This Couple Transformed a Bus into A Home Using DIY Methods
| LAST UPDATE 10/17/2021
From outside opinions, the McVay's seemed to have everything they wanted. But the truth was, they weren't happy. The couple quickly sold everything, purchased a school bus, and converted it into their ideal mobile home, detailed here.
Meet The McVay's
Mike and Tawny McVay's relationship began as colleagues working at the same gym. Months later, they realized their relationship had grown stronger, and soon, they were married. By various accounts, they lived a flawless life.
After getting married, the athletic couple started a gym of their own together. The McVay's ran a thriving athletic space and maintained a gorgeous home. "On the outside, we had everything that we were told when we were young would make us happy," Tawny recalled. "What we thought we wanted was obviously not making us happy."
"What Are We Doing?"
Despite having everything they needed and more, the couple didn't feel satisfied with life or its happenings. "We suddenly looked around, and it was like, 'What are we doing?'" Tawny admitted in an interview. So, the lovebirds took a leap of faith and decided to leave town with their eyes set on Europe.
Once they were overseas, the pair realized how much they had been craving the freedom to travel. "We don't want to be stuck in one place," Tawny shared. "We don't want to be doing the same thing and living the same day over and over again." The couple yearned to adventure full-time.
Buying Their Bus
The only thing standing in the McVay's way? "The biggest thing we had to do was throw off that shame and guilt that came with wanting something different," Tawny explained. Everything then changed when they entered the skoolie community. Thus, Tawny and Mike purchased an old school bus and began its glorious conversion.
"Letting go of the conventional 'normal' life in lieu of the one we actually wanted was the biggest adjustment," Mrs. McVay explained. Soon, the plans were set in place as Mike and Tawny acquired their new home for a mere $5,000. Their new home? A bright yellow 2004 International school bus.
There were several reasons why Tawny and Mike decided to transform a school bus instead of purchasing an RV for their home. First, obtaining a bus allowed the couple to customize their future residence from top to bottom completely. In addition, they believed a skoolie would be easier to drive.
However, before beginning their dream home build, Mike and Tawny painstakingly demolished the existing interior. The pair had to remove the original seats, walls, and even the floor. They planned to complete the project independently, a total DIY project for first-time home builders.
It took the McVay's about 2 days to rip out the more than 20-something passenger seats onboard. Then, Mike and Tawny cleared away the metal flooring and subfloor. Unfortunately, what was left underneath was a substantial amount of rust. Prior to getting started on the skoolie fixer-upper, the couple taped out their floor plan.
The skoolie was a mere 250 square feet, but the couple's design allowed them to fit nearly all of their everyday household conveniences within. By the time they finished, the home-on-wheels would include a kitchen, living room area, a vast bedroom, and a fully-equipped bathroom.
Fixing Rust & Insulation
Before installing the subfloor, the determined lovebirds had to manage their rust dilemma. This was an anticipated measure, considering the skoolie had been on the road since back in 2004. The hardworking DIYers filled holes in the flooring and used Rust-Oleum floor paint to manage the rust.
Once the rust was fixed, it came time to begin laying down the new flooring. The couple planned to travel in all kinds of weather, so proper insulation was a requirement. Tawny and Mike framed the floor then installed durable polystyrene foam boards, otherwise known as styrofoam insulation.
Post-insulation, the couple measured and cut their new subfloor panels to fit perfectly into their new home. "We have a floor, and suddenly, this feels more real," Tawny shared at the time. Learning as they went, the newly established DIYers chose not to bolt the subfloor into the insulation, opting for a "floating" one instead.
"It seemed prudent to bolt fixtures and walls to the actual walls and ceiling and leave the floor floating underneath where it can…flex slightly," Tawny explained. The couple held that their new subfloor would be better long-term as they planned for consistent usage and changing temperatures that would later affect the skoolie.
When it came to the bus's windows, the couple chose between 3 options. Either leave all of them uncovered, cover them from only the inside, or remove the windows entirely and replace the space with metal to match the rest of the vehicle. In the end, they decided on the second option.
