The van is scheduled to roll out of Jeff’s shop in about a week. Here are week old pictures showing the progress.
- Solar panels are installed but not yet secured. The frame that Aluminess built isn’t wide enough to bolt the panels directly to the rack. Jeff is going to fabricate clamps, four per panel, to hold the panels in place.
- Cabinets are finished and bolted into the van. The door faces are done, too, but won’t be installed until later.
- The water tank (20 gallons), exterior water fill, water pump, and water filter are installed.
- The slide out desk is partly built. The last half of the desk surface is hinged and isn’t installed yet.
- The toilet is mounted and will vent underneath the van to avoid cutting another hole in the side of the van.
- The shower pan area is cut out but not installed yet.
- The sink and cooktop have been test fit. Unfortunately, the hoped for double sink won’t fit. The counter is a few inches too shallow to fit a faucet with a double sink. If we had known earlier, we would have made the cabinet a few inches deeper.
- Exterior work lights and awning are installed.
- The gray water tank is installed but not quite finished.
- The propane is plumbed to the interior of the van. RVI did a nice job mounting the regulator and the black iron gas line out of harm’s way.
- The thermostat and battery monitor are mounted.
- The bed foundation is built. Next, Jeff will weld the bed frame and hooks for the Metolius ladder.
We visited RVI today to check out the progress on the build.
The carpet is gone and the driving cabin is sealed off with plastic to keep out debris. The upstairs furring is complete and has just finished drying. To avoid rattling and allow the vehicle to flex, Jeff screws the furring together, glues it to the fiberglass, and then glasses the furring to the top.
Jeff marked up the van interior with the locations for wiring. We reviewed these and added a few modifications. We also checked the parts that had arrived and labelled all the electrical components. We upgraded the wiring to 00 to allow for the capacity of the high-output alternator. Higher capacity wiring makes the electrical system more efficient. This is often used in solar systems, since bigger wire is cheaper than adding another solar panel.
I’d like to thank Ken Gagne for mentioning this site on Open-Apple, a monthly podcast dedicated to the Apple II computer. Open-Apple, like most things Ken does, falls in the “bucket loads of awesome” category. The first computer I used was an Apple II, and I’m pleased to be part of the thriving community of Apple II fans and users. Obviously, my van needs an Apple II. However, I’m undecided on which model and where. Tony Diaz recommends an Apple IIgs mounted on the wall. The Apple IIc and IIc+ are tempting, too, due to their compact size. I’ll have to wait and see where I have space.
Thanks to Jacob Schor for sharing this article about a hand-built minihouse in Boulder. Love the creatively recycled materials. We’re a little skeptical about the builder’s proposition to “run an internet business in the woods” off of a 40 W solar panel with no mention of a battery bank. (See our posts on solar system design.) However, we love Grassi’s aesthetics and creativity.
Glenn Grassi’s “micro-house” in Erie is big on efficiency
Updated: 12/01/2011 07:49:15 AM MST
By John Aguilar
Boulder Daily Camera
ERIE In a town where 2,400-square-foot houses with finished basements dominate the marketplace, Glenn Grassi is betting the other way.
Oh, sure, his home has all the basics you’d expect — toilet, shower, bed, chair, table, stove, sink, even a hardwood floor.
But when all you’ve got is 84 square feet to work with, certain efficiencies must come into play. Grassi’s bed doubles as a shower, his chair doubles as a commode, and his wood-burning stove doubles as a furnace and cooking surface.
It’s spartan and spare, but the 41-year-old theater-set designer thinks such tight and cozy quarters are the wave of the future.
“You find what’s important and what’s not important,” Grassi said, as he slid open a refurbished and repurposed window on the side of his newly constructed mobile “micro-house,” which was parked in a quiet Erie neighborhood last month.
What Grassi — who lived in an RV in Los Angeles after discovering that his rock-band neighbors liked practicing in the apartment over his head — finds important is what an increasing number of Americans who have put their faith in the burgeoning “small house movement” find important. Downsizing is good for the wallet and the environment.
