Natural & Non-Toxic Materials
Having worked in the construction trade in the past, I knew building materials could be very toxic, especially if they aren’t handled properly. Insulation, adhesives, and paints can be particularly bad for you, especially during the construction phase, but can also off-gas carcinogens for years.
Knowing that I’d be sleeping in this small, enclosed box and bringing this tiny dwelling to some of the most pristine environments on Earth, it seems especially appropriate to limit the number of toxic, chemically-processed materials in the build. But, I wanted to go a few steps further. Could I build this van using ONLY natural and non-toxic materials.
The answer was yes, but it wasn’t as cheap, or easy as those DIY van build videos you’ve watched on youtube. I spent the better part of four months researching materials, learning about manufacturing processes, and sustainable building best practices, before ordering my materials and starting the build phase.
I looked to LEED certification criteria to guide my build, but wherever possible I went above and beyond the highest requirements. If the US Green Building Council awarded certification to vehicles, the VITRUVIAN VAN would easily obtain its highest platinum level certification.
Custom passive insulation
One of the most significant challenges of building the VITRUVIAN VAN out of only natural and non-toxic materials was sourcing appropriate insulation. If you’ve done some van-building research you’ve probably seen lots of people use regular pink or yellow fiberglass insulation and more recently many people are looking to spray foam and its planar cousin foam board, which is made of either Polyisocyanurate (PolyISO), Extruded Polystyrene (XPS), and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS).
Unfortunately each of these chemical foams have their individual detriments which make them less than ideal for your health and the environment, with the most popular variety, PolyISO, the foam off-gasses HFCs that are more than 1,000 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. You may have also seen people using shredded denim or pulled sheep’s wool. Both of these are great options for stationary houses, but on a bumpy road tend to settle overtime. Denim can attract moisture which can degrade the material and provide a home for mold, and wool, while much more durable, also eagerly wicks moisture, and when trapped in a wall can lead to mold and rust.
After many, many hours of research and I was able to source a renewable, 100% natural and biodegradable closed cell foam board that repels moisture, breathes, and inhibits mold, mildew, and insects. I then adhered perforated, recycled aluminum to the surfaces of the board and built a floating, double-wall. This design is entirely eco- and human-friendly, insulates as well as chemical foams and also blocks out ALL radiant heat generated by the metal of the van exterior.
on & Off-Road performance
Part of the purpose of the VITRUVIAN VAN is to get me out into the wilderness for photography and art projects. In the past I have traveled and adventured in SUVs and Subarus with four-wheel-drive and I knew that I needed the van to be just as capable. The only factory four-wheel-drive system available on a van in the United States is on newer model Mercedes Sprinters. These are rear-wheel-drive vans that can engage font, independent axles after coming to a stop, and can also be shifted into a low gear for steep descents and inclines. These start new around $50,000 and you’d be lucky to find a new or used on for sale anywhere in the US.
The alternative is spending $15,000-$20,000 on an aftermarket conversion from Sportsmobile, Quigley, U-Joint or other third part outfitters. Again, you’ll be lucky to get a spot in their production schedule, and could be waiting a year or more. Oh, and many outfitters ONLY accept new vans. Your last option is to buy a used van that had previously been converted. Or is it…
General Motors actually built all-wheel-drive versions of their two vans, the Safari/Astro and the Savana/Express for a few years in the early 2000’s and stopped entirely in 2014. Again, these in good condition are incredibly rare, but after four months of searching across the country I was able to find a great deal on a 2010 GMC Savana with full-time all-wheel-drive. This means that even when I’m driving on the highway, I’m getting the stability and performance of four powered-wheels, unlike EVERY other 4x4 van. While I don’t have the option for low-range, the van is already geared low as a truck, and my model also came with the G-80 automatic locking rear differential, which actually makes my factory van more versatile than any of the above options, balancing performance evenly between on-road and off-road.
I learned years ago, long before building this van, that living in a small space meant that everything needed multiple uses. As mentioned frequently on the design page, I endeavored to create adaptable s p a c e for a changing set of conditions and needs. In doing this, I am able to be more flexible in the use of the van. If I am going for a very long adventure, perhaps I will carry more power storage or water. If I am going for the weekend, perhaps I would rather fill those spaces with gear and equipment.
The main feature of many vans is the bed, and the VITRUVIAN VAN is no exception. When you open the barn doors on the side, you are greeted by a 5-way convertible dinette. You can easily seat two to four people around the large, free-floating walnut table, or slide the seats out to fit four to six.
When it’s time to relax after dinner, I can drop the walnut table down from its custom bracket to form a large couch with massive views out the side doors. After sunset, I can lift a cushion to reveal a hidden cedar chest holding all my bedding, transforming the couch into a generous single bed. Again, with a quick slide of the seat areas, and the placement of a leaf, the bed extends another 10.5”, cantilevering the living space and creating a cozy bed for two. All the hardware was 100% custom made, and can be converted in less than a minute.
The advancement of the vanlife movement has put unfamiliar tools into the hands of many adventurers, and the results are impressive. Folks familiar with the DIY movement will be familiar with the ‘bed-over-gear-garage’ floorpan, or the ‘rear-dinette-and-facing-couches’ design, or most famously, the Westfalia-style rear futon and front dinette layout.
There are obvious benefits to each style, but with the exception of, perhaps, the Westfalia-style, they are designed to bring the comforts of home to the van. Your van might feel like a small condo, but was the space utilized as fully as possible? Was it designed like a stationary home, or like a van that will bump down the backroads?
The VITRUVIAN VAN was designed as a van, not as a house. Every dimension was considered for ease of movement, visual flow, and practical use. Further, it engineered to withstand the twists and bumps of backroad travel. Everything is built from 2x3s and held together with excessive amounts of torx screws and space-grade adhesive.
For much, much, MUCH more on the design of the VITRUVIAN VAN, check out the design page.