Mike and Tawny attached a thermal barrier tint to maintain cooler temperatures inside the motorhome and implement some more privacy through the windows that weren't covered by interior walls. "Not having to lose the aesthetic of the school bus windows from the outside in favor of metal was a huge plus for us," Tawny expressed.
Once the windows were tinted, Mike and Tawny began framing the metal walls of the bus. This would soon provide the skeleton for the home's new walls. "We will frame in the exterior walls first, lay laminate next, and then begin the interior wall framing," the couple shared on their Instagram page.
"Neither of us had any construction experience, so we learned as we went," Tawny shared. "There were multiple times where we would do a project and then pull it out and redo it. There were so many times that something we planned just wouldn't work," the first-time DIYer reluctantly admitted.
Installing New Floors
"Things are getting real up in here…appliances have arrived," Tawny said of the conversion at the time. The skoolie-owners had found an affordable stove and oven combo for their new home. They also managed to secure a combined Dometic fridge and freezer that would "Run off of solar while parked and propane while moving.
At that time, the new skoolie owners had also completed the framing of the walls. They managed to install the new flooring. And, to top it all off, they picked grey-colored laminate boards for their home to provided durability and beauty all in one. With the last layer installed, next came framing the interior walls.
Bathroom & Hallway Framing
But, the party isn't all in the front! Pictured here are the beginning frameworks of the bathroom, hallway, and bedroom walls. The engine is also located here at the back of the bus. While some rear-engine skoolie owners decide to separate it from the rest of the bedroom, Tawny and Mike came up with a different design.
The innovative couple wanted to keep access to the large window in the back of the bus, so they opted to transform the space above the engine into a seat! "We will reupholster over [the engine] to create a reading nook, an extension of the bed that I'm pretty sure will get more use than the bed itself," Mrs. McVay explained.
Like many skoolie conversions, these mobile homeowners made sure their bed was the right height to provide a lot of storage space underneath while still leaving enough room atop the mattress. The McVay's built several flaps into the top of the bed to later access the storage area without lifting everything.
"Each section has its own hinged lid that lifts up," the couple proudly explained. But, that wasn't the only storage space built into the bed. Mike and Tawny also made three large drawers to store under the bed. Each measured 3 feet by 3 feet and was created with the intention of storing clothes there.
The bedroom's progress was coming along swimmingly, as was the living room section of the home. The McVay's would sometimes be joined in their travels by Tawny's two teenage kids, with whom she co-parents with her former partner. So, the skoolie was created with space for the teens, too. In this case, bunk beds.
The decision was later made to remove the bunk beds. They were replaced with a new living room space, which we'll touch on later. Across from that space, the couple built a custom couch/bench. Then, between the sofa and bus's main door, Tawny and Mike designed a small "stuff" shelf for keys, wallets, and more.
Kitchen Work Begins
Past the living room but before the bathroom wall was the skoolie's brand new kitchen. You might be able to see in the photo below that there's actually a tiny space between the rear cabinets and the wall. The innovative designers managed to design and fit a breakfast nook into their home!
Despite working with a mere 250 square feet, Tawny and Mike assembled an L-shaped kitchen incorporating a built-in and intimate eating nook. The unique space also doubled as a table or desk for the home-schooled teens. The open-air layout allowed for the living room area and kitchen spaces to flow seamlessly.
Counters & Appliances
The McVay's decided on an affordable butcher-block style wood to create the countertops. Mike and Tawny then silicone and waterproofed the material. The DIYers later completed the countertop construction with Ardex Feather Finish, a self-drying cement-based finishing that gave the kitchen an industrial and glamorous look.
The wood-alternative is great as opposed to pouring concrete, which could look wonderful but would add a lot of unnecessary weight to the home on wheels. The appliance seen on the left of the photo above is an Atwood 3-Burner Range. On the right side is the Dometic fridge. Both would later be given a significant upgrade.