Grassi kept that green ethic at the forefront of his micro-house project, sourcing his wood, insulation, windows and a door from ReSource in Boulder and getting nearly everything else from yard sales and giveaways.
Then he used the stage-set designer skills and artistic sensibilities he has honed over the past 20 years to build a structure that not only can stand up to wind and snow but also has the feel of a nicely appointed home.
“I wanted people to be wowed when they walk in here,” Grassi said. “This is designer-quality — it’s got designer touches everywhere.”
Like the antique chair, the lower portion of which lifts up to reveal a composting toilet. Like the chandelier over the bed that runs off solar power. Like the arched wooden ceiling that effectively traps the generous warmth that radiates off the wood-fired stove.
Grassi, who worked on the house for a good chunk of a year, said he triple-screwed each shingle onto the roof to make sure that someone towing the house on the highway — the 3,300-pound structure is bolted to a trailer — wouldn’t see parts of it flying off in the rearview mirror.
“It’s airtight; it’s solid,” he said.
And now that he’s got it the way he wants it, he’s selling it, which is what he intended to do all along.
He’s asking $16,500 for the home. He says he might make and sell more micro-homes depending on how this one sells.
ReSource, said it’s gratifying to see the jumble of building materials that regularly getsdropped off at the yard at Arapahoe Road and 63rd Street reconfigured into something as well-built as Grassi’s micro-house. “I think it shows a lot of vision,” Baer said. “Glenn looks past the condition of the material and makes it into something useful. It’s a great project.”
Beki Pineda, who owns Denver prop shop All Propped Up and has worked with Grassi on sets for local theaters, said she is not surprised he was able to build such a classy-looking home out of other people’s trash.
“He’s one of those guys who could take a pile of junk and make something beautiful out of it,” she said. “The idea that someone is going to be living in one of Glenn’s artworks is sweet.”
Grassi said the project is different from his trade in the theater world in that it has an air of permanence. “I wanted to build something that I didn’t have to destroy after a few performances,” he said.
Grassi said his micro-house could work for any number of people — from those seeking to hit the road and get away from everyone else to the teenage kid who wants his own place to jam out tunes in the backyard.
Included with the house are 40 watts’ worth of solar panels powerful enough to juice up a laptop and charge a cellphone. So while it’s off the grid, Grassi said, the micro-house could serve as a mobile office for a road-pounding Web developer. “You could get away from it all and run an Internet business in the woods,” he said.
Of course, that might mean an intruder — man or bear — could show up at the door. Not to worry, Grassi said, pointing to a sheathed knife hanging on the wall next to the door. “You get a machete for a security system,” he said.
Power, of the electrical sort, seems so easy. Just find an outlet and plug things in. But, when living off-grid, whether in a remote cabin or a motorhome, you cannot take power for granted.
I need power in my van for typical motorhome appliances:
- water pump
Since I’m living and working in my van full-time, I also want power for a few other items:
- cell phones
- wireless Internet
- network attached storage (for storing and backing up data needed for my work)
- two way radio (for entertainment and emergency communication)
- Estimate power requirements – Make a list of everything that requires power. Don’t forget the little things like lights, water pumps, and furnace blowers. Ideally, measure the power requirements with a multimeter or a device like the Kill A Watt. In my case, I don’t yet own many of the devices I plan on adding. For these, I check the manual or data sheet from the manufacturer and look for the power requirements. The manufacturers usually specify the maximum power requirements. Typical or average power requirements will be lower than the maximum, but there isn’t, unfortunately, a way to figure this out without measuring the device yourself. Multiply the power draw for each device by the time you expect to use it each day. Add it all up to get your energy requirements for the day. This is a rough estimate, but it’s a useful place to start. I recommend entering your estimates in a spreadsheet so you may adjust as you learn more.
