The Whirlwind Project:  A Full Renovation of a 1976 Sovereign in Three Months

When Siya and Kristen, Canadian natives and international travel vloggers and TV show hosts, arrived with Luna, their 31 foot 1976 Airstream Sovereign, we were curled on our sofa inside our 1930’s rental house. The all-day rain that had accompanied their first big haul had slowed them considerably, and four hours past their original ETA, we were exhausted (yet completely exhilarated) as we waited. The nerves and adrenaline most certainly kept us going - this was really happening. 

We had clients now, and were about to embark on something we’d never done - build an Airstream out for someone else…and we were getting paid to do it! At this point, Ellen had given notice at her teaching job, and had just a few months left to clock before she’d be going full-time with The Modern Caravan. Our bookings had increased rapidly from the time we opened our virtual doors, going from one to four in just a matter of weeks, and by the time Siya and Kristen arrived, we’d booked an additional renovation. Our bookings are currently stretching into the spring season of 2019, and this was no longer something we were just talking about doing any longer…we were doing it, ready or not. 

On that misty April evening, their rig smoothly pulled up in front of our brick Tudor-style home near midnight. Peeking out from the curtain, I got a little thrill. The emotional connection to their project - and them - was immediate. We burst out the front door and greeted our first clients with not handshakes, but warm hugs. I knew then that we were already doing business our way - this was personal, even with the exchange of money and service. To create Siya and Kristen’s first home, we needed to know who they were and care deeply for them.

Over the following couple of days, we got to do just that. They spent a few days in our old Midwestern city at a nearby Airbnb, and would meet us mid-morning at their Airstream. We were up before dawn for this project, shuffling excitedly to the kettle on the stove and pulling on our boots and jackets and leather work gloves. Siya and Kristen spoiled us with coffee from the best place in our local neighborhood (so much so that I started going regularly after they left), and we shared lunches and dinners as we would break from work - the work of pulling out interior skins, wiring, and old insulation. Our last full day with them we spent ordering supplies and making a hardware store haul, as we’d finished demo within a day with their help. We shared conversation as we worked, beers at the end of the long days, and gathered around our kitchen table and swapped stories. 

That last morning, I got to say the words as I sent them off (and hoping I believed it myself): see you in three months…with your finished home! 

And so would begin the most difficult three months of our lives together. We knew with certainty before beginning that taking on a (nearly) full renovation with such a tight turnaround would be a challenge. Originally, we’d planned to simply build. Siya and Kristen had taken their Airstream to have a shell-off frame repair, and new plumbing/tanks were installed, along with fresh propane lines. A few weeks prior to their arrival, we made the decision to run the electrical ourselves in addition to the build. Their original plan was to keep the existing, but as we began planning, we felt it was best that we take the skins off ourselves to see what was really going on, and that our interior design would be complete and enhanced by designing and running the electrical system ourselves. Siya and Kristen enthusiastically agreed, and so we added a few extra weeks’ work to our already compressed timeline. 

Unaware to them, however, was the improper reattachment of the shell, which allowed for water to pour into the trailer during their rainy trip south. We were quickly adding tasks and repairs, and were suddenly down to just two months to do the interior build - if we could waterproof, install three new fans, patch, run an intricate and extensive electrical system, insulate, reinstall skins, prime and paint, and lay flooring within one month. 

Doable, certainly, if Ellen wasn’t teaching full-time, and Kate wasn’t getting The Modern Caravan up and running along with wrapping up her own freelance design and photography projects. Not to mention the not-so-tiny task of downsizing and preparing to move out of our rental house the same day Siya and Kristen’s project wrapped, ready to hit the road for the next two and a half years to renovate for other booked clients. Oh…and we’re mamas, did we mention that? Parenting, school drop-offs and events, playdates (can’t stand that word), a proper dinner on the table each night, homework help. Life didn’t stop, and the business needed to grow, and Ellen was still gone eight-to-ten hours per day. She’d come home and we’d dive right into work, only breaking for dinner and kissing our kiddo goodnight. 

Yet we were determined. Siya and Kristen’s steady faith in us, along with our knowledge that we most certainly could do whatever we put our minds to, and the encouragement from our community kept us going…even in the hard places. Day-to-day we wavered. On productive days, we’d clink our beer bottles together and whoop loudly - we can do this! - and then on other days, where the regular life tasks would stretch on and we couldn’t get the hours or momentum - can we do this? 

Failure’s not an option. 

We repeated those four words to one another daily, sometimes more than once. Siya and Kristen would be getting a beautiful, finished, and functional home - even if it completely wore us down. We wanted to give them that, and we’d do anything to get to that finish line in the right way. 

