Styrofoam Forts: Mocking Up a Van Build

Mocked up the interior of the van with duct tape and styrofoam. Thanks to Sportsmobile Forum users for advising this method. We learned a lot through the process, and then redesigned several aspects of the build.

We used styrofoam to build some pieces of furniture that we needed to see in 3 dimensions. We used tape to mark outlines for the rest.

RVI Factory Visit

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 TigerXP 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:

Schedule

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.

Power

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.

Living Space

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 selected our flooring, counter, and cabinet wood.

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.

Working Space

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.

Next Steps

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.