Couple Builds DIY Family Home out of an Old School Bus
| LAST UPDATE 09/05/2021
A conventional lifestyle wasn't for Lauren and Derek. That’s why the couple decided to take on a DIY project, converting an old school bus into their family home! Keep reading for the fascinating transformation.
Meet the Couple
Before they embarked on their DIY adventure, Derek and Lauren were living in Long Beach, California, with their daughter Luna. And though their life was good on paper, neither felt truly satisfied.
In fact, they had both become increasingly unhappy. Both Lauren and Derek worked as active-duty military personnel, meaning they spent months away from each other in a high-intensity environment. "We hate our jobs," they confessed. "The stresses of our full-time jobs are unnecessary."
They Needed a Change
The importance of their jobs and the experiences they had while serving wasn’t lost on the couple. But together, Lauren and Derek had served a combined 15 years in the military, and they both knew it was time to move on. They had to do something - they had to make a plan!
So the couple set out to devise possible plans for the future and thinking of alternative ways they might like to live. They knew they wanted to travel more than anything. And they also felt a pull toward mobile living, such as residing out of a vehicle or motor home. And that’s where the skoolie community came in...
The Perfect Bus
Skoolie are old buses - usually retired school buses - that are bought and converted into tiny homes. The movement was becoming very popular, and the more time Derek and Lauren spent reading about the community, the more they were convinced to try it themselves.
It seemed like the perfect strategy. "No one knows who we are, we aren't even sure," the couple asserted. "One thing we are sure about, though, is we hate our jobs, the stresses of our full-time jobs are unnecessary. So we bought an exit strategy…. a 1996 Thomas Bluebird diesel pusher exit strategy."
The 1996 Thomas Bluebird was exactly what they were looking for. The only problem? It was all the way in Georgia, 3,000 miles from their Long Beach home! Neither Derek nor Lauren felt deterred… until they arrived in Georgia and realized the bus had more problems than they had signed up for.
For one, they couldn't even get it all the way back to California. "The power steering oil is somehow spraying all over the engine," Derek explained. "We can not find a leak anywhere… We have brought it to 3 different mechanics. No one seems to have a clue." Thankfully, a mechanic in Texas pinpointed the problem.
The Journey Begins
The talented man "diagnosed [the lead] within seconds," so at least they knew they'd be able to take it home. It was a momentary hitch in the plan. But as long as they could get it back to California, that was all that mattered. Not to mention, they had prepared for problems like this before they left for Georgia.
The skoolie owners they talked to gave them good advice based on experience. "We budgeted for our bus purchase to also include significant emergency repairs on our inaugural 2,800 mile trip," Derek said. Despite the stumbling block, they made it to California with the bus intact. It was time to get to work!
A Growing Family
Of course, Laura and Derek's skoolie journey was going to require a little more preparation than the conventional skoolie experiences they'd read about. Why? The couple wasn't doing it alone: They needed room for their young daughter, Luna, and another surprise visitor.
Laura was pregnant with their second child! So they needed to deck out the old Bluebird with everything one needs in a living space, such as a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. And they needed not one but two bedrooms to fit everyone! They still weren’t 100% sure they could even make it work.
Transforming the Space
But now it was time to get started on renovations - and to turn their investment into a home. "Can't wait to transform this space," Lauren and Derek shared on their social media. "From a 72 passenger bus to a 3 'bedroom' home on wheels." It was time to start demolishing the insides, so they had a blank canvas to work with.
This meant gutting the interior by ripping out the ceilings, walls, and floors! They started at the ceiling, removing each panel one by one to reveal the insulation. Things were looking good, as there was no trace of water intrusion. "A good sign," they gushed.
Taking Out the Rest
Though there was no visible water intrusion, there were a few leaks inside the bus they soon noticed. Southern California was hit by heavy rain showers during the beginning of renovations. Luckily, Derek and Lauren were able to fix the leaks as they appeared.
And soon enough, they had ripped out virtually everything inside the bus - the walls, ceiling, floors, and air conditioning units. Their project was far from over. But it felt good to see the cleared foundations of their new home. They even had 15,000 screws and countless metal sheets to show for it!
Next up, they had to tend to a thick bed of rust that had developed around the water leaks in the walls and ceilings. Almost two decades of rust had to be treated with Ospho, a powerful rust remover. They then had to smooth the surface of the treated areas so they could build on them.
Derek and Lauren had to make sure every surface was in perfect condition before they began building. After all, the last thing they wanted was to pull everything apart again. This meant hours and hours of cleaning the space, removing rust, and sealing up leaks. But in their eyes, it was all going to be worth it.
Now for the Floors
The rust was gone, and now that all the leaks were sealed? It was time to start on the floor. Before starting this project, Lauren and Derek would have been completely lost, but thankfully they had garnered tons of advice from the skoolie community. They felt prepared for each step ahead.