As the first month progressed, we worked around the clock to ensure water-tightness and run wires for a mostly DC electrical system that would allow Siya and Kristen the ability to add solar later on, with a full battery bank and AC/DC converter. We installed a total of 37 DC lights, overhead + two reading lamps bedside, along with both AC and DC charging options bedside, at the desk, and at the dinette for ample working space options. We wanted to give them the ability to spread out when working, and given their line of work, we knew they’d need a lot of charging options for their equipment. We ran DC power for the composting toilet 12v fan, water pump, propane oven, three new fans, and fridge. AC power was run for the fridge, induction cooktop, propane/electric water heater. We installed a dual point Bluetooth capable surround sound system, with speakers in the bedroom and dinette area, allowing for isolation of speakers, along with a pretty hefty subwoofer at Siya’s request, and ran lines for eventual solar. 

The electrical wrapped quickly as we pulled late-nights and early-mornings, and we moved onto insulation. For this project, we chose Roxul, which was certainly not the easiest to work with, and Reflectix, which we’ve used before and like just fine. One of the questions we get most often is about our insulation choices, and some folks are appalled, and some think we’re doing the exact right thing. When it comes to insulation, go with your gut and your personal needs. Read what you can, do your research, and then make a decision. There are upsides and downsides to all choices, yet as we move forward, we hope to continue to press onward towards greener solutions, such as wool or denim, depending on the client’s budget and needs. 

Before we knew it, we were rounding the curve towards May, the deadline for having skins back in, priming and painting complete, and flooring installed. A week late, but we managed. It was time to start building with just seven weeks to go.

While our build might have seemed simple in concept and design, there are always far more to it than meets the eye. It’s easy for an outsider to look at the finished project in a tiny photograph on Instagram and think - why did that take two months? It’s just a couple of pieces of plywood. No joke, we had someone say once that they could’ve built our entire first Airstream in a day. 

What the outsider cannot see, however, is accounting for the uneven, no-two-are alike curves, or the slatted wooden supports for walls and cabinetry Ellen’s came up with for our first Airstream renovation. Or plumbing an RV and customizing a shower pan from an existing too-large pan using fiberglass and Bondo. We built multiple jigs to build custom drawers that are all perfectly squared up to one another when built and installed. Things like saving weight, saving materials, aesthetics, hidden compartment storage, and personalized functionality are all considered and implemented. Client desires and unique elements, such as a cedar shower surround and perfectly cut, 1/4” thick Plexiglass dividing window from the shower to the bedroom, or practical design elements that look flawless and beautiful, such as access to the water heater electrical system from the inside of the trailer, a perfectly water-tight shower with flexible tile, bench over the water heater and plumbing, and built in shower nook for bath items, aren’t easy projects. These things take skill, planning, thought, conversation, and time. 

In the final days, we had a list of final touches. As Ellen finished the most complicated shower build to date, Kate sailed through a pages-long list of paint touch ups, trim work, window handle installation, and even the application of oak veneer edging to the bed and dinette, along with a myriad of other tasks, some big and some small. Copious amounts of coffee kept us going until midnight, sometimes two a.m., and then (multiple) alarms would wake us again at six. Twenty-two hour days were the worst, and we are thankful for the friends and family who understood we were in deep over our heads, bringing us food, watching our daughter, or lending their hands and bodies. 

As the last week was coming to a close, the tasks increased outside of the work, as we sorted through our tools, organized and packed, and cleaned our house and finalized move-out. Things like fixing a rotting deck rail that had broken of it’s own volition, in order to be certain our landlords would be happy, were addressed. It wasn’t just a renovation we were wrapping up, it was the life we’d had in that house and in that city. We were saying our last goodbyes and preparing to hit the road. 

On June 29th, the last night, we were installing the Plexiglass window in the shower, fixing a cabinet door that wasn’t up to our standards, and packing up the truck. Our truck cap had been installed the day before, after a stressful situation of the company losing it. With just a day to spare, it arrived. Standing in the hot, muggy Indiana summer air, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t just the humidity. There was so much left to do, and we were leaving in the morning for a campground an hour north of us to await Siya and Kristen’s July 3rd arrival. A film crew, having been following us around a bit, would be filming our drive north with one Airstream, and then again with the other. A bike carrier was in pieces next to the truck, needing assembly for our new roof rack. The Airstream was looking beautiful, but we were going to be finishing work at the crowded, holiday-weekend campground - the evening before, we’d assembled the bathroom door but it was unpainted, and the hardware to install it still in the box, amongst a myriad of other tasks and jobs. 

