Update #003 - To build a home...

Back in July 2016, I posted the last update about my bus/country-cottage-on-wheels conversion project. I think it’s about I time I fill you in on what’s been going on since then. Because there’s an awful lot to tell. 

I’m not quite finished, but for the first time, the finish line is in sight. Well, sort of anyway. This thing has become something of an odyssey, and to be honest I don’t think it will ever truly be finished. I’ll always be changing things, improving it, adapting it to better suit my needs at any given moment, but that’s fine by me. So when I say the finish line, what I mean is the moment when my original dream and vision for my new home has been realised and I can hang up my tools again ready and waiting for the next project. Really, when I can finally call this crazy place home, rather than a building site. I’m rather excited.

Before I delve into all the details though, I think it’s worth remembering how this all started. It seems like an eternity ago now, but in fact just over a year has gone by since I had a bit too much to drink one evening, ended up on eBay, and discovered to my delight the following morning that I’d gone and bought myself a bus. What a year it’s been. When I started work on the bus in mid-April, I was clueless. I had almost no practical DIY skills (such as how to use an angle grinder, or a chisel, or a circular saw). I had no money and was now homeless (having sold my previous abode - an old caravan - to pay for the bus). And to be frank, I had no real idea whether I’d be able to pull this thing off. All I knew was that it was a worth a shot. 

Words cannot describe how glad I am that I took that risk and took this project on. Because right now, as Storm Doris batters the country outside, I’m lying on my king-size bed, admiring my almost-finished creation, with the wood stove pumping out heat in the corner. I’m safe and sound, warm and toasty, and……well, just very comfortable indeed. This sure is an improvement on the tiny caravan I called home before.

The last time you heard from me, the place looked like this: 

Well, this is how it’s looking now…. 

This post should have really been written back in the autumn. Most of the work described below happened in July, August and September. My original deadline for the completion of this project was Yestival (October 22nd), to which I was hoping to bring the completed bus. However, things took a lot longer than anticipated and in the middle of September, I had to go back to work full-time putting the project on hold over the winter. It’s only really in the last few weeks that I’ve managed to make some further progress. 

Soon after posting my last post, I organised a bus-warming party for September 10th. I’d be going back to work on the following Monday, so this was the latest date I had to “move in” and a party was definitely needed. The only trouble was, there was a tonne of work to be done to get ready enough to host a party and sleepover, and only 8 weeks in which to do it. I was also running out of money at this point, so my weekends were all booked up out on the festival circuit trying to bring in some much-needed cash. Not much time then.

Things didn’t get off to a good start. The keener eyed among you may have noticed in the main photo from my last post (and the first photo above) that the window to the right of the picture is a little frosty. I didn’t mention it at the time because I was still so annoyed with myself for letting it happen, but I’d manage to smash it while doing some midnight maintenance. Late one night, I noticed a tiny water leak coming from one of the air vents at the back of the bus and decided to do something about it. Unfortunately, I was a little sleep deprived and didn’t think twice about reaching for the nearest tool to try and lever the vent off so I could get a better look underneath. Frustratingly, that tool was a metal file. I should have known better and found something more suitable, but I couldn’t be bothered. Big mistake. As soon as I put some pressure on it, the file snapped in two and one half shot across the room (narrowly missing my eye) and hit the window. Thankfully, it was safety glass so didn’t shatter but nevertheless it would still need replacing, and I was not a happy chap. Luckily, I’d been planning on blocking off that particular window anyway. I’d just have to spend a lot more money and time doing it now that I’d been so careless. Rather than get a replacement window at a cost of over £500, I instead engineered (with the help of the indomitable Chris Barnes) an alternative solution: an aluminium box section frame covered with aluminium sheeting, spray painted black. Once that was in, I just filled gaps in the frame with Celotex insulation and covered the internal wall with plywood and a vapour barrier, as I had planned to do anyway. The other windows were a little easier to cover up. I had bought some blackout window film and Chris and I spent an afternoon trying to get to grips with it, using washing up liquid and a window cleaning squeegee to paste the thing onto the window without there being any creases. Being a novice, I'd made the mistake earlier in the demolition process of not covering the windows while I was angle-grinding so we discovered that tiny specs of metal had embedded themselves into the glass of my windows. This made it almost impossible to get the film on crinkle free but we did a pretty good job eventually. 