- Use less power - This is a critical and difficult step. After finishing your estimate, you’ll notice that small devices suck up a lot of energy. For example, a 60 Watt light operating for 12 hours drains 720 Watt-hours. That’s over 60 Amp-hours from a typical 12 VDC battery bank. Ditch the items you don’t really need. Do you really need a microwave, drip coffee pot, a blender, and a wide-screen television? Maybe a propane cooktop is enough for warming food. Make your coffee with a press pot instead (tastes better this way, too). Consider leaving the blended margaritas at home and switch to beer. Find lower power alternatives to the items you do need. Get small, lower-power LED lights that just illuminate the area you’re working in. Look for a more energy efficient refrigerator. Switch computer parts out for more power efficient ones. Buy a nice down comforter and run the heat less. Question everything.
- Get more power - Alternators, solar panels, generators, grid hookups (“shore power”), fuel cells, wind generators, Mr. Fusion … it’s all a compromise between time, cost, and space. Space is a huge constraint on my van, and I returned to steps 1 and 2 several times trimming ever more from my requirements.
We visited RV Interiors, Inc (RVI) in Spring Valley, CA this week to plan our interior build. Owner Jeff Hickey does complete RV interior builds and also makes custom cabinetry for hotels and homes.
We learned about Jeff’s work through friends on the Sportsmobile Forum and Expedition Portal. We then met with both Jeff and one of his former clients in June, and were impressed with the quality of Jeff’s work.
Choosing a Builder
There are only a few semi-custom RV interior builders in the nation that we know of that work with class B (van chassis) motorhomes. These include Sportsmobile in California, Texas, and Indiana; Van Specialties in Oregon; and Outside Van in Oregon. If you know of others, please post a comment and we’ll add the data. The two fully custom builders that we know of are RVI in San Diego and Global Expedition Vehicles in Missouri. Companies selling fully fabricated expedition vehicles include Tiger, XP Camper, and EarthRoamer.
For our interior build, we interviewed Sportsmobile Texas and RVI, amongst others. Our choices were due to geographic proximity and apparent fit. If we had known about Global Expedition Vehicles when we started our build, we likely would have interviewed them as well.
A few factors that stood out as we made our decision were:
A) Handling of a Custom Build Since we’re living and working out of 70 square feet, we have a lot of specific needs and creative designs. We were pleased that both Sportsmobile Texas and RVI were willing to consider customizing. However, the two businesses varied in degree of flexibility and the pricing structure.
Sportsmobile primarily sells semi-custom work characterized by set options. The experience is similar to designing an Ikea shelving system or kitchen. You assemble Galley A with Closet B plus Stove E to come up with a “custom” build. For most recreational part time RVers, this gives enough options without overwhelming the buyer with decisions. That is — for the average buyer, Sportsmobile customization works great, and Sportsmobile prudently serves the average buyer. Of the Sportsmobile locations, Texas is reputed to do the most customized interior work. President Paul Meyer was certainly affable and flexible about customizing things for us. As the design developed, we did feel like our build was stretching beyond Sportsmobile’s skill set, and that Paul was managing that by billing heavily for anything custom, even if it was simple and inexpensive to build. For example, Sportsmobile Texas quoted a grand to build a simple desk cabinet because the design wasn’t one of their standard cabinets. Jeff bills for his time and parts, and the cost is reasonably proportional to the effort involved. It’s also clear that custom work is at the heart of Jeff’s business model, and that he enjoys custom work. It’s much easier to plan a custom build when the architect is excited about the work.
B) Construction method and materials Sportsmobile uses a veneered marine plywood product held together by L brackets and sheet metal screws. Benefits of the marine plywood are ease of construction, lighter weight compared to hardwoods, and improved durability in comparison to fiberboard. The marine plywood is an improvement over the medium density fiberboard (MDF) that Sportsmobile used to use and that other builders continue to use. BadgerTrek discusses some of the problems that the MDF and L-bracket construction method poses when you camp in snowy or wet weather. The veneer on the marine plywood can chip with heavy use, then swell when exposed to moisture. Once swollen, it will not reform unless you deconstruct the cabinet and replace the boards. Fortunately, there are some RV builders using solid woods and even sustainable materials. We’ve heard good things about Bamboo construction at Outside Vans. When we visited one of Jeff’s RVs, we were impressed with the quality of the cabinet work as well as the ability to use solid wood and natural materials. We chose kumala wood, a semi-sustainably grown hardwood that resembles teak and that combines light weight with durability. We’ll also be able to use residential-quality materials for the flooring and counter.
