Like many people in the United Kingdom, Josie can’t afford to buy a house. She was living in southeast England and knew that living solo and surviving on a self-employed dancer’s wage undoubtedly put her on the back foot in the housing market.
But she didn’t let that stop her from dreaming of her own special space. She got hooked on the idea of skoolie life, where you turn a school bus into a home.
Finding a vehicle proved difficult since she wasn’t a mechanic and had never purchased a vehicle before. She spent six months finding the right one and asked the AA to check it with her to ensure its mechanical soundness. And that’s how she ended up with a 2002 Mercedes Vario 24-seater minibus for £4,000 or close to $5,000.
Josie found a company that shipped American school buses to the UK and converted them. After including the conversion costs, the initial purchase price for her new soon-to-be house on wheels was around £10,000 or nearly $12,500.
Let the Renovations Begin
Josie describes herself as the project manager, designer, and carpenter when turning her standard Mercedes Varios into a delightful house on wheels. She did nearly all the building work herself, only receiving help with welding and electrical work. A welder helped her weld the roof rack in place, and an electrician installed her electrics and solar panels after she had planned them out herself.
After three years of building, Josie was thrilled with how it turned out. It was like her cozy cottage on wheels! After all, Josie knew that if she was going to be living in a minibus full-time, it needed to feel less like a van and more like a home.
Josie has decided to turn her minibus into her permanent residence by spring 2024. She’s currently storing the minibus while working in London due to lack of parking. Her plan is to leave her job, live in the bus, and embark on travels. Initially, she will explore the UK with her dog, Winnie, staying close to familiar support networks. After touring England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and if she enjoys this lifestyle, Josie aims to venture further, possibly traveling from America back to England.
Not satisfied with the white paint scheme, Josie put on her painting overalls and got to work painting the minibus herself. While the color was not exactly what she had in mind, she likes how it changes in different lighting and looks striking with the black bumpers and wheel arches.
Josie had pictured a pinky-browny ’fawn’ color, but it turned out more beige. However, when paired with the roof rack, it makes her minibus look a bit like a safari bus!
There’s also more to this minibus’s exterior than meets the eye. The roof is kitted out with 800 watts of solar power, a skylight, a chimney, an Airmax fan, and a quaint deck.
The interior before Josie began her conversion project.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Josie. Just as she purchased her new minibus, the country went into lockdown. She didn’t have a driveway to store her vehicle in so she could work on it, so she had to leave it with the company she bought it from. They closed over the lockdown, meaning she wasn’t able to travel backwards and forwards to work on it.
Not wanting to waste her free time, Josie made the living room in her mother’s house into a makeshift bus. She played around with different layouts and used cardboard boxes to create living space configurations to determine what would best suit her needs.
By the time the lockdown restrictions ended, she was able to take those boxes and see how they fitted into the bus. Josie said it was a great way to get a sense of the space before making permanent alterations.
Reclaimed Pallet Wood
Josie loves her cottage kitchen on wheels. She used 2×4 frames, which are larger than other van builds, but she adored the ‘chunky’ look. She then covered those frames with reclaimed pallet wood. The bases of the upper cupboards feature 12mm ply.
Josie’s eclectic country-style kitchen certainly stands out. She used many cheap and free materials to create the beach hut vibes she was going for. Josie made her cupboard doors with thin ply covered with calico fabric and bulked out with pallet wood. She then cut holes and put thick rope through them to function as handles.
Josie also got creative with the hand-made pantry and pots and pans drawer. She already had a vintage shutter that was to become the sliding door in the cab area and used offcuts from it as the faces of her drawers.
As cozy as Josie’s kitchen is, it has everything she needs for everyday living, including a gas oven with a hob. Josie said it’s the type of setup that would go in a boat, so it’s small. So small, in fact, that she has to cut pizzas in half to fit them in the oven.
Josie has a 12-volt fridge with a freezer box tucked away under the counter in her quaint kitchen. Its retro theme ties in well with the minibus’s country chic vibes. The well-positioned skylight lets in plenty of natural light in the kitchen.
Recycled Materials for the Couch
Josie was determined to have a sofa, saying it was really important to her. But rather than buy one to fit her minibus, she made one out of 100% recycled materials. The finished result looks incredible, but Josie can’t help but be a little embarrassed by how long it took her to make. She said she had heard of people completing entire van builds in much less time than it took her to make the couch.
All wood, foam, springs, and webbing came from a second-hand sofa she purchased from a charity shop. The pallet wood forming its base came from a local supermarket. Even the velvet pink upholstery is recycled. They were once four pairs of velvet pink curtains.
Josie wasn’t above doing research before she started building her minibus. She watched a video and learned that you should always have two sources of everything in case something breaks. While she already had a log burner for its aesthetics, she also installed a diesel heater as a ‘just in case’ measure.
Living in a small area requires you to think outside the square. Josie got creative by making a collapsible table that transforms the lounge area into a dining space.
Josie wanted a comfortable, relaxing sleeping space that would allow for restful sleep. She started with a basic frame to house her batteries and built it up from there.
Storage space is often lacking in tiny homes and vans, but it’s certainly not in Josie’s minibus. She built overhead cabinets above the bed when she created the bedroom area.
From the very beginning, Josie didn’t want her lounge and bedroom to be in the same space. Otherwise, she’d spend a lot of time relaxing in bed rather than having a dedicated sleeping area.
That led her to install bi-fold shutters to create a distinction between the living and sleeping areas. Josie also made one side of the shutters mirrored so that her living room would feel lighter and larger.
The double bed gives Josie plenty of space for a comfortable night’s rest. She also chose light and feminine bed colors to match the minibus’s overall theme. The bed is pushed up against the rear doors, allowing her to open them out to nature and enjoy plenty of indoor-outdoor flow.
Josie built her minivan ‘garage’ under the bed. This is where she stores her electrics and gas tanks. They are easily accessible from the rear but are tucked away out of sight when you’re in the minibus.
Homemade Composting Loo
Josie put a great deal of time and thought into the bathroom area of the minibus. She installed a composting loo with a separate urine and waste area and a shower. The toilet waste is accessible from a small external door. That saves her from having to carry the waste through the whole minibus to dispose of it.
Van life on the road can be uncomfortable when you don’t have an adequate shower. Josie was determined to make showering as convenient in her minibus as it would be in a house. Well… almost.
Firstly, she created her showering area separate from her toilet. She didn’t like how everything gets wet in a shower room with a toilet, and you end up with wet feet. Wanting to avoid that, she installed her toilet and shower opposite each other in the bathroom area.
Josie also runs her shower on a recirculating system. This involves having three tanks underneath the bus – one for fresh water, one for wastewater, and one for shower water. She installed a high-quality Imass water heater, allowing for instant hot water. It runs on a set of filters with a small tank, but it reuses the water. This means that Josie can have half-hour showers if she wants to, with the water being filtered and reused.
The driver’s section of the bus, according to Josie, is a work in progress. The adorable doily steering wheel cover was made by her mum.