The Exterior Makeover
While most of the skoolie's renovations were happening inside, the passionate DIY family also worked on upgrading the bus's exterior. To coat the outer walls of the bus, they used "Special metal paint from Rust-Oleum that had primer" in it before adding the final layers of white paint to their home.
The home on wheels' exterior also had admittance to 4 extensive under-storage bays, 2 on each side of the vehicle. There, the family stored off-the-grid necessities such as twin 40-gallon water tanks, an assortment of camping supplies, and the line of batteries for their future solar panel system.
The Whole Family Helped
By the time the bus-to-home conversion was completed, the original yellow vehicle was utterly unrecognizable. The fresh white paint gave the skoolie, which the McVay's named "Oliver," an entirely new persona. To top it all off, the original windowed door was replaced with a new unique one.
"My dad actually made [the door]," Tawny gushed. "A lot of the metalwork in this bus was fabricated by my dad, who kind of does metalworking on the side as a hobby," she continued. "He custom made our front door out of this like rusty piece of metal that I fell in love with and two of the original bus windows," said McVay.
Views on Views
The vehicle's roof also got some significant enhancements, including the extension of an 8-foot rooftop deck, excellent for watching neighboring scenery. "It's like our outdoor space that travels with us…I do yoga up there, we watch the stars…the kids come up and play board games with us," shared the proud Mom.
Aside from their rooftop paradise, the home's top holds much of its off-the-grid powering system. Around the middle of the bus's top are 6 large solar panels. At the very front is a baggage rack. This is where the family secures their bikes while traveling, as they prefer to have options for transportation while traveling.
Half a year and about $20,000 later, the home was finished! However, after their first trip in the home on wheels, the McVay's knew a few changes were necessary. The most considerable issue was the bunk beds. They felt too bulky in the small space they had. Not to mention, "The kids hated them," said Tawny.
The teenagers found an issue with the fact that they couldn't sit up in their own beds and were forced to be cramped on the sofa bench during long drives. So a short time after the family thought they had completed their vast project, they quickly got back to work. This time around, the results were even better!
A Thoughtful Remodel
Redesigning the bunk beds wasn't the only development in the living room remodel. The family also decided to lower the couch on the left side and changed the under-couch storage from a large, sliding box to multiple wooden crates that hold about a dozen baskets. The initial compartment was awkward to reach, but now, much easier.
The couch also served several purposes; one arm was also a storage unit. It holds a long fold-out table that the couple and Tawny's kids could use inside and outside. The legs expanded to function as a coffee table or a dining table. Now, when the kids travel with their Mom and step-dad, the sleeping arrangement has changed.
The Hidden Couch
Now, one teen sleeps on the couch and the other on the sofa. That's right! Behind the chest and the basket decor is a hidden murphy couch. When unfolded, a second bed appears. A strategic hook on the ceiling provides more seating when the home's hammock chair gets hung in place.
With the space-eating beds removed, the McVay's made space for a new 40-inch TV to watch all of their favorite movies and play games. "This TV is perfect because it pulls out and can swivel to match the room, so when we pull down that couch and hang the hammock chair, everyone in the audience can see the TV," explained Mike.
The "Catch-all" Mudroom
At the front of the vehicle, leading into the living room is the designated "mudroom." Described by Tawny as a "Catch-all space for like when we come in, the same way that your entry in your house would be." This is where the family displays their knick-knack collection from all of their travels.
"We actually have faux walls that we throw up in these front windows," Tawny mentioned. The family hangs up the "walls" when they're parked in longer-term areas, and for short-term privacy on the road, they hang smaller blinds in the windows. Beyond the shade, next to the driver's seat, are several hooks for coats, etc.
The Kitchen Corner
The kitchen has also been through alterations. Now, the sink has been built into the concrete-finish countertops, and the room has a white textured wall that replaced the original map design. Clever hacks such as magnetic spice containers above the fridge now allow for cooking ease while keeping things in place on the move.