With the obsolete windows blocked off, I set about putting in place the rest of the plywood panelling to cover the wall sections I’d already framed and insulated. While doing this, I realised I hadn’t yet decided where to put my plug sockets or made any effort to wire them in yet. That’s the trouble with a project like this: so many tasks rely upon you making decisions about other parts of the project that you haven’t even thought about yet, before you can proceed with the job in hand. In one swift move, I went from wall panelling to electrical installation. From the outset, I’ve been set on having a fully kitted out housebus, with full electrics, plumbing, and gas. This thing’s not going to be a toy. It’s going to be a country cottage that just happens to be sitting on a set of wheels. With the sockets then, I wanted a pretty versatile setup, able to handle any number of appliances in every part of the bus, without having to run extension leads everywhere. Nonetheless, I didn’t want the place to look like a corporate office either. I just want to be able to welcome onboard a touring rock band should I ever fancy it, and there be enough sockets for everyone to plug their amps into. This desire, however, made quite hard work of installing the sockets - there are six switchless single sockets in the living room, six more double sockets on the stage, one double in the bedroom, a few in the kitchen, one in the utility cupboard and two on the outside underneath the bus. Overkill, perhaps? We’ll see. To install each one, I had to add some extra timber supports in the wall, drill holes for the cabling to run through, cut a hole in the insulation, another hole in the front panel, fit the socket backer box, feed the wires through, and repeat. Sixteen times. For those interested, I used 1.5mm 3-core arctic flex for my cabling, and ran a ring main down either side of the bus and used radial circuits for the others. As a heads-up to anyone doing a similar project, I made the mistake of testing the cables fitted through the holes I had drilled in the timber frame before securing the front panel, then waiting a week or two before wiring them up only to find the timber had shrunk and the cables no longed fitted. Live and learn. 

Now might be a good time to brew yourself a cup (maybe even a pot) of tea, because this post is LONG. 

With a good chunk of the panelling done, and sockets in place, I decided to take on a big, exciting task that would take the project to a whole new level. Something like building the bathroom and kitchen. The first job in the bathroom/kitchen area was to remove the internal windows connecting the living quarters to the porch, and block up the holes with insulation and 12mm ply (recycled from the YesBus). Once this was done, the living quarters were now self contained and insulated on the floor and all four walls (minus a front door). 

Next came the stud wall separating the bathroom from the hallway and living room. Originally I had planned the bathroom and kitchen to be on opposite sides to how they are now but after reworking the layout hundreds of times, I realised that the space available for a full size shower with the bathroom in its original place was too small. It would look weird with the shower cubicle jutting out into the living room, so instead I switched the bathroom and kitchen around. This has worked out wonderfully and the bathroom is now one of my proudest bits of the bus. We built the stud wall pretty quickly, leaving enough room for a full size 800x800 shower and a large toilet area too. While doing this, I realised that the new plywood end wall would be the ideal place from which to hang my hot water boiler, and decided that this whole space between the end wall and the toilet area (above the wheel arch) should become my utility cupboard. Having the majority of the utilities located in one convenient place would make everything much easier. However, it also meant that I couldn’t do much more work on the bathroom until the utilities were installed. This began in earnest in early August. 

First up was the gas. I’d decided early on that while I wanted to do the bulk of the work on this project myself, the gas installation I would leave to the pros. Fortunately, my step-dad is plumbing and heating engineer so I could get a safe and well-designed LPG system installed without having to fork out hundreds of pounds to hire somebody in. This was a godsend and I’m eternally grateful for his help. I spent days designing a suitable system that would provide instant hot water for my shower and kitchen tap, and power my oven and hobs too. It took a day to get the copper piping in and install a changeover valve for the gas bottles in the rear locker of the bus. It then took another couple of days to install the water heater, and connect up the oven.

Next came the plumbing. Again, having my step-dad as an experienced plumber helped, but really I did most of the plumbing myself. I designed a system that in theory would do all the things I wanted, ran it past him to improve it a bit, and then set about ordering the components and fitting it all together. Using plastic push fit components meant I didn’t have to do any soldering or pipe bending, but instead could just put all the pieces into place and add new sections as when I needed them without too much effort. It’s not too far off putting together some Ikea flatpack furniture. My plumbing system allows me to live both on and off grid. Most of the time, my bus is parked on a piece of land that I rent where I have access to mains water, electricity, and sewage. But it’s a bus, and buses are designed to go places, and so that means it also needs to be fully and comfortably liveable while I’m parked in a lay-by somewhere in the depths of the Scottish Highlands, far from anywhere, without access to a tap. On the side of the bus, I’ve installed a mains water connection point to which you can connect a standard garden hose. Inside the bus, 15mm pipes then run down both sides of the living quarters to the front bathroom and kitchen area and also to the back, underneath my bed, where my 450-litre potable water tank will live. The idea is that when I’m connected to the mains, my kitchen sink and shower are fed from that but the moment it is disconnected, the water pump automatically switches on and water is then supplied from the tank. To refill the tank, I’ll just switch a valve which lets the mains water back flow into the tank. I think it’s going to be pretty neat, though I haven’t got around to installing the tank yet. 

