How to build an Eco-Friendly Campervan
As we gear up to convert our second Sprinter Van-home, we find ourselves again deep in research mode, trying to figure out all the details. Despite being a small space with relatively few options, building out a van still involves all the same basic components of any home, and there are a million decisions to be made in this process. From flooring to water system, paint colors to countertops, electrical systems to mattresses, it can get overwhelming!
As we went through this process on our first Sprinter, I wanted to make sure we kept sustainability in mind along the way. Unfortunately, eco-friendly options are still relatively limited in the construction world, and even more so in the van conversion world. I’ve found that making sustainable choices while building out a van may require thinking outside the box, just like in the rest of life. We live in a materialistic society, where low prices, mass production, and convenience rule, so making the environment a priority in your construction project (of any size) will not always be the most straightforward process, and will probably also raise an eyebrow or two.
That being said, with a bit of creativity and patience, I was able to make numerous eco-minded choices that I was really happy with on our first van build, without compromising too much on functionality and design. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at a few new options available just two years later as we gear up to build another van. Stay tuned for more details as we get into our build process for some of the improvements and innovative products we’re finding along the way.
As for our experiences thus far, more details and photos documenting our first Sprinter conversion can be found in the individual ‘build’ posts that are divided into relevant sections on our blog. I’ll link to those posts below.
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Note: this post is about our first Sprinter Van, which we bought in May 2016, converted, lived/traveled in, and sold May 2018. If you are looking for info about our second Sprinter/current project, please check the dates of the post and make sure you're reading posts from after May 2018. Cheers!
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are already interested enough in sustainability to know *why* to take it into consideration during a construction project, but if this is a new concept to you, I'll do my best to sum up. There are various aspects/ reasons to incorporate sustainable practices and materials into a conversion. First off is impact on the environment. Wherever possible, we tried to use materials that are natural and harvested sustainably, and/or carry a small footprint. We also considered the indoor air quality inside the van. It’s a small space where we spend a lot of time sleeping, cooking, eating, driving, and hanging out, so filling it with off-gassing cancerous chemicals was not super appealing. Another thing to consider is waste. We do our best to avoid single-use plastics (and disposable products with a short life-span in general), so why wouldn’t we do the same with our van? In general, I find that eco-friendly companies pay more attention to things like packaging and life-span of their products (and disposal at the end of their useful life). Natural products make disposal of waste easy--having multiple manufacturers tell me to put leftover materials (like insulation and paint!) ‘on your compost pile’ makes me feel *much* better about the resources I’m consuming, even if we don't actually have a compost pile (because, well, we live in a van)!
This is something that we spent a lot of time researching on our first build. After a lot of reading, question asking and Youtube watching, we ended up settling on wool insulation. We chose wool because of its excellent insulating and sound-dampening properties, and its ability to handle moisture well. One of the other eco-friendly options that we’ve seen people use in vans is denim/ recycled cotton, and although it’s a reclaimed material, we were concerned about moisture and issues with settling.
The wool was pretty darn easy to install and remarkably adaptable to a Sprinter’s many contours, nooks, and crannies. This time around, we were excited to discover a US manufacturer of wool batts. We’ll be using Havelock wool (based in Reno, NV) for our second conversion. Havelock’s website has the best summary we’ve seen of all the advantages of wool insulation. They also have a great vanlife-specific page, where they address the differences in insulation options, and quantities of wool needed to insulate various types of vans. The guys at Havelock have been incredibly helpful so far (they have their own Sprinter, so they 'get it'-- and have experience insulating a van), and we’re really excited to see how their insulation compares to the wool batts we used last time.
Whether you’re planning a permanent bed or a modular system, fancy custom cabinets or basic boxes, there will be some framing materials involved in your van conversion. The most environmentally-friendly option for framing/ organization is probably to use what you already have or to reclaim durable materials that would otherwise go to waste. In our first van build, we used a few reclaimed materials (like our countertops, barnwood flooring, redwood drawer faces, and trim), but for our design we ended up needing quite a bit of virgin lumber as well. Whenever we could, we used FSC certified wood in our build. Check with your local hardware store (or browse their website--Home Depot lists all of this info on their product pages)to find out if they carry FSC-certified wood.
The majority of the reclaimed materials that we used in our build came from local woodworkers who had salvaged wood from demolition and construction projects. We ended up buying material for our countertop from a local woodworker I found on Craigslist, as well as barnwood flooring and trim. As a bonus, he installed our flooring for us, saving us valuable hours when we were really crunched for time on our build. We sanded and finished all the wood in the van ourselves, including the butcher block-style countertops that were made of a reclaimed glulam beam. Our carpenter friend Dave was also a great resource for reclaimed materials. Some of the framing pieces we used inside our cabinetry were scrap pieces Dave had laying around in the garage. He also had some really cool reclaimed redwood that he had salvaged from a deck that he replaced a couple years prior. We used the redwood on our drawer faces and trim on our cabinets.