They set out measuring and cutting the framing for their floor, as well as preparing for the subfloor of the bus. This meant selecting insulation boards recommended by skoolie friends they had met online. Insulation board was the easiest boarding to cut and shape into custom sizes, making it perfect for the bus layout.
The floor insulation was done, meaning their future home was one step closer to being protected from the elements. And after a few more hours of cleaning, Lauren and Derek were finally able to fit their cork subfloor over their newly installed installation boards. The subfloor was finished!
As one can see in the photo above, they also had to work around the large wheel boxes that protruded from the floor, changing the shape of their floor plan. They covered these with insulation and subflooring, too but decided to leave the top layer of flooring for later in the process.
The subfloor and floor insulation may have been completed, but there was still much more to do. The base of their motorhome still wasn’t finished, so they decided to keep moving. After all, they wouldn’t be laying the floor until it was time to officially move their furniture in.
So they began work on the ceilings and walls. Derek set to cutting out wooden frames for the walls and even had to improvise a frame for the curved ceiling of the bus. Once that was done, it was time to finish off the rest of the insulation! And once that was complete, they could start on the furniture.
Building a motorhome for a full family wasn’t the only thing that separated Lauren and Derek from more conventional skoolies. Not only were they planning to house two children, but they also planned to DIY literally everything! They were on a tight budget, after all.
Believe it or not, this ambitious pair was planning to build all the bus furniture themselves! Or at least, Derek was going to custom-make their furniture. With Lauren’s pregnancy coming further along, she could only afford to do so much intensive work.
Making the Living Room
The first piece of furniture Derek planned to build was a sofa for their living room, situated at the front of the bus. It was the first room people would see when entering their home. Custom-built furniture was not only cost-effective, but it would fit the shape of their bus far better than store-bought pieces.
The L-shaped sofa Derek built would be the signature piece of their little living room, and even worked as a spare bed! They took pictures to share with their family and friends online. "Living room finally making progress," the caption read. "Couch slides out and turns into a full-size bed for guests!"
Working on the Walls
Though their living room plans were already beginning to take shape, there was still plenty of work to do on the structure of the bus. The walls, in particular, needed work. Derek and Lauren still had entirely new walls to build, but they also had to panel the main walls of the bus.
Both of the skoolie newbies had decided against having an open-plan home. They wanted the different spaces of their home to be separate, and they needed walls that would section off each room. This meant building walls to separate the bathroom and both bedrooms.
Let’s Build a Kitchen
Now that the walls were up and fully framed, it was time for the rooms to take shape. They started with one of the most important spaces in the house - the kitchen! Just like the rest of the furniture, Derek DIY’d every cabinet in the kitchen and installed a farmhouse sink to make the most of the counter space.
"Super hard to get accurate color of the cabinets, but after trying a million different shades of blue, we ended up with a much more neutral slate blue than what we originally imagined would be bright blue," the couple explained of the process. "After deciding on our color palate for curtains and cushions, this color went best."
In most school buses, there is one long window that spans across the back wall of the vehicle. For Lauren and Derek, there was no better place to have their master bedroom! As we can see, they began building the frame of their new bed inside the room once the walls were up.
And they had plenty of innovative plans ahead to make the most of the space, with a design that was going to be both functional and aesthetically appealing. They also planned to install some clever cabinetry in the walls that would provide all the storage they needed.
Progressing to the Roof
Derek and Lauren were very busy - between building custom furniture for their new home and completing the structure of the bus. Again, with the recommendation of more experienced skoolie owners, they chose shiplap boarding to panel the walls and ceilings.
But they didn’t want the whole house to be in one uniform color and texture. So for the middle of the bus, they installed sheets of plywood and painted over them with white paint, keeping the shiplap as it is. This was just one of the ways that they began to customize the bus, truly making it feel like home.
The Back of the Bus
Meanwhile, the master bedroom of the bus was beginning to take shape, and both Lauren and Derek could see their vision coming to life! In Derek’s eyes, their bedroom had to be “bougie,” a little piece of luxury at the back of their small home. It was all coming together.
Derek took it upon himself to install window sills and trim. And he even altered the windows somewhat to make them look more homely. He also completed the paneling on the walls and ceilings, so that they finally had a completed bedroom space to fill with furniture.
A New Addition
During this hectic period, Lauren and Derek also welcomed their second daughter into the world. While it was a joyous time for the little family, it also meant that they had to finish their space soon, so there was enough room for all four members on board their skoolie home!
This meant even more extensive furniture-building for Derek, who now had to construct a new set of bunk beds for his young daughters. He may not have been a professional carpenter, but we sure are impressed with his work! The space between the bathroom and master bedroom would soon become the children's bedroom.
Ready to Ride
Now the 1996 Thomas Bluebird was officially a home! Though it wasn’t completely finished, and there were still a few bits and pieces to take care of, Lauren and Derek’s skoolie was finally liveable. After almost two years of work, their home was road-ready.
