British couple Charlotte and Nico were tired of the nine-to-five grind. They were both working long hours at the office before returning home late at night, cooking, sleeping, and doing the same thing all over again the next day. Something had to change, and that change came in the form of the 23-year-old 7m x 2.6m Mercedes Vario named Maui.
Charlotte and Nico were both eager to start adventuring, and they loved the thought of enjoying an off-the-grid lifestyle. As they were already working from their laptops, purchasing Maui and turning it into a cabin on wheels was an easy decision to make.
But by no means was it a fast process. After purchasing Maui, the couple gave themselves 10 months to transform her from an old, rusty, mouse-ridden van into a beautiful, shabby boho beach hut on four wheels. They advise anyone looking to undertake the same project to double the expected timeframe because it took them two years to bring Maui back to life.
They watched thousands of YouTube videos to learn the necessary skills and spent countless evenings and weekends transforming Maui from top to bottom. Even though they started the project with no skills, their knowledge gained from YouTube videos meant they were able to manage everything from gutting the original shell and installing insulation to taking care of the woodwork and décor.
For the last few months, Charlotte and Nico have been traveling through Europe in Maui, enjoying a far better work-life balance than they could have imagined. While they said van life has its ups and downs, they have been on an incredible journey and love being able to work and live side by side while sharing some wonderful experiences.
Maui, the Mercedes Vario, is the 7m x 2.6m pride and joy of Charlotte and Nico from the UK. The couple purchased the rusty, old, mice-ridden van to transform into a house on wheels for new experiences and a better work-life balance.
They took care of the entire transformation, even spray-painting the exterior. While transforming Maui took two years, Charlotte and Nico thoroughly enjoy their shabby boho beach hut on wheels and have spent the last few months exploring Europe in it.
Charlotte and Nico’s ultimate goal with Maui the Mercedes was to enjoy off-the-grid living. They both work full-time from laptops, so having reliable and consistent power was necessary.
While expensive, they decided to install a 1050w solar panel setup to keep up with their significant electronic load, including two power-hungry laptops. According to Charlotte and Nico, solar is the pathway to off-grid living.
During the summer months, their solar system generates so much power that they never have to worry about saving energy or using fewer appliances. They can even run their air conditioning unit all day without the battery decreasing from 100%.
Even during the cooler months of the year or with significant cloud cover, they aren’t majorly affected. Their panels might only produce a fraction of their total capacity, but the couple can enjoy up to five days off-grid at the full electrical output.
While Charlotte and Nico put a considerable amount of time and energy into designing and building their dream house on wheels, they admit that they neglected the sliding door area. However, it’s undoubtedly a work in progress. They installed a new driftwood arch to bring the entrance to life, and Nico added hand-drawn typography to their storage crates to add to the rustic vibes of Maui.
Whether or not they park in a beach area, they can slide open their van door, see the arch, and feel like they’re taking the beach with them everywhere they go.
Most people turning their vans into homes on wheels stick with standard straight cladding for their ceilings. While there is nothing wrong with wood panels or even carpet, Nico and Charlotte wanted to buck the trend.
They said that a van’s ceiling could be a blank canvas, and they wanted to do something unique that represented the stages of their build and how much time and effort went into it. Inspired by instagrammer and fellow van lifer @parkingonthewildside, they designed a geometric cross-hatched pattern in Adobe Illustrator and painstakingly brought it to life.
They didn’t just stop with the cross-hatched design, either. Charlotte and Nico’s custom design continues the length of the entire van and transforms into a geometric sun with 70 precisely cut segments. Their ceiling also consists of 5mm weathered pallet wood cladding, which they intend to varnish for a beautiful finish at a later date. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
As both Charlotte and Nico work remotely full time, having somewhere in their van to work comfortably was important. They spent much time coming up with a creative solution, and the result was an extendable gateleg table that could serve the purpose of being a workstation and dining table in one.
As the floor around this area was uneven, they customized the legs to suit the space. The adjacent bench seats also have storage to keep van clutter to a minimum!
Even though having a comfortable place to work was at the forefront of Charlotte and Nico’s minds, they didn’t want it to take over the living area. After all, the whole idea behind becoming van-lifers was to enjoy more work-life balance. Therefore, they made sure their workstation was a small multipurpose nook that suited their purpose but didn’t take over their entire van. The use of rustic wood materials and light colors also enabled it to blend in with the rest of the van.
Charlotte and Nico didn’t want just ordinary walls in their van. They wanted them to tie in with their boho beach cabin theme. While they started with traditional pine walls, they got creative with paint for a distressed and weathered effect.
This involved painting the walls with ivory, pumpkin, and cool grey tones, followed up with a fresh sea blue top coat. Once the layers were in place, they sanded back the wood with a rough grit to let the natural colors come through. The result is a gorgeous and rustic feature wall by their desk and dining area that breaks up the ‘sameness’ of Maui’s more subtle natural colors.
Many small vans like Maui don’t have bathrooms. Instead, van-lifers make do by visiting local camping grounds and public facilities while having a chemical toilet as a backup option when they’re caught short.
However, Charlotte and Nico wanted to experience the true off-grid lifestyle, which involved not relying on public facilities if they could avoid it.
They wanted to incorporate a wet room into Maui, with space to shower without having the toilet in the way. While they had to sacrifice space in the van floorplan, they said they wouldn’t have it any other way. They love being able to access a clean, warm, and private bathroom everywhere they go.