We also used some sheet metal that a friend had laying around in his yard to line our oven cabinet and cover our outdoor cooking shelf. We used a grinder to rough up the faces of the metal, and loved how it turned out.
Craigslist can be a great resource to find free or reasonably-priced salvaged materials in your area. Some cities also have 'thrift' stores that are centered around reclaiming building materials. Local woodworkers and carpenters may also know where you could find reasonably priced (or free) and reused materials for your van. Google and word of mouth is your friend here.
To finish all the wood in our van, we wanted to use natural materials wherever possible. Our countertop is finished in a homemade beeswax/walnut oil finish which is 100% natural, non-toxic, relatively water resistant, and smells great. I made the recipe out of a couple simple ingredients, some of them available locally, and reconditioned our cutting boards and wooden spoons at the same time. Bonus is that it smells great and moisturizes your hands for days after you apply it. This is obviously something that needs to be treated with a little more TLC than a countertop sealed with polyurethane, but we found it held up surprisingly well to abuse, and we were able to just sand it down and re-apply after a year or two when it needed a revamp.
We finished the reclaimed barnwood flooring and trim in our first van with all-natural 100% pure tung oil thinned with citrus (or pine) solvent, sold pre-mixed as ‘Half & Half’ from the Real Milk Paint Company. The Baltic birch cabinetry is ‘stained’ with all-natural milk paint in a few colors, and sealed with a coat of the same half tung oil/half citrus solvent from Real Milk Paint. Milk paint is commonly used for crafts and vintage furniture restoration these days, but has been used for all sorts of painting in some form for thousands of years. These finishes are all not only ‘no VOC’ and non-toxic, they are 100% natural and biodegradable, including the bright, fun colors that are so unique. They literally say to pour any leftover paint on your garden when you’re done with it.
We are currently researching additional eco-friendly options for finishes in our next van. Stay tuned to see what we’ll end up using in our next build.
Out of all the sustainable components of our first build, our water system probably took the most thinking outside the box. Most people either just hook up a standard RV water tank to a water pump and faucet, or use portable plastic jerry cans or jugs to create a removable system. As I brainstormed about this aspect of our home, I kept coming back to a big problem: I didn’t want our water coming out of a hose and sitting in a plastic tank before we drank it. Although that 'hose' taste reminds me of playing in the yard as a child, it also reminds me that all that plastic is probably leaching nasty chemicals into the water.
As I was searching for an alternative to plastic jugs, I came across another option online: a glass jug you would use in a home brewing kit (better known as a carboy). We ended up building our ‘water’ cabinet around a 5-gallon carboy, and devising a copper-and cork pickup tube to avoid plastic tubing in the glass jug (that would have sort of defeated the whole glass thing). We did still have to incorporate a small amount of plastic flexi-hose between the cork and the pump (due mostly to the manufacturer’s specs for the water pump), but at least the plastic isn’t sitting in our drinking water all day long. This system has worked great for us, and we’ll be incorporating another carboy into our next build. When we want to fill it up, we just pull the glass jug out and take it in to a friend’s house or one of those drinking water ‘vending machines’ in grocery stores, gas stations, etc.
We installed a permanent electric system in our van that harnesses the sun’s energy via photovoltaics (aka solar panels) and stores that energy in large deep cycle batteries. Although I love utilizing energy from the sun rather than fossil fuels, the components of this system are very resource-intensive and involves a lot of products that probably aren’t considered the most eco-friendly regardless of how much solar energy they use. Green Energy has its downsides too, and it’s something I hope technology continues to improve as time goes on.
And that brings up a good point: there are many resources involved in converting a van of any sort, and the footprint of living in a vehicle is still pretty large. If we wanted to be even more sustainable, living in a small, off-grid home where we could walk everywhere and grow our own food would probably be a much more eco-friendly option. Traveling frequently increases our footprint dramatically. And although a new Sprinter van has relatively great fuel economy for such a large vehicle, it still burns fossil fuels and we drive a lot of miles every year! In addition, we chose to build out a new van, the manufacture of which has a huge impact. Building out the vehicle you already have or investing in a used van might be a more earth-conscious option, but for us a new Sprinter was the best choice for a variety of other reasons. We’re not perfect by any means, and we don’t consider ourselves the most eco-friendly humans on the planet. However, we do our best to make sustainable choices and do the best we can with what we’ve got.
We’d love to hear how you’ve taken sustainability into consideration in your construction project (we're obsessed with green building ideas whether they relate to tiny houses, buses, airstreams, earthships or commercial spaces!). Please let us know your thoughts and send us links, ideas, or cool projects.
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