Choose your adVANture: Architecture students turn van into home

The idea of a home that could be parked anywhere was what inspired Tyler Wurr and Joey Bahnsen to pursue the idea of renovating a van.

Chris Jorgensen

A 1989 Chevy G20 van sits parked at a North Platte, Nebraska, gas station in the dead of night. A biting cold wind whips into the dented sides of the old van, carrying away with it any remnants of heat that may have been inside. Two roommates lie awake inside, shivering. It was day one of a 10-day journey.

Seventy-two hours later, they sit staring at the sheer red cliffs that form the boundaries around the vast green valley of Zion National Park. They had bought reflective panels, and they were now out seeing some of the most beautiful vistas the country has to offer.

The van itself was a steal — $1,200 to drive it off the George White Chevrolet lot. After a few months of design and construction, the van became a home.

It all started to prove a point in class.

Tyler Wurr and Joey Bahnsen are both fourth-year architecture students at Iowa State. They met each other first as freshmen but grew into friends during the following years.

Wurr grew up in Manning, Iowa, a town of fewer than 2,000. Bahnsen grew up in Des Moines, the largest city in Iowa. Both developed a love for engineering and architecture during high school.

The two grew sick of their architecture studio class. The class, which all architecture majors take each semester during their four years in the program, involves creating designs for “practice” clients.

“Think of a mock trial setup,” Bahnsen explained. “This class is like a ‘mock client’ design process.”

The duo’s website uses the phrase “fake buildings for fake clients.”

They were in search of more hands-on learning.

The idea originated from seeing online posts about simplistic and nomadic living, the two said. They had seen a project online that piqued their interest. “Hank Bought a Bus” was the name of a project in which an old bus was converted into a completely livable home. It was done by two architecture students at the University of Minnesota.

“He wasn’t tied down to one location,” Wurr said. “He wasn’t paying rent or on a lease. He could live on the road and live wherever he wanted to.

“It makes you ask yourself, ‘What do you really need to survive?’”

Wurr and Bahnsen didn’t realize at the time that Hank’s viral story would be the outline for their own adventures.

The idea began to surface as something they could actually make happen when a professor encouraged them to pursue the idea.

“It wasn’t just building the thing that made it an architecture project,” Bahnsen said. “We did data analysis, ran numbers and made graphs looking at how median salaries compared to median rent prices across the country. We found that it can be almost 50 percent of your income that’s being spent on living.”

The two see the $1,200 price tag of the van as a drop in the hat compared to the cost of traditional housing.

To make their dreams a reality, they had to pitch the idea to the architecture faculty. The project would take the place of their studio class. They would be the instructors and the students.

They had to write a syllabus for themselves.

The van’s first real-world test came during spring break this year. A trip west of Ames spanning 10 states and totaling just under 4,000 miles was how they would test their project.

They weren’t alone on their journey. Milo Pup, who is featured with his own bio on the group’s website, rode along for the journey.

The dog belongs to Wurr’s girlfriend, but he fit right in during the trip.

Their best friend on the trip? Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Marts are great for us. We learned that they don’t kick you out of their parking lots if you park there to sleep as long as you are toward the back,” Bahnsen explained. “I guess they figure that if they let you sleep there you’ll come in and buy groceries in the morning, which is completely accurate.”

Their original plan was to go to the northwestern parts of the country. The timing of their trip and a snowstorm that covered much of the northern parts of the United States changed their plans.

This change led them to their favorite stop on the trip: Zion National Park. They enjoyed it so much that they spent three nights in the Utah canyons.

“Zion was definitely our favorite stop during the trip,” Bahnsen said.

“That whole area of the country, in southwest Utah, is just breath-taking.” Wurr added.

During the 23-hour return trip to Iowa, the benefits of a retrofitted van were found in the naps that one would take while the other drove.

“I think that our spring break trip was probably a lot more rewarding than if we had rented a beach house for a week somewhere down south or something,” Bahnsen said. “Not only did we see some of the most gorgeous parts of the country, but we also got the satisfaction that comes when you realize that the time you spent on the project paid off.”

Wurr and Bahnsen stressed the importance of pursuing any idea, even if it seems unreachable at first.

“This whole thing was started as something we would jokingly mention to each other off and on for years,” Wurr said. “It’s so important that you take your ideas and run with them. You’re only in college once and things like this are the best memories.”

For now, the van is a work in progress. The two hope to have solar panels installed on the roof of the van soon to provide a sustainable source of energy.

Wurr and Bahnsen plan to keep the van for their remaining year at Iowa State. Taking it on weekend trips is one of the biggest perks of the project, the duo said.

After that?

“For now we just want to have fun with it. We haven’t put much thought into whether we are going to sell it or keep it,” Wurr said. “We’ll figure it out when it comes time to be adults, I guess.”