And it was almost unrecognizable from the bus they had driven home from Georgia. They had done so much work on it, down to the tiny details. For instance, the new driver's seat they had installed which could be turned to face the living room area. And there were more cool features to explore...
Enough Seating for Everyone
After maneuvering the driver's seat, the family could simply place a cushion on the space where their daughter's car seat would sit. This left them with two comfortable seating spaces for their living room. And opposite these seats was their custom-built sofa, so there was more than enough space for every member of the family.
Again, Derek had no formal carpentry experience before taking on their skoolie project, so it’s safe to say he did a fantastic job! Their custom sofa-bed was constructed to fit their living room exactly - and Lauren even made a set of yellow cushions to decorate it.
When it comes to building a skoolie, it is vital to give your objects and furniture multiple purposes to make the most of the small space. Lauren and Derek took this advice to heart, especially when it came to their car seat holder. It was built with two extra purposes: as a sofa bench and a dining table!
The table was a fold-out one and was an ingenious move by Derek as it could also be stored beneath the cushions. Between the sofa and the kitchen was a set of cabinets for extra storage, which they had covered with a hand-painted mural. Later on, they changed their mind, covering it with a layer of white paint.
The Kitchen Comes to Life
By this point, they had also finished their kitchen, and Derek really proved himself as an amateur furniture maker. He fitted their small kitchen with both a set of kitchen cabinets and a countertop measured and cut to fit the space perfectly. He used two layers of birch ply, and a sheet of Formica glued on with contact cement.
These custom-made cabinets and drawers were then topped off with hand-made handles! Using a ⅜ inch copper pipe with 90-degree elbows and wooden dowels, both Derek and Lauren were able to create perfect matching handles that could be screwed to their kitchen furniture.
Everything They Need
But it wasn’t just the custom-made furniture that really set this kitchen apart. The couple also sourced an apartment-style oven so that they could cook meals of virtually any kind for their little family. It only needed to be powered by the solar panels installed on the roof!
They even planned down to minute details, with the intent of maximizing space as much as they could. The result? They now had even more kitchen space than they did in their full-sized home! "We always imagined an L-shaped kitchen," they explained. "By putting the oven in the corner, we will maximize counter space."
What About the Kids?
Remember the gorgeous set of bunk beds that Derek had built himself? They were set up in the second room of the house, further back near the end of the bus. To make the space perfect for their two little girls, they even hand-painted the bunks, making fun patterns with the help of painting tape.
And there were extra features Derek had added to the bunks to make sure they were as functional as possible in the small space. Not only did they have the necessary wooden ladder for the girls to get to the top bunk, but they even had an extra space below the mattresses - as a handy little storage cubby!
Last but Not Least
It seems that Derek pulled out all the stops when it came to his daughters, as he even made it so that there was valuable storage space beneath the bunk bed mattress. Simply by hoisting up the base, Derek and Lauren could put in or pull out all manner of toys and other belongings. But what about the bathroom?
Because space in their new skoolie was so limited, it made it hard to build a full-sized bathroom. But of course, Lauren and Derek knew how to make do. The bathroom sink was built small, but it wasn’t an issue when they had the large farmhouse sink in the kitchen. And off to the side was a small separate room for the toilet!
Somewhere to Wash
And just behind the kitchen sink was a half wall, another separate but doorless section of the bathroom. Here was the shower where each member of the family could wash. And because they had left it without a door, the shower felt more spacious than one might expect.
Of course, Lauren and Derek had put a lot of brainpower into designing the ideal shower area. All of the water was supplied by internal water tanks, and purposefully minimalist grey slab tiles lined the shower. What was slightly less minimalist was the eye-grabbing gold showerhead, a perfect match for their kitchen handles.
The Master Bedroom
And back to the master bedroom: the place where Lauren and Derek planned to take a few hours out of each hectic day to unwind and take a breather. Here the couple had finally added their finishing touches. For example, the wood of the shiplap and bedroom cabinetry was accompanied by a pretty orange bedroom palette.
The gorgeous orange comforter on their bed complemented the quilted curtains Lauren had made for their bedroom windows. And they topped it all off with intricate cane webbing installed into the cabinets above their beds. Altogether it gave the room a more intimate, personalized feel.
More to Go
Despite all of the long hours and herculean efforts Lauren and Derek have put into their future home, they haven’t moved in just yet. Instead, they decided to stay on as military employees until their skoolie is finished, so they can continue to fund the project until it’s 100% complete.
In the meantime, they still worked on their house bus, in between looking after their daughters and Derek’s occasional deployments. They’ve even driven their skoolie to five national parks! And the couple has a laundry list for 2022: finish the bus, quit their jobs, and hit the road full-time. We wish them the best of luck!