Vanlife Conversions on initial inspirations, top tips for van converters and future plans
Oli and Emily are the two founders of Vanlife Conversions, a van conversion and consultancy business based in Essex. They turn large panel vans into bespoke livable vans which are customised to the individual client’s needs. Their business allows their customers to fulfil their desires for travel, whether that is adopting the full-time lifestyle or host a weekend trip away. They also offer consultation for people looking to self build their own van, and provide their own signature model which customers can purchase.
Over the past year, there has been a state of uncertainty for the van conversion community due to the multiple lockdowns and inability to travel outside the UK. So, we get to know how this has impacted their van conversion business, how they’ve navigated the past year and what plans they have for the upcoming year.
1. To begin, what were your initial inspirations for co-founding and setting up your own conversion business?
Before Vanlife, I was in the army and a friend of mine converted a van for transit. He drove all the way to Greece, with his wife for two weeks. Soon after, he said to me, “you’ve got to build a van.”
When I left the army, I decided I wanted to own my own business and change my career. As I was always a DIYer, I completed a few construction courses whilst building us a van which we then took travelling to Italy and drove around Europe for a few weeks.
When we got back, someone got in touch after seeing my Instagram photos of our trip around Italy and the van I had built. It went from there really – they commissioned me to make a van and since then more and more people have enquired.
2. Did you only travel through Europe and Italy? Are there other places you wanted to go to?
We did France, Italy and back through Switzerland which was amazing. Definitely, a lot more places we want to do, but this has been hard in the last year because of all the lockdowns. We managed to do a lot of the UK when there were lesser restrictions but we would quite like to go up to Scotland and travel the North Coast.
But, the business has taken off and we’ve been quite hands on deck.
2. How have you navigated your businesses over the last year? Was it quite difficult at first or as a whole, have you felt fairly unaffected?
It was quite worrying at first because we didn’t know what was going to happen or what the restrictions were going to be and just before lockdown, I (Emily) had just left my job to come full time on Vanlife. But overall, we’ve been really lucky and haven’t any kind of drop-in anything. We’ve had more interest, more inquiries and a lot more people are thinking differently about holidays, and how they can be varied in the UK too.
Also, many people had van conversions on their radar and this past year has encouraged many people to do it now. We’ve been very busy and are very grateful that we’ve been able to work and isolate ourselves in the workshop.
3. Have you had any complications sourcing parts over the last year?
For a period of time, some of the suppliers stopped but we were able to look forward and pre-order items to ensure things came on time. For the majority, they’ve been open for business which has really helped keep us afloat because if we didn’t have the suppliers open, then we wouldn’t be able to build.
4. So, the company comprises of both of you and an apprentice, what would we expect to see in a day of your life?
Emily: So we begin the day with a board round, to give a structure of the day and allocate what specific jobs are needed to be completed. Generally, I cover the admin side of the company including marketing, business operations, customer liaison and launching new things, etc.
But overall, days are really varied as the builds themselves take between 12 to 14 weeks.
Oli: Across those weeks, I cover a mixture of carpentry, plumbing, electrics, cutting windows in and pretty much all the trades. I am doing the electrics today, last week I was working on carpentry and to finish we need to do the painting and decorating. It is nice because it’s really varied.
5. Do you complete multiple van conversions at one time or focus solely on one?
At the minute, we complete one at a time and they slightly overlap during the end of one and beginning of the next. But we are moving to a bigger workshop in April, so we will have more room to do two at the same time. The plan is, when we grow the workshop we’ll have another pair of us, another build team, which will allow us to expand how many projects are ongoing at the same time.
6. What are your top three tips for a beginner who wants to convert a van?
Use scale and pencil drawings to map out your exact plan. In the early stages of the build, it is useful to create mockups of your plan. Some people use cardboard boxes to help visualise the space that is going to be the conversion. You can also expand your designs into 3D visuals on CAD – if you’re technically able.
It is a lot easier to have a floor plan at the beginning, especially when it comes down to the order of things. So, you can understand where the different elements are placed and what particular order.
2. To not underestimate how long it will take
If you are learning through YouTube and other platforms, you can watch a 10 min time-lapse and think you can build it a lot quicker than you can – I was guilty of this when I first built my first van. If you’re going to create this big investment, it’s not only the amount of money that you need to evaluate, it’s the time as well and to make sure that you’ve budgeted to sufficient time. There have been cases where people have come to us with a half started van and not been able to finish.
However, the good thing about van conversions is that nothing is stopping you from using it before it’s finished. If it’s insulated, you could erect a camp bed in the back and still be able to sleep in it.
There are a lot of ways to save money, such as getting an old carcass and putting on new doors etc. But there are specific areas which should be invested in – spending money on a good boiler and heater is essential. You want to make sure you’re installing a regulated, good quality appliance especially when it’s to do with gas and electrics. You should always try to sign them off with an engineer to double-check too.
