It seems almost everywhere you look these days, people are channelling their inner Fern, from the Academy-award-winning film Nomadland, and seeking to live life on the open road. For many, lockdown provided the perfect time to work on such projects, with groups like Self Build Campervans Ireland growing in numbers since the pandemic hit.
Renovators say that the process of building one’s own space has been terrific for their mental health over the past year.
For 24-year-old Padraig Greene, the past five months have been all about converting a second-hand Ford Cab Van into a livable, movable, space with the help of his girlfriend Amy Blue. The project made the most recent lockdown go a lot quicker for the Co Clare natives, who are documenting their experiences on an Instagram page. (See: the_transit_camper_build)
“You get completely engrossed in it. I was working on it for ten to 12 hours a day back in January. Now just to see it actually finished, it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done,” Padraig says.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do so I started looking for the right van last December and found one on DoneDeal that someone used for work.
“We gutted it completely and took the floor out so it was just a bare shell. Then there was the insulation to do, floors, walls, the ceiling, and I started making furniture frames and kitchen frames.”
Padraig is a graphic design and woodwork teacher, so had a lot of the skills needed to convert the van. When it came to things like wiring, however, he took to the internet.
“I learned how to plumb and wire from YouTube and ordered all of these boxes of materials online. I was looking at the boxes thinking: ‘How am I going to get this working?’. But when you’re eventually able to flick the switch and see the water come out of the tap or the kettle boil, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
When it came to the paperwork side of things, Padraig and Amy hit a few bumps on the road. The van was a little low in height so they had to be referred to a specialised insurer. They also had to get it inspected, as well as apply for a gas certificate and complete documentation for Revenue. However, Padraig says it worth it in the end.
“It was unbelievable for my mental health. I was going absolutely crazy with the 5km radius in lockdown. I just worked on the van non-stop whenever I didn’t have Zoom classes. If I didn’t have it I would have been up the walls. Just being able to work on it and come up with ideas was huge.”
Once the van was insured, Padraig and Amy would drive it to a spot 2km away and just sit inside drinking tea. Now that it’s finished, they’re planning their entire summer around where they can take it in Ireland.
“It’s a brilliant way of life. It’s just freedom. You wake up in the morning and find a spot, bring out the chairs, and just move from place to place. It’s got everything you need, it’s a little house on wheels,” Padraig says.
“The community is brilliant as well. There are so many Facebook groups and you can get help from other people. It felt as if you were accepted into a community when you started and everyone is just trying to help each other. I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
Travel photographer Conor Phelan faced similar challenges to Padraig in getting his 2016 Renault Trafic van on the road but finished his conversion in February, a year after buying it. He plans to use it to camp and use it for work.
“It was so worth it. I do a lot of work in the west of Ireland and just going on a trip and not having to worry about booking hotels is brilliant. It saves so much money. I also like not having a lot of stuff. I’m used to my camera bag having more stuff in it than my clothes bag,” the 31-year-old says.
Conor had kept his van parked at his parents’ home in Monaghan before lockdown hit. As soon as he was able to, he drove it back to his current home in Dublin so he could convert it.
“Work has obviously been really quiet so at least I had the van. I’m trying to get away in it every week now at the moment, even just down to Howth or Dalkey. It’s like being on holiday on a street in Dublin. It’s all about discovering new spots,” he says. con
Unlike Padraig, Conor didn’t have any experience with construction, so had to teach himself along the way.
“I’m not mechanically minded and I have absolutely zero skill in woodwork. I’ve learned so much since doing this,” he says. “And you’re never really finished with it. Once you start you begin noticing other vans as well. I’ve chatted to a few people just in a supermarket car park after stopping them to ask about their van.
“I camp a lot so this for me was a step up from a tent but, for others, it’s a step down from a house.”
For Simon and Sarah of the project.foxy Instagram page that’s exactly what their converted Fiat Ducato van has become. “I stay in it the whole time, I barely go home anymore. We have everything we need here. Even though it’s a small space, it’s a cosy space,” says Simon, who is originally from Poland but moved to Ireland 20 years ago.
The 28-year-old turned the old van into a tiny home last year with his girlfriend Sarah, who is from Brazil.
“It was in my head for years beforehand. Both of us love travelling and we wanted to travel with more comfort. But now we basically live in it,” says Simon. “Everything was learned from YouTube. I’ve never done anything like this before.
“It’s not rocket science, but you do need a lot of patience. In the end, it’s so rewarding. We moved in and hit the road before lockdown, doing the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the most satisfying thing ever. When we bought the van it was just an empty shell, a piece of metal. We built this whole thing ourselves.”
The 28-year-old says that working on the van throughout lockdown was also an ideal way to keep busy.
“You’d go mad if you were sitting at home doing nothing. Last summer we would work on it all day, from 7am to 11pm. It’s already paid off though. The satisfaction you get is just unbelievable. It’s so much more fun being in a van you built yourself. I don’t need much more than I have here.”
Joanne Crowley, a 25-year-old teacher from Coachford who is finishing off converting her Nissan van, knows all about the frustration that comes with the process but agrees that it’s been worth it.
“I’ve surprised myself with how fast it’s coming along. I’m completely clueless when it comes to electrics but I love the woodwork part of it,” she says. “I’ve been dreaming about it for years but never actually saw myself doing it only for lockdown. It 100% helped with my mental health. I haven’t been bored since I got it.”
She’s looking forward to the social aspect driving the van around the country and says that the community has been brilliant to be a part of so far.
“I’m really hoping that I’ll be on the road on the last weekend of May. It will be great for socialising because I can fit six people around my table [once it’s allowed]. I’ve joined a few Facebook groups and people are great to meet up and ask if anyone is around wherever they’re camping.”
Rosie Healy, 25, who is also from Cork, bought her HiAce camper for similar reasons but wanted it for more than just travelling. Last year, she hired a Welsh specialist from the Woodhacker Facebook page to convert a van for her after years of dreaming of a nomadic way of life.
“It’s always been my dream to live in one. I’ve always had an interest and wanted to live alternatively — in vans, yurts, mobile homes. So, this was my first big investment and first home. I was afraid to do it alone at first but I moved to Portugal two years ago and there’s a huge van community there. I travelled with beautiful people in their vans and finally decided to come home and buy one,” she says.
“I bought it online from a woman who converted it for me in Wales. My plan was to go over and help her but then Covid happened. I would go to bed dreaming of it until it finally arrived and when it did I slept outside my mom’s house in it every night. It’s like my little safe space. I’m lucky that I have really good mental health because I’m a yoga teacher but for me to have that space, it was an escape. I’m an adult and need my space, it’s natural to want my own freedom.”
Rosie wanted the van to look like a log cabin and helped design its interior. Once it arrived, she made it her own with homemade curtains, cushion covers, and plant hangers. Though her pre-pandemic plan had been to move to Spain and live in the van, she was still able to spend last summer in it travelling around Ireland with her boyfriend Carlos while restrictions were eased.
“I definitely romanticised the idea a bit, you have very limited space, but it is amazing. There’s so much freedom. Just waking up in the morning with the sun and connecting with nature. I’ve noticed that my physical health really benefited from being closer to nature as well. We would sleep with the back doors open sometimes listening to the waves crashing and run into the sea in the morning. We ate outside as well and that’s really grounding and we mostly ate vegan because I don’t have a fridge.
“I couldn’t advocate more for it and I love to see the community growing in Ireland. It has been the biggest journey I’ve ever embarked on and I’d recommend it to anyone.”