How to Build an Eco-Van

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Connecting Ecology and Vanlife

In society we often suppress the natural world and isolate ourselves from our ecosystem. We do this through climate control, cavernous homes, paved roads, clean water taps, and bright light with the flick of a switch. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is easy. So easy that we tend to spend a lot of time in isolation. An Environmental Protection Agency study says Americans spend upwards of 90% of our time inside. NINETY.

But in a van you hear the rain. You feel the dampness, and smell the cold; you wake up and emerge from your nest to be warmed and enlivened by sunshine. Vanlife reconnects us to the natural systems within our environment, by literally and physically bringing us back to it; back to the ecosystem. When you’re living out of a van, your sense of home extends to your campground, to the aspen grove next to you, and the lake down the road. And the more time you spend exploring your home, the more you learn about it. I think it’s this dynamic that makes vanlife an ecological choice.

Ecology is the study of the relationships of organisms to one another and to their surroundings. It’s often studied as an aspect of biology, but you can also study it as an existential system where every part both supports and is affected by the other parts. I call it existential because it literally describes the system of our human existence — we breathe air recycled by plants and eat food grown in stable weather — we both affect and are affected by so much of the ecosystem; of the natural world.

I think a lot of people decide to downsize and live nomadically because it breaks them out of their isolation and helps them understand the systems that give us life. By its nature, vanlife is an ecological action; a decision to learn from our system and to adjust the way we interact with the system, to our mutual benefit.

So if vanlife itself is ecological, can the van also be ecological?

Building an Ecological Van

To be completely honest, building the ‘the most ecological adventure van’ was not my original intention when I bought my empty cargo van.

It was my intention to build something that was meant to get me out into the wilderness. The van I chose was an exceptionally capable and rare, factory 4x4, GMC Savana Cargo. (I’ll write another article all about this van in the near future.) When I started to design the interior I knew that I wanted to craft the interior to be as capable as the exterior; durable enough to handle the water, mud, and sand that the backcountry could bring.

However, I have worked in the construction trades and I knew that building materials — especially those promising durability — tend to be pretty toxic. I struggled with the idea of using toxic materials to build a tiny van dwelling, both because living tiny was already an ecological choice and because this tiny dwelling’s purpose was to bring me to the wilderness; to healthy, natural spaces. It felt too dissonant, and I think that dissonance set off a mental chain reaction.

As I researched eco-friendly materials — local woods, toxin-neutralizing paint, F1 sustainable wool — an idea began to form: Was it possible to only build the van using non-toxic, natural, and sustainable materials? Challenge accepted ✓. But then I decided to go a step further, what other parts of the van build ‘system’ could I address ecologically?

Have you ever driven past a tree farm? It’s interesting to see trees lined up like corn, but it’s also a little unsettling. It stands out because it seems unnatural to have  P.E.R.F.E.C.T. rows of natural things - it’s just not how plants grow in the wild; they bend and shift, affecting others and being affected by others. I think the same principal can go for a building or a home. I wanted the van’s design and layout to feel ecological too. After significant research into natural principles of movement, energy, and  s p a c e , I decided to utilize the “golden ratio” - a fundamental mathematical constant which governs the spatial relation of objects to other objects - a truly ecological ratio.

But even with all this research, I found that building an ecological van is not just about choosing sustainable materials, or using natural design ratios, or even addressing my construction waste, (only one can for the entire build, btw. Just sayin’), the process needed to be ecological as well. I wanted to act ecologically; to be ecologically minded as I crafted my home.

Every day, when I walked down to the garage to work on the van, I was presented with choices to make. The constant throughout all those choices was a moral desire to take care; to bring intentionality and concern; to be able to tell you why I chose this over that. I also brought a willingness to take time; to pursue interests and curiosities; to be artful and playful; to let myself experience the project unfold.

Take care; take time. When I brought this intentionality into the process, the van build became an art project and an exploration of deep ecology; of seeing myself as part of the natural world; to accept the inherent value of the wild, the unknown, the ebb and flow of the environment guiding us.

Let’s make vanlife more ecological

There are so many ways you can incorporate ecological intentions, materials, and designs into your van build and I hope this website and my stories can support you in your work. I’m available to help you think through your options if you need support.

What’s most important, I think, is a motivation to ‘do right’ or act justly in actions; to be concerned with the effects you have on the systems you belong to. It’s easy to stay inside and close out the world and shelter ourselves from the complexity of our own natural existence, but let’s take a little more time and take a little more care. When your home is so small, and you only have so much space, every inch counts just a little more. Let’s make those inches as healthy, resilient, and ecological as possible.


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