From General Contractor and Green Remodels to Custom Off-Grid Van Build
Introduction to van building and getting it right.
When I was just turning 16 years old my dad had a van that he used for his construction business. My brothers and I of course built a little wooden platform and put a mattress on it to make a bed. Back in the 70’s it was more about being cool and cruising around with all our friends in one vehicle. Prior to the “Seat Belt” laws!
Move forward 30 years and Mercedes Benz introduces a new tall van into the US market in 2003. The Sprinter Van. I had just started up my construction business and really wanted one of those. So happens that my older brother got one first so I was able to check it out up close and personal. I had a limited budget yet a used one was in reach. By now it was 2006 and they were everywhere. The US market really caught on and FedEx and UPS both used them. Three different companies in the US branded them. Freightliner which sold commercial trucks sold them.
Dodge had teamed up with Mercedes to brand them as Dodge’s
Mercedes also sold them but with limited supply due to the contract with Dodge.
It was late 2006 and Mercedes was planning on changing the model to a larger engine for the US market. The new vans would get considerably less miles per gallon in fuel efficiency. So my focus was a used 2003-2006.
It didn’t take long within a month of looking I found a local 2006 144” high roof that only had 10,000 miles on it in perfect condition. They purchased it for a business that never actually happened so it was his daily driver. The price was exactly what I planned to spend but this had less miles and in better condition and still under warranty.
It was supposed to be mostly for work, which it was, but because I enjoyed the outdoors it was my weekend get away vehicle. So my Black Labrador “Spirit” and I would travel for a week or two when we had time.
The van was very basic since it was a construction vehicle. I had a platform bed in the rear, which was removable. I had also installed all of the brackets and purchased additional seats so I could take 7 passengers. I brought along camp chairs and folding tables. I brought along a propane stove and used all of my camping gear. The one main luxury was to have my river Paco pads under a 3” foam mattress queen sized bed.
Now enter a life partner into the mix. I met my wife, who was also and adventurer that loved to travel. Now, two people and two dogs!
Our first trip together was a month long trip through California which was my old stomping grounds. We both figured if we could travel together in such a small space then we were meant for each other. Half way through the trip I proposed to her on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Lisa said yes and we were to begin a life of travel, in between work. A year later we were married and had an adventure destination wedding. We brought, rafts, kayak, bikes, etc.… for all of our friends. The 144-length van was packed to the gills and we had to cross into Canada.
On our road trip honeymoon we learned a valuable lesson about the Turbo Resonator, which went out. Luckily we were able to drive in limp mode to the Dodge dealership and they had a replacement.
My business had grown and I wanted to get a larger van yet at this point it wasn’t really about my business. It was more about our adventures and making the van better fit our adventure life style. What you think you want and what you really need are two different things. We wanted a window van so we could enjoy the outdoors, bringing in as much light as possible. We also wanted a 158” high roof 2006 or older since they were better on fuel and had a proven track record. Trying to find one with less then 80,000 miles was a challenge yet we managed to find one. An east coast transplant that had slight rust but the looks were not as important as the function. No issues selling our old van with 80,000 miles. For almost what I originally paid for it.
Now comes the real challenge!
How to make a passenger van into a work van and a camper van?
So being a general contractor made this somewhat easier since I had certain skills.
By now there was a whole new industry of people converting vans into campers and living in them. People started documenting their builds and selling their plans online. There was so much information out there I couldn’t read it all. Plus my build needed to be different since I still needed it to be my work van.
First thing was to make a bed that could be removable. That was the easy part since I used steel it spanned across the width of the van and three supports were enough. It bolted right into the steel screwed into the frame. I now mounted ¾” T&G sub-floor on the sides and hinged the plywood so it folded up and blocked the back windows. This worked great to protect the windows from construction debris. Plus I could load the van on two levels if needed by folding down the bed.
Along the back wall on one side was a plywood box holding the water tank and the pump. On the other side was the electronics. Perfect balance! Plus in between the two boxes was just over 48 inches of width so I could fit sheets of plywood down the center of the van.
Prior to that I mounted my AGM batteries under the van. This was part of the learning curve. We got caught in a snowstorm on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in May and to get out had a drive fast in the slick mud and snow. Unfortunately the batteries got torn off and we didn’t realize it until 200 miles away.
This is when we decided we needed a 4x4. Now that Mercedes started making them for the US market.
Time for new AGM batteries along with a new location next to the inverter inside!
The key piece of this van was the sink and refrigerator cabinet had to be plug and play. Quick connects and we could take it in and out.
So much storage under the bed along with custom wood overhead cabinets along the sides! Plus the swivel seats made it comfortable to travel and camp in and perfect for my business.
Now for Version 3.0
This is two years in the planning stage since I have built two others I wanted this to meet all of our specific criteria. The biggest criteria, was only to be used for camping. Our goal was to retire and travel in it for two years.
So off to the Mercedes dealer to order exactly what we wanted. There was a huge list of options and it was very confusing so make sure you do your research when ordering. Once you do order depending on the model it will take some time to get. We waited 11 months for ours, which was a 4x4 model. I heard stories of others who had ordered theirs and they never got delivered.
We got the call that our van had arrived and the timing was perfect. We both decided it was time to retire and enjoy traveling. Part of this process was during our van wait we purchased a new home and were in the process of moving. Having two Sprinter vans made the move a little easier. Even though it was 800 miles away. Multiple trips later everything was done.
We sold everything in Seattle to start our new life. I wish I could say everything went perfectly as planned but it never does. Everything works its way out and we we’re finally settled into our new home.
Actually building the Van!
Like I said earlier planning is everything. Deciding on materials, layout and actually ordering it all can be overwhelming. Plus the cost of doing all of this can make you think twice. Being in the construction industry gave me one step up but still challenging for me. Check out the information as I walk you step by step through the build process and give you information on the design and materials for the build.