The 240V electrical setup is similar. I have 16A and 32A mains plugs (switchable) on the underside of the bus, just inside one of the side hatches. This connects to a small consumer unit, which in turn connects to a large consumer unit (via a SPDT relay) and a 13A socket. A 12V battery charger is plugged into the socket and this keeps the battery bank topped up when I’m plugged into the mains. On the main consumer unit, there are a couple of RCDs and currently five socket circuits on MCBs. Also plugged into the relay is my 3000W inverter, which allows the consumer unit (and therefore all the sockets) to be powered off of the 12v batteries when the mains electricity is disconnected. The best bit? I don’t have to give it any thought whatsoever, as the relay automatically switches to the inverter when the mains connection is unplugged, and vice versa. 

If you’re wondering where the biggest costs are on a project like this, herein lies your answer. My electrical, gas and plumbing setup cost me over £3000 in total. To some of you that might not seem like a lot, but considering my entire original budget for the project was £5k, this came as quite a shock. It’s paying off in bucket loads though and I couldn’t be happier with the result. Because the result is that this converted bus really doesn’t feel like a converted bus. It has all the mod cons you’d expect from a 21st century home.

Before I started this project, I’d been spending half my year in an old caravan and the other half on the back of a pushbike, living out of a couple of panniers. I loved the simple life this forced me to embrace, but to wash or do the dishes, I’d have to boil the kettle on a gas hob or camping stove every single time and it became a bit of a bore. So you can imagine my delight when for the first time in over two and a half years, I turned on my kitchen tap to get endless instant scorching hot water. And it’s as good as free (£28 of propane has lasted me three months - running a full cooker, shower and kitchen tap). It still makes me smile every time I turn on the tap. Who would have thought that such a simple thing could provide so much joy?! I must be careful not to take it for granted now.

By the end of August, most of the aforementioned plumbing and electrical work had been completed and I was counting down the days until my bus-warming party. The trouble was, there was still a mountain of work to do before I could move in. I didn’t even have a bed yet! But there’s nothing like a good deadline to motivate yourself, so in the two weeks leading up to the party, I ticked off a serious chunk of my very long to-do list. I laid my bamboo floorboards, built my bed, fitted my oak floorboards on the stage, built my kitchen cabinets, and many other things. 

One of the first things I bought after I acquired the bus itself was a dozen packs of engineered bamboo floor boards. I got them on the cheap as they were part of a clearance sale at a flooring supplier. Little did I know at the time that I would have to spend two months replacing the entire subfloor of the bus before I could even think about laying them, but it was worth the wait and instantly made the bus look homely. It was a faff cutting out the hatches and I rushed it all a little but it did the job at the time. 

With the kitchen, I just focused on putting together the main bits (the base frame, cabinets and worktop) before the party. Mind you, just doing that wasn’t easy. It meant making a lot of concrete decisions about where I’d want my sink in relation to my oven, how big my cupboards would be and where they would be located, and silly things like how much space I’d want either side of my fridge. It turns out there’s a whole science behind kitchen dimensions and there were various things I hadn’t initially taken into account (like having a toekick) that made all the difference in the end. Rather than buying an off the shelf flat pack kitchen as others have done, I decided to custom build mine. Months before, I had purchased some key components, such as a gorgeous Scandinavian solid walnut worktop (a steal at just £56), a beautiful big Belfast sink (£62), a cooker and a very classy under-counter fridge/freezer, and so the wooden base unit had to be fitted around these. There was also the challenge of building it over one of the wheel arches while providing enough support for the heavy worktop and sink. Of course, there were also all the other things I had to take into account, such as ensuring there was a suitable route for the sink waste pipe to take to where the waste water tank will be going, and making sure there would be room behind the sink to install and maintain the tap connections. I put a socket underneath the worktop for the fridge and cooker on a separate circuit so that if the rest of the sockets trip, the fridge will remain on and the freezer won’t defrost. I’ve ended up with a kitchen that is just the right size to allow me to store everything I need to store, and cook anything I’d want to cook. It’s pretty damn sexy too. I just need to build some overhead cabinets, and fit some shelves and cupboard doors.