7. How long does a build usually take to complete?
Normally, we allow about 12 to 14 weeks for each build depending on how complicated they are.
We build our cabinetry from scratch to create bespoke designs for our customers. However, for people carrying out the build themselves, there’s the option to buy ready built-in units which you can cut down yourself.
Overall, it can be more technical than a house, it has solar panels, gas appliances, different types of voltages for electrics, heating, water – it’s quite a complex beast but becomes a home on wheels when it’s done.
8. We can see that you’ve converted different types of vans either a Sprinter or a Boxer, but what conversion has been your favourite and why?
There are probably five main models that we would convert and they are the most common ones. The bigger ones are Sprinters and Crafters, then the others are Fiat Ducatos, Citroen Relays or Peugeot Boxers. The latter three are our favourite and are the ones we have converted the most. They are all the same size and dimension, and we think that’s really important when picking the van because essentially that’s your floor space for the conversion. They give a nice ratio of width and are a bit wider than the Sprinters and Crafters. Also, they are more moveable and slightly shorter than the Sprinter so might be easier to drive.
In terms of the living space, the latter three are quite boxy so you also have more headspace.
9. From fixing a bed to installing a toilet, what is your favourite part of completing a van conversion?
Honestly, the best part is when the customers send you a video in the weeks and months after the build, when they are exploring with the van outdoors.
Also, the whole unveiling process – we post photos and videos on our Instagram throughout the build process but when we get to the final few weeks we don’t post as much, so it’s a bit more of a surprise. Our customers are really involved in the process up until then, so it’s nice to see their reaction to the final product and see photos of them in action with the van.
10. When you stay in contact with your customers to check how they are getting on, do you recommend certain types of insurance that they should be looking into getting?
We try to have a good ongoing relationship with our customers and share our experiences with insurance companies we have used. Especially if they are looking to hire their vans out, we give them advice on that.
We also offer a service once a year. So, if they have any issues, troubles or concerns with the van, we are always there on the phone if they want to talk anything through.
11. Have you ever had a surprising feature request to add to a build?
Once, a person asked for a bath… but, at the moment we are installing a projector screen to have a home cinema, we’ve also fitted a huge fridge, 5G wifi and CCTV. Some have an indoor shower and an outdoor shower. But I think a bath was the craziest.
12. What would you say is the hardest part when converting a van?
The utilities are the most difficult bit. To fit the electrics of so many different elements in one space can get quite complicated, especially when we try to make it as small as we can. We put it underneath the van to help clear up space.
The whole build is almost like a big jigsaw really. You have to have good foresight to try and think things through before you build it. Inevitably, there will be bits that fold out and come out in different places but it’s important to try and fill the space economically and efficiently.
13. You both consult and carry out the conversions yourself, what does the consultation entail?
Currently, it’s mainly online video calls to people who want to attempt to convert the vans themselves. Usually, we also offer a day here in our workshop where we plan out the build with them, but we haven’t been able to do that because of COVID. They also have access to our free content on our YouTube and website.
We enjoy consulting because many people get stuck due to the overwhelming amount of free information you can find out there on how to convert vans. It can get confusing and some people just want some guidance to say ‘yes go for that’ or ‘no don’t do that.’ People get a lot out of the consultancy which helps to save them time and money.
We’re also starting to offer hiring services, so if you convert with us we’ll help them hire it out to others. It’s a good investment because you can have the van for your own pleasure and then hire it out and make some money on it when you are not using it.
14. With that in mind, do you think this past year has made people more inclined to look into the van life?
I think it is probably getting easier, especially as people have been working from home over the past year – you can transition quite easily into it. You probably want to keep your job while converting the van but even in your current employment, you can ask your employer if you can work from home as you can also work in a van, as long as you have good internet. Many begin with long weekends from home to bridge the gap before committing to the van lifestyle. Especially at the minute when you can’t go abroad, you could do long weekends away and then when things begin to open up a bit more, you can take your van further afield.
15. As lockdown begins to ease, do you have any upcoming plans?
In terms of travelling, we would love to but at the minute we haven’t factored in the time. We are full steam ahead in helping others fulfil their dreams. We have thought about how we could consult on the road but at the moment we aim to keep on building and growing the business, get as many people as we can on the road.
We have just launched our own model, Kunu. Although we do custom renovations, we found that some customers find the process a bit overwhelming, especially when you have so many options. For our model, we’ve picked out our favourite bits from prior conversions and what is most popular into one van. We offer this now alongside the custom conversions.
Kunu will hopefully help people getaway this year and get on the road sooner. It is more efficient from our end as customers can see what it exactly looks like. They are still able to customise elements but we stick to an original spec. If Kunu works, we’ll look into building another model with the other main layout: a dinette bed.