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A van that matters

Garth Cumming Head of Engineering
Aug 26, 2021

5 minute read
A van that matters
"What in the world did I just do?!?” I thought to myself as I drove away — my mind riddled with fears and doubts, questioning every decision that led up to this moment. I had just pulled away from a car dealership in a used cargo van.
Okay, perhaps we should rewind a little and discuss how I got here and, well, why does this matter?

Well, COVID happened.

COVID was an excellent reminder about taking things for granted, like spending time with your family and loved ones. It's like that toy you loved as a kid. You know, the one you never really played with until your parents decided to give it to your younger sibling? Then you responded with the quivering bottom lip, “but, but, but, but, it’s my toy!”

I certainly took for granted my easy access to friends and family. Since restrictions prevented me from visiting my parents, now I'd like to make more of an effort to include them in my life.

Maybe you're thinking, 'what does this have to do with buying a van?' Well, my father is an excellent mechanic and builder, and the best way for us to spend time together is by tackling a project. What better project than to convert a van that will enable me to see more of Canada and experience some of the areas I also took for granted?

The plan

Buy a van, plan a layout, perform a preliminary build, and then drive it up to the Yukon where my parents live, where we can make it the finished van of my dreams.

Sometimes I ask myself, at what point did my life turn where I’m using the phrase “the van of my dreams?” I must say, I’m proud that my mid-life crisis is at least somewhat affordable.

Now, it’s one thing to come up with this great plan; it’s another thing entirely to pull the trigger — and it was on that inaugural drive home when I found myself questioning my life choices. That's when I had to take a deep breath and focus: “You can do this," I told myself. "Like every big undertaking, just break it into smaller tasks.” I kept breathing and remembered that growth is often a result of venturing further outside of my comfort zone.

So here it is, my (new to me) 2015 Ram ProMaster City Cargo.


What do I need?

Time to figure out what I’m going to build and include in this project.

As you can see, this is a small van, so every ‘feature’ needs to be important. It doesn't matter if you're creating a digital product or building a van to live out your mid-life crisis; the process is the same. It’s essential to think about the user. In this case — me!

“I need a shower.”

Do I really? Of course, this fine natural odour isn't going to maintain itself, but perhaps I can fine-tune this process by writing it as a user story.

“As a runner, I want to be able to take a shower so I can maintain a certain level of hygiene.”

Okay, that’s a little better. We’ve identified the who, the what and the why, but I think we can improve it a little.

“As a runner, I want to be able to remain clean and hygienic, so I don’t offend anyone within a five-foot radius.”

In this case, when diving down to the story, you can see I don’t actually need a shower in the van. The solution could be many things — from using public shower facilities, to cleaning myself using other means (you know, there was a time before the shower), to being okay if I’m the only one in the area.

Let's take another example: “As someone working remotely, I need the ability to power all of my equipment, so I can work a full day without being interrupted by charging.”

That’s a long way of saying, “hey, you should install solar panels, because that’s what every single van conversion out there has.” Or, I could just install a battery large enough to last me a few days. See how starting with the story keeps my mind open to different solutions?

Planning and executing

After I collected all the user stories for my van conversion, and I had a sense of what I'd like to do with it, I began the planning process. I’ve enjoyed using CAD software ever since my first computer drafting course in high school, back in '94, so I figured this would be a great project to learn more on the CAD/modelling side. I chose Autodesk Fusion 360, which is free for personal use.

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I took each measurement, built components and laid them out, then looked at every different view and animated the movement of each joint and part until I was happy with a layout that I thought could work for me.

Fusion 360 took all the guesswork out of the measurements and materials. I found a local distributor of 8020 aluminum extrusion, gave them the lengths and quantities I needed (thank you https://www.rmmc.net/), and everything was assembled perfectly. I cut up some 2x2s and 2x3s for a makeshift prototype bed in my makeshift workshop (my living room) with my foreman, Mouse the cat, looking at me with both disappointment and curiosity as I constructed the key ‘furniture’ for my van.

Foreman mouse on duty

Foreman Mouse watching over my work and his precious crinkle tissue paper

Now for the refrigeration/electrical. For this project, I’m building a battery out of four 310ah cells I had kicking around, because, yes, I happen to have spare cells at home. Using a couple of higher 0 current DC-DC boost buck converters, I created a USB-PD charger for my laptop and a power source for a separate 24” monitor. I also included a DC-DC battery charger, many fuses and bus bars, which all fit nicely under the seat of the van, all built in my makeshift electrical engineering workshop — aka my living room.

Battery Pack

4 310ah cells currently top balancing, should be enough power for days

Power Setup

Fuse panel and two boost converts to power my laptop and monitor

Once everything was mounted and running, I felt like Clark Griswold when he flicked the first switch on the Christmas lights, but in my case, everything worked on the first try. It was a Christmas miracle — or a result of countless nights of planning and obsessing.


Test and iterate

Now I have the MVP Van, or Van version 0.1 — the van where I can now test, learn, and iterate on what works and what doesn't.

I started by parking the van by the beach and working from there, and I've now moved on to doing a few weeklong trips. The initial user sentiment (with me being the user) is that I'm in love with this van. I've slept in different towns, campgrounds, family and friends' yards, and it's been a great experience so far. While small, I find it incredibly comfortable and really enjoy travelling and working in this little van.

With this real-world experience, I can now iterate and improve my ideas by asking the right questions: I'm sleeping well, but how can I sleep better? What storage do I use the most? The least? These answers will help to refine my needs and I'll repeat this process again.

What’s next?

I'm going to keep iterating, collecting my user needs, and when the time is right, I'll make the 2,400 km trip up north to finish this off with my father. There we'll build some nicer finishes for the cabinets, add heat, and proper insulation. While the pandemic won’t allow me to work on these items with my dad right now, it’s been a lot of fun doing the planning and updates virtually — and I feel these interactions are more valuable than the van itself.

This van, which has yet to be named (I’m leaning towards The Van Damme, or The Running Van, based on my obsession with '80s action movies) has already had a big impact on my life. It's helped me appreciate my own backyard and get excited about the possibilities for the future. And hey, if it was a mistake, that’s okay too, because the lessons and experience alone are worth it to me already.

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