Building the bed was also a major milestone for me. Since the build began, I’d been sleeping in pretty much a new place each night. Once the seats had been ripped out, I had set up camp on the rear bench, but this quickly became uncomfortable. I then borrowed a single mattress and slept on that for quite a while, but once I had ripped the floor up there was no longer anywhere to put it. So I moved into the rear locker. This was comfortable and less draughty than the floorless bus but I kept on locking myself in by mistake and had to be rescued a number of times. Eventually, I moved back inside but had to move the mattress every day as I made further progress with the floor replacement project. Long story short, I was camping on a building site and it wasn't much fun. With a bed built in, I would have a consistent place to sleep each night. Not one for doing anything by halves, I built myself the biggest bed I could: a kingsize. Although I’m currently single, I’m hoping that at some stage a girlfriend will move in, so I thought it best to keep my options open! Plus, who wants to sleep in a single bed? I’m not a kid anymore! I built the bed out of 2x2 and 3x2 softwood timber, bolted to the floor and rear wall but with ample space underneath for several large drawers and most importantly, my water tank. I’m planning to erect a wall at the end of my bed soonish to separate the bedroom from the rest of the bus, and give me some space for bookshelves.

As I explained in my last post, the stage was designed to allow me to place my piano and desk over the rear wheel arches. Rather than have a walkway between them, it made sense to use this space for storage (guitar storage to be exact) and install floorboards on top with a hatch allowing me access underneath. The floorboards I ended up using are beautiful old oak boards that a friend of mine found, covered in sheep poo in the corner of an abandoned barn. He had had his eye on them for a while and knew they could be put to better use so we salvaged them, cleaned them up (that was fun) and had the edges planed so they’d fit neatly beside each other on the stage. Between us, my buddy Andy and I spent a good day or two sanding them down so they provide a smooth surface on which to walk upon. And boy do they look the part.

The last big task I took on before the party was the ceiling. I cut out three holes in the aluminium roof and mounted ultra-quiet PC fans underneath the holes, which I have wired into the 12v electrical system, and then riveted chrome mushroom vents on the top to keep the rain out. I then insulated the whole ceiling with 25mm Celotex insulation and taped up the gaps with aluminium tape.

And then, with a few hours to spare, I moved in. In came my piano, in came my almost-new king size mattress (which cost me just £5.50 - you gotta love eBay!), in came the cushions I’d had custom made for my still-to-be-built living room seats. I had also bought some M8 eye bolts to screw into the threads in the roof joists that the luggage racks were originally attached to, so that my friends could securely swing hammocks across the bus. The bus-warming party was a resounding success, and the stage was put to good use as we had an impromptu (very drunken) piano concert featuring yours truly. From what I can remember, there were about six of us actually sleeping on/in the bus that night but there was plenty of room for more and I'm looking forward to playing the "how many people can you fit in a...." game next time I host a get-together here. There was still a lot to do of course, but it had come a long way. Before the party started, I printed out a set of photos of the build so far and it came as a shock even to me just how far we’d come in less than six months. I was very proud, and very happy. 

After I’d recovered from that, I set about making my bus a little more homely and finishing some of the things I hadn’t managed to get done in time, such as cutting out the worktop around the sink and plumbing in the tap. There wasn't much to show for my work during the following month except for two things: the lighting/ceiling, and the shower room.

The shower makes me smile every morning. Not only because it's wonderfully hot and high pressured, but because I went against all advice on this one and it turned out being one of the coolest bits of the bus. While scavenging in skips in the Cotswolds (where people seem to throw out ridiculously expensive things without a care in the world), I came across an old stainless steel kitchen sink. I'd always planned on having a Belfast sink in my kitchen so there was no real need for me to salvage this particular item but I quite liked it and thought I could probably sell it if I couldn't find a use for it myself. Thankfully I found a use for it in a quite an unlikely way. Rather than do what I was originally intending to do with my bathroom, which was to install a reinforced ceramic shower tray, and put up off-the-shelf splash panels, I decided to turn it into a tiled wetroom instead with my scavenged kitchen sink forming part of the shower tray. With its pre-existing drain and overflow, it was ideal and by a complete stroke of luck, it fitted perfectly into the hole between the wheel arch and one of the flooring joists where I'd planned to put the shower cubicle. This solved another problem I'd been battling with: lack of headroom in the shower (because of the curved ceiling). Now, with the sink set down into the floor of the bus, I could step down into it and be given an extra 20cm of headroom, allowing me to wash properly. I haven't got around to cladding it yet (can't decide between tiles or cedar shiplap) but the shower has been functioning for months now and the whole room is tanked with wet-room solution so that I can splash about as much as I like! You have to see it to believe it, but it really is pretty great. 

