Now that I’m not teaching, I’ve had to find a project to keep busy with. And what that has turned out to be is a DIY Sprinter cargo-van-to-RV conversion. It’s certainly kept me busy and I’m not done yet.
I first became aware of Sprinter vans around 2006 and was immediately struck by their potential adaptability for RVs. But that was long before my time. In 2015, when I sold my house, I bought a used RV: a 22-foot Class C. And I got a lot of use out of it over the next three years, spending four months of each summer in it. That gave me a pretty good sense of what I wanted and how I used an RV. Despite my extensive enjoyment of that unit, it was a pig to drive. And I found the interior to be very inappropriately designed, at least for me. So, an idea began to take form: build my own the way I wanted it. This would satisfy my desire to feel active as a designer and it would give me a chance to put my woodworking skills back to use.
I sold the Class C in the fall of 2017 and planned on starting to build its replacement in the spring. I was offered the use of a wood shop out West and that’s where I went in February. It turned out that the shop wasn’t available as expected and I didn’t get the use of it until July. In the meantime, I bought a van and started to do what I could. I bought the long wheelbase/ high roof model because I wanted a bathroom and a decent kitchen and to be able to stand up when using them. Plus, adequate storage for long term occupation.
The shorter model would park more easily and use less fuel, but I made that trade-off. This was just the beginning of the kinds of compromises that this project would typify. I had new windows put into the cargo door and the space opposite, behind the driver which included a smaller awning window with screens. I also had smaller windows that slide open installed in the back panels. I sourced a fresh water tank and ones for both grey water and black water and had them installed. And I had plenty of time to design and redesign.
I had this project in mind for some time and for research, and I had visited RV dealerships, both here and in Europe and also asked to inspect the interiors of other RVs that I found myself camping beside. I went to a very large RV show in Dusseldorf, Germany, which was very worthwhile. There are, by now, plenty of RVs built commercially using Sprinters as a starting point.
Many of these just use the cab and chassis, building a new box behind. The principal benefit of this approach is to be able to orient the bed across the van, instead of along its length, saving quite a bit of space. But this gets back to a bigger and heavier unit and I wanted to avoid that.
The internet also made me aware of the fact that my ambitions were not unique. Others had been doing DIY conversions and in fact, there was now a whole industry supporting this interest. Many of these are intended for shorter time usage, supporting other outdoor activities like biking and their owners are typically not yet retired. So their designs differed but I’ve benefited for the network of suppliers and up-fitters that support this emerging market.
My design is a more conventional RV, with its bathroom and kitchen. I choose a design and construction approach that more closely resembles nautical work than is conventional, although I wasn’t fully aware of how this would complicate my project. The geometry of the van’s body is much more complex that it first appears to be. It tapers to the back, with greater taper at the top than the bottom and even the vertical portion is far from flat or straight. And as it turns out, the floor isn’t even flat, despite its appearance (and maybe its intention). So building has involved a lot of trial and error, with plenty of emphasis on the error.
But it’s coming along. I had hoped to have it roadworthy in time for next spring, but that’s not how it’s working out. The biggest surprise for me has been just how enthusiastic the young people have been that have seen what I’m doing. I had not expected, or intended, to be this cool.
Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.