C) Broad knowledge base. It takes many skills to build an RV Interior, as it would to construct a house. Electrical work, woodworking, flooring, and space design are some of the most heavily used skills in our build. The foreman at Sportsmobile Texas seemed very knowledgable with fiberboard work, flooring, plumbing, and counters. Conversations with their sales team revealed moderate knowledge of insulation, strong knowledge of standard electrical systems, and minimal knowledge of solar or custom electrical systems. Jeff’s passion is woodworking, though he is skilled in the other areas as well. Peter is knowledgable in electrical system design, and is working closely with Jeff on our electrical system.
D) Responsiveness and Professionalism We value simple acts of professionalism like communicating clearly, sticking to timelines, and answering calls within a business week. Some businesses would put great effort in to work with us closely (and we with them — including a 10 hour drive to one factory), and then not return our call for 6 weeks with no explanation. The amount of our business that they lost would have more than paid for another secretary to respond to client calls. Sigh.
E) Ability to think about systems. In a small space it’s important to think about the interconnections of systems, locations, and uses.
In our post on “Becoming A Home”, we talked about the order of steps in a build. Since wiring and the headliner must be completed first, it’s important to think of roof and electrical add-ons at the beginning of the build. So, while external lights and an awning are low on our priority list, we’ve got to decide on them soon.
Another aspect relates to understanding how the customer will use the vehicle, and then catching problems before things are built. We’re planning on being reverse snowbirds — skiing and ice climbing in the snowy mountains that most RVers flee from. When we discussed our shower design with Jeff, he pointed out an important and obvious detail that no one had caught before — a standard recessed shower pan involves cutting a hole in the floor. The recessed location saves space and stubbed toes. However, this also means that we’d shower with only fiberglass to support our weight, and that the uninsulated shower pan would be very cold when snow camping. As an alternative, Jeff suggested building up a false floor in the bathroom area. The floor could be filled with extra insulation (always a bonus!), and the shower pan could be recessed into the false floor. We’re very impressed that he thought of that!
Designing the Build
Our meeting with Jeff this week focused on planning the upcoming build. We examined the van, reviewed the floor plan and design, examined the parts that have arrived, and made several design decisions.
Last time we met with Jeff, we didn’t have the van yet. Now that we have the vehicle, we were able to map out exact locations for tanks, antennas, cabinets, etc.
A few updates that arose:
The previous plan was to drop the van off and start the build immediately. However, at literally the last minute, Jeff bumped a VIP build ahead of us, pushing our build back by 3-4 weeks. Though we understand the business reasons for his decision, we’re also disappointed in him and in the circumstances. Jeff has otherwise treated us with the utmost professionalism, and this sort of behavior really isn’t like him.
We’ll be able to fit 3 8-D solar batteries and an at least 8 gallon propane tank under the vehicle; this is good news for maximizing our power resources.
The roof is more curved than expected, which may limit our solar panel carrying capacity. This was a big disappointment.
Background: Peter worked hard to get clear specifications for the fiberglass top before purchasing it. We corresponded with Fiberine, Sportsmobile West, and even two generous Sportsmobile owners to get top specifications. The SMB owners were most helpful. We were dismayed with the “architectural drawings” that Fiberine provided, which looked like a child’s scrawl and were nearly inscrutable. It amazes us that they’ve manufactured from the same mold for 30 years, but never produced a proper architectural drawing. After visiting and measuring two of Fiberine’s tops on built SMBs, we thought we understood what we were getting. However, these tops were finished inside and out, so some of the curves weren’t apparent.