Of course, this part of the project took a great deal of planning. They wanted to have tiles, but they were concerned about how much weight they would add to the van. After much research, they found splash wall composite 3D tiles from Screwfix measuring 1,200 x 2,440mm. They nearly fit the space perfectly and were easy to cut and install.
While some people living the van life make do with a chemical toilet tucked away in a storage container, Nico and Charlotte wanted something more permanent and off-grid-friendly. However, they faced space constraints with having a dedicated shower room.
So, with inspiration from another camper, they designed a sliding toilet system. They purchased a compostable toilet that can roll in and out of the wall on two heavy-duty sliders with a locking mechanism. Upon pressing the two yellow levers, the compartment slides completely out.
After conducting plenty of research, they settled on the Simploo composting toilet that has two chambers – one for liquids and one for solids. They line the solids chamber with a biodegradable bag and coconut husk for moisture absorption, allowing them to dispose of their waste easily. The toilet also has a separator that directs liquids to the second chamber.
Alongside building their complex but convenient toilet system, they also made a toilet roll compartment with space for toilet rolls and coconut husk. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Before living on the road, Nico and Charlotte used to value their time cooking together after a long day of work. That hasn’t changed even when they’re now living in Maui. They created a beautiful kitchen they can both enjoy in the heart of the van.
The rustic-style kitchen features a two-burner gas hob, a Maxxair fan above the hob and cooker, and a striking matte black built-in fridge to work seamlessly with the surrounding cabinets and storage solutions.
When Charlotte and Nico got to work creating their kitchen units, they had an idea in mind of what they didn’t want: a boxy aesthetic. There was no run-of-the-mill kitchen in the pipeline for this couple!
They introduced chamfered edges to push out and recess the geometry. They also made sure to include a drop-out vent for the oven and hob to let any leaking gas escape. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ When Nico and Charlotte traveled to Morocco, they fell in love with bazaar goods, such as handcrafted copper. They wanted to introduce Moroccan vibes into their kitchen and made their sink the main feature.
The striking copper sink is undoubtedly a highlight in the couple’s kitchen, but they admit it requires some care. Water can stain the metal easily, so you must wipe it often and clean it with lemon juice every few weeks.
Along with the copper sink, they also installed a gorgeous copper faucet and blue Moroccan-style splash tiles to protect the wood walls. With time and realizing how van life works, they found that they didn’t have easy access to soap and cleaning equipment. So, they whipped up a rustic wood dispenser shelf to sit above the sink, complete with a woven basket for sponge storage.
A standard modern countertop wasn’t going to work in harmony with the overall rustic design of their kitchen and entire van. However, Charlotte and Nico couldn’t find a driftwood-style countertop to suit their needs and budget.
Not letting a lack of options get in the way of having what they want, they decided to make one. They visited a wood recycling center and purchased old scaffolding boards. After joining several together, they hand-cut a live edge with a jig saw, wire-brushed the edges for a more rustic feel, and sanded back the dirt and old paint by around half. Keeping some of the paint added to the weathered look of the wood. They then completed the project by applying four coats of satin varnish to water-seal it for food use.
Charlotte and Nico love using herbs and spices while cooking, but they needed to be sure that any spice rack they added to their van would keep their spices snug while they traveled. Upon purchasing the spice jars first, they built a rack to fit them out of leftover wood from their kitchen countertop. The result is a stunning rustic wood rack that keeps all jars standing upright and secure when they’re on the move.
Plants can add a much-needed burst of color and nature into any van, but that wasn’t initially Charlotte and Nico’s intention when they installed herb pots on their wall in the kitchen by the window.
They purchased their gorgeous blue pots from Nkuku to sit on their dashboard while they drove, but they were too big. Not wanting them to go to waste, Nico screwed them on the wall at an angle so they could have fresh mint and basil for cooking whenever they needed it. As they were installed next to the window, they get plenty of natural light to thrive.
Charlotte and Nico’s sleeping nook is tucked away in the rear of the van. They painted a stunning blue feature wall to ‘pop’ against the lighter shades and paired it with blue bedding to tie the look together. They also installed fairy lights around the walls for ambiance.
Every van needs an easy-to-access storage area for electronics and equipment. Charlotte and Nico chose to put theirs in the rear of the van underneath the mattress. They also allowed plenty of storage space for other essentials they wanted to tuck away. Their advice for anyone planning a similar setup is to make sure you use bed slats or build-in airflow to let the mattress breathe.
When you live in such a small space, organization is important. Charlotte and Nico devised a clever electronics cupboard to make sure everything was easy to find and clearly labeled.
Aptly named the ‘Comms Cupboard’, it’s set up in the middle of their living space and includes the following:.
- WiFi: 5G router in a charging dock to boost their signal
- Victron control panel: key data points for solar input, DC and AC load output, battery charger state, and water tank levels.
- Truma Combi 4E Monitor: heating element controls
- IndelB Plein-Aircon 12V: a 12-volt air-conditioning unit for comfort during the summer months on the road
- Maxxair fan: for extracting fumes and creating airflow
- Twin USB port: for charging devices
- Master switches: the main switches for the bathroom extractor fan, Truma boiler, and Shurflo water pump
- LPG gas tank level – how much gas is in the underslung tank
Get inspired by Charlotte and Nico’s adventures by following them on Instagram, where they offer valuable insights and tips on van builds and nomadic living