The innovative couple updated appliances and even painted the fridge and oven with metallic rose gold paint. "We wanted to give them a slightly different finish because when it comes to…RV or skoolie appliances, your basic three finishes are silver, black, and white, and we didn't really want any of those," Tawny explained.
The Stove & Breakfast Bar
The opposite side of the kitchen's counter was made with room for a couple of stools, as planned. This turned out to be an excellent breakfast bar or work/study space for the family and their guests. However, the skoolie's treasures don't end there. Mike and Tawny McVay also own a small Jotul stove to heat the vehicle.
"It's been amazing. It's kept us warm through an entire Montana winter, which is hard to do," said Tawny. The McVay's created a cement board as a perimeter to the stove for fire safety and capped it with a steel shield. But wait, there's more to this motor home's eatery!
Pantry Space Galore
Aside from the assortment of cabinets beneath the kitchen counter, the pair built a shelving unit where they primarily stored their variety of dry goods. The back of the shelf is an old repurposed map from their former home, which the couple unanimously decided had to come with them in the skoolie.
Across the shelves is an elastic cording that makes for easy access and keeps items organized while in motion. As for other shelving units around the house, Mike explained they "Have cargo nets that fit over the face of the shelves." With bases covered in the front of the bus, let's dive into the other rooms in the home.
An "Awesome" Bedroom View
From the looks of it, it's safe to say the couple's bedroom turned out to be a cozy-time haven. Just as they'd planned, Tawny and Mike transformed the chamber around the rear engine into a comfortable window nook. To complete the captivating experience of the window seat, they added a couch cushion and some throw pillows.
Per Mrs. McVay, their home's back window is "The most awesome [one] in the house." It's a good thing the couple decided to keep it uncovered in the end! Beneath the platform-lifted bed, visitors will find the large drawers that hold most of the couple's clothing and additional storage for winter supplies and camping gear.
Extra Bedroom Space
The majority of skoolie conversions have a bedroom just big enough to fit a bed, but not Oliver! In addition to the queen-size mattress, Mike and Tawny have a bit of walking space in the room and an open closet. The exposed storage area includes a copper bar with hooks rather than hangers, which takes up less space.
Tawny explained, "[The bedroom's] pretty big by schooly standards because we spend quite a lot of time back here." Since the couple shares custody of Tawny's two teens, they often take over the front of the bus while Mike and their Mom work in the back when the whole family is on board.
A Copper-Detailed Bathroom
It might be hard for some to believe that this luxurious bathroom is on an old school bus. But, the creative couple somehow made it happen. They chose a sliding door for the entryway to save on space and added a full-length mirror to it. Once inside the small room, the composting toilet and a mini sink are on the left side.
Mr. McVay explained, "It's a wetroom-style bathroom, so everything in here can get wet." The DIYers installed a water heater and pump under the sink, cement-finished walls, and Acacia wood-flooring that match the rest of the motorhome and are completely waterproof!
The Shower & Unique Bathtub
The restroom is most likely the area that has changed the most since the McVay's initially moved in. The toilet once stood where the bathtub is now, but Mike and Tawny moved it to make room for their highly-anticipated tub. By cutting the sink and counter in half, they managed to fit everything they wanted inside their washroom.
Beside the bathtub is a custom copper showerhead, equipped with built-in shelving on the side for toiletry products. These DIYers have certainly proven that one can have it all, even when living tiny. Their unique tub might be small, but there's something exceptional about it.
Portable Bath, Anyone?
The bathtub is transportable! "It used to be a wine barrel," Mike gushed. "Now it's just half of one barrel from California that we can use inside or outside." Repurposing rustic pieces plus bringing a Californian winery with them wherever they drive? Count us in! So, how do the McVay's live so well while traveling?
Now that the couple lives Oliver-bound full time, they both work from the road as content creators. "People say, 'How do you afford your lifestyle?'" Tawny said. "Well, we have remote jobs that we both do, but you would be surprised when you don't have a mortgage and car payments how little you can actually get by on."