After Aluminess and Jeff examined the Fiberine top, we learned that the top is curved front-to-back and is significantly narrower at the top than at the base. So, we may have to scale back our solar power system, which already takes up nearly all the available roof space. Peter is back to researching all the available panels, which vary in shape, wattage, and percent efficiency in ways that make the decision complex. Our finished solar system will likely be one of the largest (in Watts) ever built on a Class B RV, so understandably this build stretches everyone’s skills.
Chassis and Bumpers
The towing plugs need to be reoriented. The current design from Sportsmobile 4WD would make towing power cables a low point of the vehicle (at risk for catching on road debris) and also rubs the cables against a sharp metal bracket that risks eventually breaking through the wiring harness. We’re glad to catch this small problem early before it becomes a larger issue, and will reach out to Aluminess about rotating the bracket.
Taller than expected counters. Our backs rejoice! We’ll be able to have 33″ tall counters while still putting a kitchen window above them. House counters are 35″ tall in kitchens and 33″ tall in bathrooms. Counters in most Sportsmobiles with a pop-up Penthouse top are (from what we remember) 27″, because of fire regulations relating to the position of the stove. Most Sportsmobile owners go on short trips and either grill outside or reheat premade meals, so short counters are tolerable for them. This is going to be a long term home, so cooking comfortably is important. Sportsmobile Texas was willing to build us a taller counter, but they weren’t sure about fitting a window on top of it because their window supplier had a limited selection of shapes. No kitchen window would make for a dark and dreary kitchen!
We discussed the possibility of a bypass “camper drain” for the shower, so that shower water could bypass the greywater tank and drain to the outside when environmentally appropriate. This would save capacity on our greywater tank, while still making it possible to contain all greywater when needed.
The Natures Head composting toilet package had arrived at Jeff’s workshop. Peter had reviewed a (new and unused) model before by visiting the company owner’s family in rural Phoenix. (When you will drive 100 miles to see a toilet, you know you’re a gear head!) This week was Katherine’s first introduction to the Nature’s Head. It’s such a neat technology for environmental responsibility, water conservation, mobility, and hygeine. Check out our detailed posts about the Nature’s Head on Sportsmobile Forum. We look forward to reviewing the product after it’s installed in our RV. This might seem like a weird topic to discuss. But if you’ve ever changed an RV porta pottie or dumped a black water tank, you’ll understand why we’re excited about a cleaner alternative.
We discussed our workspace designs further. We’ll need to install the swivel seat bases before finishing the design. Katherine’s workspace will be fairly simple, with a swing out table on the passenger barn door. We may model the table after an airline seat table. Peter’s workspace is more intricate, possibly involving a secretary-desk- style cabinet with sturdy arms for computer equipment.
In an ordinary workspace, the work chair adjust extensively so the table doesn’t have to. We’re using the driving chairs as work chairs, with space savings and loss of adjustability. So, the depth, height, and location of work surfaces involves a lot more planning.
Our next steps are to: finalize design for roof rack and solar system, then get the roof rack installed; refine the floor plan and design documentation; create an electrical wiring diagram for the interior build; and order more parts and appliances. We expect to get the roof rack installed in 2-3 weeks, and to start the interior build in 3-4 weeks.
To friends we know and friend we haven’t met yet: Thanks for accompanying us on this journey. If you know a fellow nomad or gear head, please invite them to join us.
Have you ever checked out the body armour on off road trucks and vans? Maybe wondered what, um, deficits the driver was compensating for? Me too!
I always thought of those heavy duty bumpers and roof racks as expensive and unnecessary toys. However, then I thought about where to carry our tools, tire chains, vehicle rescue equipment, trash, and bicycles. And I talked to folks who’d run into deer or moose on the highway. And I learned about the options for mounting solar equipment on a curved roof. These racks can be really useful.
So, we went to Aluminess in Santee, CA to get measured for a roof rack, front bumper, and rear bumper.
