Ben and Georgia Raffi left behind their desk jobs in San Fransisco, sold their belongings, and flew to Australia last December to drive the "Big Lap" in a Mercedes Sprinter dubbed Rosie. Stretching along Australia’s Highway One (the world’s longest national highway), the 9,010-mile route encircles the continent’s coast—and it’s a voyage that many road warriors have on their bucket lists.
During their mandatory 14-day quarantine in Australia, the duo decided to write a step-by-step book called Van Build: A guide to designing, converting and self-building camper vans & motorhomes. The guide, inspired by the Raffis’ experience retrofitting their 2014 Mercedes Sprinter in just 21 days, covers everything from the planning stage up through the building process.
Plenty of photos and diagrams help readers visualize how each project unfolds, and you’ll find tips and advice on various challenges you may encounter along the way. The comprehensive guide covers everything from insulation and framing to plumbing and installation. Material and tool lists are provided for each step too.
"Of course, every van will be different and readers will use different materials and products with their own sets of directions, but Van Build connects all the dots and will help anyone take that first step, all the way to the last step of building their dream home on wheels," Georgia says.
The couple spent a year researching van builds before hitting the road, and they dug into the endless amount of information on the Internet—from websites to YouTube videos and Instagram posts. "There is a ton of information out there—so much that it can be really overwhelming, and a lot of sources contradict each other," Georgia says.
After their van conversion, the Raffis felt inspired to compile all the information they had gathered—and the lessons they learned—to help others avoid getting lost in the #vanlife ether. Here Ben and Georgia share the inspiration behind their new book, and the lessons they learned while retrofitting their van.
What inspired you to write Van Build?
We were headed to Western Australia from South Australia, and had to quarantine for two weeks in a small hotel room. The borders between Australian states were closed, so this was mandatory. Since we were stuck for a couple of weeks, Ben decided to be productive and start documenting our van build.
At first, he did this so that when we build our next van we have it all in one place. Then we asked a few people if they’d be interested in a guide to help them build their van, and realized there is a growing group of people looking to do the same thing. We love our home and our lifestyle so much, and we wanted to make it easier for others—so Ben started writing the book.
Is the book just for Mercedes Sprinter vans, or does it have information for working with other vehicles?
The book works for any van—or any vehicle, for that matter. It walks you through how to select the best vehicle and design a layout that fits your needs. The rest is applicable for all vehicles.
What are some of your biggest tips for people who are attempting van build-outs?
Spend a lot of time designing the layout before you get started—this is really crucial. For example, we both spearfish, Ben kite surfs, and we do a lot of hiking—so we knew we needed a lot of storage. We are in a warm climate, and we planned our "Big Lap" around the seasons, so we would always have lots of sun. We eat most meals outside, so we didn’t want to use our indoor space on a big table.
Others may take a different approach. Either way, you will save a lot of time by thinking through your plan in advance—and maybe even mapping it out on your floor using tape.
Also, make sure to select a hardware store that allows for refunds. That way you can buy a lot of extra nails, wood, and such. It’s no fun to run to the hardware store for the third time in a day just because you need a couple of nails.
What were some unexpected discoveries you made along the way?
Nothing in a van is at a straight angle. Unlike a house, or even a trailer, the walls all curve in toward the top. That made it especially tough when building cabinets (some needed to be custom vs. store-bought) and the shower (because it had to be waterproof). There are lots of tips in the book about how to address this.
What were some major pain points during the renovation, and how did you address them?
In order to save space inside the van, we decided to install our water tanks (clean and used water) underneath the van. We had to carefully secure the water tanks (once full, they weigh up to 200 pounds), and had to do some of the plumbing underneath the van, too. That can be pretty hard work, both when it comes to fitting under the van with room to work, and also holding your arms up above you for all of that work.
The shower was probably the most challenging for us. Since the van has no straight angles, cutting the waterproof sheets to fit the unique shape of our shower, and then securing them in place was definitely tougher than we thought. But, thankfully, by the end of it we were experts and hopefully people will learn from our mistakes and do better.
Did you have any prior experience with van conversions before?
Not at all. Most of the tools we used we had never used—or even heard of before. Thankfully, it doesn’t take many tools to convert a camper van.
Are van renovations something people with no prior experience can handle? How handy do you need to be to tackle a project like this?
Absolutely! We hadn’t ever done anything like this before—we had desk jobs. It really just requires some patience and willingness to try new things. It also helps to know that you are building your own home. How empowering is that? It’s such a rewarding feeling each night after finishing work on the van to know you are one step closer to that goal.
What are some words of advice for newbies who want to attempt a van transformation and hit the road?
There is no better time than the present. It’s easy to push off this big life transition until a "better time," but is what’s stopping you today really going to change? Van life has made our lives so much less expensive, less complicated, less tiresome, and richer than we could have ever imagined.
Van Build: A guide to designing, converting and self-building camper vans & motorhomes is now available as an e-book ($9) or a paperback ($39).
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