back to Los Angeles today. I’m based in LA at the moment, but we may be down in New Orleans next month or somewhere like that. But I’m out in LA at the moment and the van comes with me wherever I go - outside of impractical distances of course.
Living and traveling in a van was a not a long-term dream of mine that I’ve been planning for years. It was quite the opposite. I saw a video of rock climber Alex Honnold, who travels to various places with his van, and he was showing off the van. It was just so practical. And I thought to myself, “I could do that.” Alex’s was so functional and that’s what inspired me to get a cargo van and not some hipster Westfalia or something like that. And two weeks later I bought a van - the first vehicle I’ve ever owned - and started the project. My 16-year-old self would kick me if he knew I bought a cargo van as my first car.
Work’s primarily the reason I did it in the first place. I left my office job to be a filmmaker. And filmmaking by nature is nomadic. You’re constantly moving around and telling different stories from different places. So this seemed like a perfect fit. But I don’t spend all my time in the van. I’m usually outside, in a coffee shop or at meetings, but the van provides that flexibility. I’m never further than 500 feet from the van. The flexibility can’t be understated.
The practicality and functionality
A year on, it remains surprisingly practical. I can go anywhere and do pretty much anything - travel and work on any number of projects at the same time. And not have to worry about finding and paying for a hotel or constantly going out to eat or find somewhere to work from. I can do all that with the van. And there’s not really much I would change now I’ve had a year in it. I’m quite happy with the final result and being the perfectionist I am, I’m never usually happy. You’ve got to use the space efficiently and pull several functions out of one thing. The bed’s also a sofa. I’ve got a chair that can be used as a footstool, which is also the trash can.
The cost and effort required
The van (2003 Chevy Express) cost me $3,900 and all up, including that cost, the entire project was about $12,000. Everything that I know how to do, whether it’s design or carpentry, has been completely self-taught using online resources like YouTube. I had a little help from my parents but not a whole lot. My dad would walk me through what to do the next day over dinner or something like that.
From the day I bought the van to the time it was finished was about eight months in total of on and off work. I was going back and forth between work in LA and the van, working on different projects. But if I were to compact that, I’d say it was about three months of total work.
I’m by no means the first person to build a van and I won’t be the last. Once I started doing the research I realized it was already kind of a trendy thing. I discovered the whole #vanlife movement on Instagram. There was already a wealth of knowledge online and other various places. But all that information was scattered and disjointed or unfinished. So my idea was just to bring it all to one place and have one succinct story/manual for anyone who wants to do the same. It’s free for people to access it. You’re not paying $10 for an e-book or something like that. It’s sponsored by Ryobi, a power tool company, who came onboard after the fact.
I thought I’d pass along the knowledge and experience I’ve learned along the way. I do the same with all my projects - film or otherwise. I like showing the process behind the scenes to share the wealth, so to speak. I finished the van about a year ago but it’s taken the past 12 months to create The Vanual and take all the photos and collate the information - among other projects I’m working on. And it’s been great. This is the first time I’ve launched a site and there’s been lots of traffic and enormous amounts of comments and emails from people who seem to really appreciate what I did with the site. And that’s all I could ask for.
Want to build your own van? Head to The Vanual.