The roof rack will hold and protect our solar panel system, which is the core of our electrical system. Since we want to spend our nights out in the woods rather than plugged in at an RV park, the solar is essential. Solar will also power the technomad electronics so that we can work on the road. The top of the van isn’t flat, and a roof rack is the best way to mount the solar panels.
The front bumper will hold the winch, which is really useful for rescuing a stuck 10,000 pound vehicle. It’s sort of like carrying your own tow truck. The rear bumper rack has storage for our tools, toys, trash and recycling, and bicycles.
There are companies that build these racks out of steel or powder coated aluminum. The main advantages are aluminum are weight and rust resistance. Steel is stronger than aluminum, though the aluminum can be shaped to be nearly as strong as steel. A steel bumper can weigh 10 times as much as aluminum. Since the bumper is attached at a distance from the suspension, the weight and vibration from a steel bumper can cause suspension defects over time. Aluminess’ founder Dave got involved when Quigley contacted him about Ford warranty issues due to suspension failures. In analyzing the failures, Dave discovered the damage that steel bumpers were causing, and he started Aluminess to build a lighter weight alternative.
When we arrived at the factory, craftsman Kenny Gorham gave us a tour of the areas where the bumpers and roof racks are fabricated on site. The racks are then powdercoated off site, and then returned to Aluminess for installation.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover that our rear bumper was ready for immediate installation. We pulled our van into the factory bay. The craftsmen then removed our stock rear chrome bumper and bolted on the Aluminess bumper with storage box and bicycle rack.
It will look more complete when we get the spare tire mounted. Aluminess didn’t have the right lug nuts to attach the spare tire to the swing arm, so we had to carry the spare tire separately. Sportsmobile has generously offered to ship us the needed lug nuts. Repositioning the spare tire frees up under-vehicle space to install solar batteries for the house electrical system.
The installation took about 1.5 hours. During that time, Alan and Kenny measured the roof for planning of the roof rack and solar panel installation.
We left Aluminess with the rear bumper installed. There’s still lots of work to do in planning the solar system. Next, we’ll go to RVI to plan the interior build.
How does a van become a home? What makes our van different than the one your plumber or favorite creepy guy drives?
- Start with a Ford E-350 Extended Body van. A van is small; many of us have closets larger than the van interior. But, the van is a sturdy foundation. A larger, more conventional motor home is too large, flimsy, and close to the ground to visit the off-road destinations we covet.
- Bolt on four wheel drive. Depending on where you’re going, consider structural upgrades such as a full floating axle, air lockers, and stronger tires.
- Add a fiberglass top to give over 6 feet of standing room and space for a loft bed. Most Class B (small) motorhomes have a rear sofa that converts to a temporary bed. This saves space, but involves remaking the bed every night. For full time winter living, a permanent bed is highly desirable.
- Add exterior storage and strength. Aluminum bumpers and racks provide storage and protection for the solar power system, vehicle rescue equipment, and tools. These items are optional, but very useful. While the bumpers can be added later on, the roof rack needs to be installed before the interior build. The roof rack bolts permanently onto the fiberglass, and then is reinforced from the inside. It is preferable to install all attachments to the fiberglass prior to installing the wall panels and headliner.
- Build the interior into a house. Electric wiring, insulation, and wood furring are installed first. Then, add decorative wall panels, flooring, and the fabric headliner. Next, install cabinetry, appliances, and lighting. Basic residential RV features includes spaces for sleeping, cooking, eating, hygiene, and work. Small RVs often have multipurpose or convertible furnishings to make the most of a small space. Check out this classic Disney clip for Katherine’s early childhood inspiration in compact living, and see grown up versions here and here.
Soon, we’ll leave Oklahoma and head for Sportsmobile West in Fresno, CA. Sportsmobile is taking a Ford E-350 Extended Body van, adding 4-wheel drive, and a fiberglass top. Next, the van goes to Aluminess for a roof rack and bumper. Finally, we go to RV Interior and Custom Woodworking for the interior buildout.
Don’t miss the new “About Us” page for background on why we’re doing all of this.