In architecture school I was tired of drawing buildings that would never exist, for clients that were imaginary, and with details I didn’t fully understand. I prefer to work with my hands, exploring details thoroughly, and enjoy working/prototyping at full scale. So for my Masters Final Project I decided to buy a school bus and convert it into a tiny living space. This was only possible because I was fortunate enough to have an instructor, Adam Marcus, who encourages working at full scale, and allowed me take on such an ambitious and unorthodox project.
The bus was purchased on Craigslist for $3000, and has had about $6000 in improvements. It’s not pocket change, but it’s less than a down payment on a home, and it’s less than I paid in tuition for my last semester of grad school. The majority of the work was completed in 15 weeks, just in time for my final review (although the first seven weeks were almost entirely design and prototyping, with the bulk of the construction completed in the last month and a half of the semester).
It’s not an original premise, but I don’t feel the opportunities have been explored very thoroughly and I wanted to show people the the potential in converting an existing vehicle.
I also thought it was important to demonstrate the value of full scale iteration in architectural education. There are too many architecture students who don’t understand basic physical limitations of materials or how they can be joined. This project was a way to show how building a small structure with simple detailing can be more valuable than drawing a complex project that is theoretical and poorly understood. I think we need more making in architecture!
There are some great shots of the bus in the posts that document our journey, but the full extent of functionality and flexibility isn’t apparent from just those images. This gallery elaborates on how the space is organized to create an environment that is comfortable, functional, and flexible.
The even spacing of the window bays allow for the volume to be broken down into modular units of 28 inches square, leaving an aisle that is also 28 inches wide. The modular units are then grouped to create four primary zones: Bathroom, Kitchen, Seating, and Sleeping.
One of the primary goals during the design phase was to develop a living space in 225sqft that is as open and un-restricting as possible. In order to accomplish this, I set self-imposed guidelines that eliminated any furniture or structure above the bottom edge of the window. This allows the space to remain continuous, and maintains clear sight-lines from one end of the space to the other, even while seated. In order to accomplish this I developed a thin wall system integrating structure, insulation, electrical, lighting, and facing, leaving the interior open for occupation. The ceiling is covered in plywood flexed by compression, and the floor is reclaimed gym flooring, complete with 3-point line.
The windows also contribute greatly to the open feeling in such a small space. Many bus conversions cover a majority of the windows to aid in privacy and insulation. This results in a dramatic reduction in natural lighting and obscures the fantastic panoramic views, not to mention compromising the embedded energy of the windows already in place. In order to mitigate issues of privacy and insulation, drop-down translucent insulation panels were built into the lower walls, and can be raised into place with the aid of magnets. Additionally, two skylights are placed where emergency hatches once sat, bringing a fantastic amount of light into the space.
The space is lit simply by LED strip lighting, hidden in the reveal where the ceiling meets the wall. The lights are switched by zone, and are of course dim-able to achieve the proper mood.
In order to help remove the inhabitant from the reminders and connotations of its former life as a school bus, entry into the space is reoriented to the rear. Upon entering the space, the occupant first encounters the bathroom. In this zone, one side of the aisle is walled off to enclose the toilet. This space currently houses a yet-to-be-used portable toilet, but will hopefully be replaced by a plumbed toilet in the coming years. The opposing side of the aisle is unoccupied, and is currently serving as overflow storage.
The kitchen occupies two window bays, and currently features a foot-pump sink as it’s only true utility. There are plans for one of the bays to become a chest fridge, and for a gas cooktop to be installed, but for now we are surviving using a cooler and a portable propane stove. The cabinet frames are fully assembled, but the planned drawers and faces have yet to be constructed. For now they maintain a stripped-down aesthetic and storage bins are used to hold goods and supplies.
The seating space is one of the most versatile, and as it occupies four bays, it is also the largest. In it’s neutral state, the zone features four large seats on either side of the aisle. The two seats nearest the kitchen occupy the space over the wheel wells, and as such have no storage underneath. However the faces of these seats fold out into the aisle to create a platform that can be covered with neighboring cushions to create a queen-sized sleeping area. The next seat down on either side of the aisle can be raised or lowered to create a table surface for eating or working. This allows for up to four people to have table space without having to climb over each other. The final seat features a large lockable storage bay underneath. The flexibility of this zone allows it to accommodate a large number of conditions and situations.
The sleeping space is comprised of two narrow beds, of equal width, on either side of the aisle. There are drawers beneath each each bed, deep storage underneath the mattresses, and built-in shelves facing the seating area. In order to accommodate varied sleeping arrangements, the port-side bed rolls into the center aisle, creating a queen-sized sleeping area, with a third mattress revealed in the vacated space. This allows for a total sleeping capacity of up to six adults.
The cabin of the bus almost entirely untouched, except for the rats nest of wires from the added electrical systems. The cabin can be separated from the living space by a sliding door panel, which is left open while on the road to communicate with the driver.
As a whole these elements come together to form the ultimate road trip vehicle, if not yet a fully livable space. I’m looking forward to pushing this project further, continuing to build out the necessary systems and modifying the elements that need more iteration, in order to better understand living in tiny spaces, and expand discussion about living small.
In August of 2013 we embarked on a 5,000 mile journey and documented our travels. You can read about and see photos of our experiences by checking out our Travel Posts.