Like everything in my new home, I wanted the lighting system to be as flexible and multipurpose as possible, whilst also being energy efficient and cheap to run, so I decided upon 12V LED lights in "warm-white". Although the bus is really an open plan space, I wanted the feeling of different areas so there are separate lighting circuits for the hallway, the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, the stage, and the bedroom, plus a couple of outside lights and a porch light. Wiring these up properly took a few attempts. Because I had already insulated the ceiling, the lighting circuits had to sit on top of the insulation board which meant it was much easier to accidentally screw into the wires when putting up the ceiling panels (which I did a couple of times - short-circuiting them!). So I ended up removing all the insulation, installing the wiring again and then resealing the insulation. Twice. After the lighting circuits were in and I was happy with them, I could attach the plywood panels on top and put in place the actual light fittings. This was a bitch to do on my own, but doing things on your own forces you to invent ingenious ways of doing things. Over the course of a few days, I used a number of different bits of furniture (plus various parts of my body) to hold the ceiling panels up while I simultaneously piloted holes and screwed them up. 

I then set about the task of just living and trying not to do anything else on the bus. This was harder than I had imagined but also very rewarding. I'd recommend to anybody building their own home to take some time out at some point during the build to just live in it, no matter how unfinished it is. Because you learn things. You learn things such as where to store your food in the most convenient place for cooking and where you naturally reach to find your pots and pans. You learn that it's super annoying having to walk to the front of the bus to the light switch panel to turn off the bedroom light last thing at night and then walk back up the length of the bus in the dark. You learn all manner of other things, and these insights allow you to change things before it's too late, and I'm very glad I did this (even if it was never planned).

I then moved out for 10 weeks to go and work distributing Christmas trees in London, as I do every winter. This was an equally interesting exercise as it allowed me to experience life in a normal(ish) house again and reevaluate my decision to live in a bus. It also gave me time to think about my progress so far, and reenergise me for the next big push. My reevaluation came to the same conclusion though - living in a bus was the only way forward for me, as spending £150 a week on rent instead of £80 a month was just plain ridiculous. 

Back from Christmas, I set to work again. Now I had a new deadline: April 1st. On April 1st, I’m leaving on a 3-4 month bicycle expedition across the Middle East and Central Asia (you can follow me on that trip at nickfromengland.com). 

This deadline I might actually make. I had a few weeks off in February to recuperate from the Christmas madness, and made some good progress. I also had a new workshop. With my post-Christmas bonus, I treated myself to my very own 20ft shipping container which I've put on the land I'm renting. It doesn't sound like much but has made work on the bus so much easier as I don't have to turn my home into a building site every time I want to do something. This new setup will really come into its own when I get started my next major project (which I'm super excited about, but best finish this one first). 

To get me back in the swing of the things, I built an additional front step in the bus's porch, to hide the hot water piping from my boiler to the kitchen tap and some wires, and also to provide some cold dry storage for my root vegetables! I then ripped up the nice bamboo floorboards I'd put down before the party, and relaid them doing a proper job this time rather than rushing to get it done. This meant installing a vapour layer (which I'd forgotten to do first time around) and installing some higher quality underlay. I still haven't finished off the engine access hatches though, but we're getting there. I also ripped the ceiling down and started again with that as again I'd rushed it. During my living-but-not-working-on-the-bus period, condensation kept on building up on the aluminium ceiling joists overnight and then dripping back down during the day. Cold bridging is a problem I knew about from the beginning but to see it happening in reality was sobering to say the least. My solution was to cover the entire ceiling in a sheet of foam flooring underlay which had a vapour barrier built into it. I did some tests beforehand and it seems to do the trick. This added extra of insulation also helps keep the warmth in. 

Talking of warmth, now my wood burner is in, there is tonnes of it. And all that hard work insulating the place is paying off. Way back in August, I spent £400 on a beautiful little Franco Belge Belfort stove enamelled in green, and then before Christmas another few hundred pounds on the twin wall flue system. My brother then came up for a day to help me install it and the difference it makes to the place is incredible. This was the last major functional component of the home build to tick off my list. Now I have warmth whenever I need/want it, hot water, cold water, lights, 240v electricity, 12v electricity, a fully working cooker and hob, and everything just works. It's more than superb. 

The only things really left to do are make it aesthetically pleasing. That means cladding it in spruce matchboard and pallet wood, finish off a few little things such as the floor hatches, the window surrounds, some cupboard doors for my kitchen, and hang my front door. Oh, and build some seating for the living room. 

If you've made it this far, thanks for hanging in there and I'd appreciate your comments below. I'll write a final post when I reach the finish line, but for now I've got to crack on. Let the cladding begin....

As a final note, I'm toying with the idea of letting somebody live here/look after the place for three to four months while I'm away travelling. Get in touch if you fancy it and maybe we can come to some kind of an arrangement. :)