DIY VanLife: GMC Savana Camperization – Insulation and Walls

When I worked my first field season in northern Alberta in the summer of 2011, I learned a few very important life lessons:
1.     If it can go wrong, it will
2.     Things always take longer than you plan
3.     It could be worse
I would like to add two pieces of advice to this list, which we have found to be directly relevant when camperizing a van…
4.     When selecting a vehicle, be sure to factor cleaning needs into your conversion time budget
5.     Rounded vans DO NOT EQUAL nice square boxes
With these things in mind, we are pleased to (finally!) announce that the floor, ceiling, and walls of our vanlife home conversion are now completed! It took us two full weeks to get where we are now, but we are very pleased with our final product. For those interested in meeting the “Millenium FalcVan” and the conversion process thus far, the following is a step-by-step documentation of what we’ve done so far. 

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First off, we did NOT start with a clean slate. The van was very dirty, with two fairly major setbacks: (1), there was drywall/plaster dust in absolutely everything, and (2), an oversight on our part, it smelled of stale cigarette smoke. We ripped everything apart inside. The mouldy flooring, the walls, all the panels – doors, siding, ceiling cover in the cab, dash. We removed the front seats and washed and carpet cleaned those. We washed and scrubbed everything and repainted spots that needed it. After a ton of hours of effort, here is what we finally had to start with:

Graham and I spent countless hours pouring over conversion blogs and picking people’s brains over how to proceed. Turns out nearly everyone does this differently, which means we’ve naturally had a lot of important decisions to make. This has been one of our biggest challenges I would say – neither of us has taken on a project anything like this before. It is a HUGE learning experience, and as we really want to do a decent job, the thinking/planning is of course taking us a really long time. We are happy with the final decisions we have settled on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our method is the only or the best way to do this stuff. 

We spent quite a while thinking and planning the insulation. There are a few important things to consider with insulation:
(1) it keeps the heat in (or out!) if done properly
(2) in a metal van, it can largely dampen the noises
(3) air pockets are essential for insulation to work
(4) insulation is only as strong as the weakest link. 
For these reasons, we needed to insulate every surface we could reach, while accepting the fact that in a metal van, thermal bridges are everywhere in the structure, sucking heat all around. 

We opted for pink fiberglass insulation that we bought in roles, and “ayr foil”, or fancy-foil-covered-bubble-wrap. 

The fiberglass was 3.5 inches thick with an R-value of 12, which we were quite excited about. The foil wrap varies depending on the application, so we’re not so clear on its rating. The nice thing about the bubble wrap is it is clean and easy, and all the tiny little bubbles keep the nice little air pockets in wherever it is placed. We used 3M 77 spray adhesive to adhere the fiberglass to the walls.

We separated the fiberglass into half-width strips to insert it into the door pockets on the side and at the back. 

Before we could insulate the ceiling, we needed to cut and install a vent in the roof. A vent is really important in a van, especially at night when condensation can build up just from breathing as you sleep. Cutting through our metal roof was pretty nerve-wracking, but Graham did a great job! We made a template first then traced the hole onto the ceiling. Graham used a jigsaw with a metal blade, and cut from the bottom up. We got our vent from a local RV store, and a vent installation kit from Canadian Tire, which came with screws and putty tape.

Once the vent was installed we decided we needed to put in the floor to work off of. From the bottom up, we used (1) the foil bubble wrap, (2) 1/2 inch plywood, (3) 1/4 inch laminate flooring from my old bedroom at my parent’s house. We used two 4×8 foot plywood sheets for the floor. One sheet went in whole and covered the to-be “living” area where we will be walking the most. We measured and cut and fit all the plywood (4 pieces total) before putting down the insulation so that we wouldn’t have to walk on the insulation after it was in.

We spent some late nights cutting those boards. Thank goodness for the 5000 watt floodlight… Most cuts were done with the jigsaw, but we used the table saw for long straight cuts.

After we cut the plywood, the insulation could go down: wheel and gas wells, the entire floor, and the sliding door step so as to not lose heat anywhere. Side note – check out that nice back door panel!! We used 5/8″ metal self-drilling screws to attach the back door panels we cut.
 Once the insulation was in, the plywood could go back down. As we had four pieces and are planning to build everything in the van off of the floor, we needed to screw the plywood to the base of the van. This ended up taking AGES to figure out. We spent a lot of time lying on the ground underneath the van looking at all the “guts” and trying to figure out where the screws would go through. We needed to line up each screw to go into the floor on one of the raised ridges, and ensure it wouldn’t pierce anything on the other side. Take my word, very difficult to do. We ended up using just 9 screws in total, and then Graham used Sikaflex sealant around the entry point under the van for every screw he could reach.

We used a drill bit to make a little divot in each screw spot so that the heads would be flush with the boards.

The laminate flooring went down next. While a bit finicky, laminate flooring is actually pretty straightforward, and fun! It’s a “floating floor”, and so won’t be screwed down until we begin to screw things to it. 
After the flooring was complete we continued with walls and ceiling. I split the fiberglass insulation into half-thickness for the ceiling as the metal structural ceiling beams were about 1 1/2″ thick.

We cut the insulation to fit between the metal beams and the wooden vent frame – structural components we eventually screwed the ceiling panels to. In the corner of this photo you can also see the ceiling in the cab above the seats. I used more 3M 77 spray to attach fitted bubble wrap insulation up front that the original ceiling cover would eventually sit on top of.

Meanwhile, Graham was working on building up the structural beams (studs) on the walls. Similar to the ceiling, the metal studs were only about 1 1/2″ thick – but remember our wall insulation was 3 1/2″ thick. Using 2x2s to build up the studs enabled us to use the full thickness of insulation without compressing it, reduced the roundness of the interior, and would enable our walls to meet with the ceiling.

Once all the insulation was completed, up went the vapour barrier, which we stuck to everything using double sided tape and tuck tape. The main purpose of vapour barrier is to keep warm moist air from moving into the insulation and condensing. There’s a fair amount of controversy, however, on whether a vapour barrier is really necessary in projects like this. And keep in mind that with SO many little gaps and holes all over, it would be impossible to truly barrier everything effectively. For these reasons, our main purpose of adding the barrier was just to keep the insulation fibers OUT of our living space.

We used 1/8″ mahogony finish plywood (the cheapest!) for the ceiling and walls. It took us five 4×8 foot boards to do the whole interior. Two boards with a seam in the middle did the ceiling.

We had to cut all the boards with the jigsaw as they were too floppy-floppy for the table saw. This was very time consuming…

Another side note. We decided we would re-attach the original handle cover to the back door. This is an example of small details taking a long time. The cover would not sit flush, so we used an exacto knife to cut off the plastic bits in the back AND built a spacer to go underneath it. We ran into a similar scenario with the sliding door step…

Lots of finicky measurements led us to finally getting all the walls up. Metal screws and wood screws, depending on where we were attaching. We used flat washers with the metal screws, and fat little donut washers with the wood screws.

We used the original step for the sliding door entrance, which fit nicely over top of the main flooring. Two layers of 1/2 inch plywood over the insulation on the step itself brought the height to the right level. We used rubbery edging attached with contact cement around the base for a protective finish.

And this is how we made it to the final product. A couple pictures of our enhanced clean slate, ready for construction!

Again, as we’re new at this we’d love to hear any comments, questions, or suggestions!

All for now. Ta ta!

5 thoughts on “DIY VanLife: GMC Savana Camperization – Insulation and Walls

  1. You both look very safe in all your work photos. Except for that one of Graham on the saw horses cutting the plywood out from underneath him. haha Looks Gooood.

    Like

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