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Tour a Chevy van turned into sleek, tiny live-work space

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Not your average mobile home

The interior of Zach’s 2003 Chevy Express 3500.
All photos courtesy of Zach Both

Zach Both is living the tiny mobile home dream. The 23-year-old filmmaker left his job as an art director at a 3D printing startup in late 2014, bought and tricked out a 2003 Chevy Express 3500 van, and hit the road to pursue his dreams. Here, we chat with Both about his design influences, the inspiration behind his website TheVanual.com, and what it’s really like to live and work in such a tiny space.

How did the idea to live in a van come about?

At the time I was working as an art director at a 3D printing startup, but I wanted to go off and do my own thing and get back into filmmaking, which has always been my original passion. One day I saw a video of Alex Honnold’s van. He’s a famous rock climber, and he lived and traveled out of a van and drove to different mountains and climbed. I saw that and it looked really practical and something I could do, but with filmmaking. Two weeks later I bought a van and the rest is history.

How did you come up with the design plan?

The space is quite limited as you can see. I was limited in where I could put the bed and the kitchen area, so I tried to make use of the space as efficiently as possible. As far as the aesthetics, the white paint and the slats, for instance, came from looking at various contemporary architecture and interior design magazines. I feel like a lot of people that convert a van only look at other vans that have been converted, and those vans tend to all look the same. Instead, I tried pulling influences from actual homes and house interiors, as I was considering this as a home for myself.

Do you have any interior design experience?

No interior design experience whatsoever, but once you spend years training your eye for what looks good and functions well, you can apply that to various other practices.

What is your van equipped with?

It has a bed that converts into a futon that actually works on both sides. So when I open up the back doors, the futon can face that way out the back. Underneath the bed is storage space for clothes, power tools, and a whole lot of camera gear. The kitchen area also doubles as a desk or working space and has a stove, a refrigerator, and more storage for dry food and various pots and pans and cooking utensils.

There are two 90-watt solar panels on the roof that power most if not all the electronics inside: the fridge, lights, any sort of camera equipment, and the home theater system, which is a projector that projects onto the white curtain that divides the front and the back of the van.

Let’s talk construction. Where did you get the materials?

Almost all the materials and tools were bought from big box home improvement stores. The only special thing is the wood strips that were used on the ceiling and the side of the kitchen. Those were sourced off of Craigslist from this church in Cleveland that was built in 1886 or so. I just got bags and bags and bags of those for free from a guy that had recently bought a church and was doing some remodeling.

How does your van fit within the context of the tiny home movement?

I’m definitely not the first person to be living and traveling in a van or tiny house, and I’m definitely not the last person. But hopefully the work that I’ve done on my van can help inspire other possible van dwellers to make more considerations when it comes to the aesthetic qualities of their van.

Is van-living cost efficient and economical?

Compared to having an apartment in Los Angeles or San Francisco, definitely. There are homeless people that are living in their vehicles that are doing it insanely cheaply based on what they can afford. There's quite a range of costs. There's also people living in vans that cost almost $80,000 and have all the bells and whistles. So you can make it as practical and cost efficient as possible.

What’s it like living in a van?

Truth be told, I don’t spend a whole lot of time inside the van, just because it’s a small space and can get claustrophobic. I tend to work during the day in coffee shops and libraries, but when I can go out into the wild and be in the mountains, it’s a great place to be. You get quite a view.

Talk a little bit about your website, thevanual.com. Where did the idea come from?

Everything that I know how to do, whether it’s been filmmaking, design, or carpentry, has been self taught using mostly online resources, so I’m a big proponent of passing that along and sharing the knowledge that I’ve learned on various projects.

Head on over to thevanual.com for detailed instructions on how to convert a van into a livable space, and some guidance on how to pursue a life on the road.