I took a moment and went to our Airstream, which we’d been living in for a few weeks then, and sat on the floor with my head in my hands and my knees drawn up to my chest. We were so close. We’d come so far, yet the end of it all still felt so far away. The lists were still long, and my heart was pounding. My nerves, usually calm in stressful situations, were making my entire body shake. For the last three months, we’d given all of ourselves to this renovation, and I was, in truth, afraid that we weren’t going to have it finished. We’d thrown ourselves so into the work that we’d given up time for ourselves, time for our marriage, and time as a family. Friends and family had fallen by the wayside, and the emails for our business were piling up. It all felt insurmountable at that moment, but as I breathed in deep, on the floor of our Airstream home, I felt this incredible peace come over my entire body. We were going to complete this renovation, and we were going to get on the road. There was no reason we couldn’t - because to have even come as far as we had - we’d overcome the seemingly impossible, and not just with a renovation. In the past year and a half, we'd built a business, renovated two Airstreams, worked on building trust in a relationship with our daughter's dad, and figured out how to get back on the road where we belonged. We'd overcome job loss, poverty, and brokenness. We could do this. 

Writing this story, we realize that many folks will be disappointed. The Modern Caravan, however, isn’t a how-to blog. We never wanted it to be. From the time we began our first Airstream renovation, the work was never just about the how-to, the math, the logistics. This work we do is far more meaningful than just a compilation of our accomplishments and our know-how, it’s about resiliency. Achieving the impossible. Challenging our minds, hearts, and bodies. Finding joy in what we do. It is best said by economist E.F. Schumacher in his book, “Small is Beautiful”...and we hope to do as he says and are continue to seek our version of right-livelihood. Our goals are, quite simply, to excel at one’s craft, to overcome selfishness by working in common cause with others, and to create useful goods and services. 

When we tell the story of our work, from renovation-to-renovation, we will continue to share the ups and the downs from a place of honestly and vulnerability. We don’t have it all figured out, though we are proud of our work and believe in our capability, we aren’t coming from a position of authority and power. We don’t know everything, and won’t claim to. We are thankful for the softness it brings to the way things are done, and that our hearts are fully invested in the work and our clients, people we can now say are friends. We hope to achieve this with everyone we work with, each relationship built on trust, mutual respect, and honesty.

The moment was upon us on July 3rd. Siya and Kristen had arrived, and they'd brought with them two totes of their personal belongings. We’d spent the previous two days at the campground waiting for them to arrive, our Airstreams parked side-by-side, as they finished a five-week job across Canada and then made their way back to the States to see their home for the first time. My strategic posting on social media over the final two months of renovation was for them - they wanted to be surprised. For the reveal, I lugged their boxes inside and unpacked their items carefully, quickly setting up their home for them. I wanted them to walk in and not just see what we’d done, but truly know they were home. As they were mic’d up with the sound guy, I sweated in the heat. The producer, Jill, along with the still photographer, Steve, helped me make the king-sized bed, the three of us drenched in sweat. Soon, however, I found my mark in the space and gave the signal. It was time. 

Ellen led them over, and I watched as they purposefully averted their eyes as they walked past the panoramic windows. The rest of the world started to melt away, and I didn’t even notice the cameras or extra people around, or the curious onlookers in the packed campground. It was just them, and us, just as it started. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully describe what it was like to see Siya and Kristen see their home for the first time, and to know that their faces, their reactions and their emotions, were because of the work we did for them. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that we were so tired we could barely hold ourselves up, or that we could feel the sickness coming on after those months of endless physical labor. They didn’t even look at the rest of it, instead, they reached for us and enveloped us in hugs as tears streamed down their cheeks. They were speechless for a moment, just looking around with their mouths agape, and then the gratitude just kept tumbling out. They both took their time, looking at every little detail. For me, I’ll not forget that Siya looked right in my eyes, and held both of my hands. I could see how much it meant to him, and in these brief moments, I knew that we were doing exactly what we are meant to do at this time in our lives. Though it may certainly evolve, and we will evolve with it, we had accomplished what we've set out to do - we’d excelled at our craft, we’d overcome selfishness by working in common cause with others, and we’d created a useful good and service. We had given two nomads living out of suitcases and who'd slept in over one-hundred beds just the past year alone - a home, and the perfect one at that - a wheeled vessel to satisfy their wanderlust and fulfill their version of right-livelihood. A place with their own bed, and kitchen, and bathroom. A place to create, love, cry, laugh, grow, and work all their own. 

And that, that my friends - that is exactly where we want to be. We want to create tiny, functional, beautiful homes that serve not simply the purpose of beauty and acclaim, or to make it just to make it and sell it off, but homes that are tailored to the individual, who speak to their souls, and fulfill their needs. Spaces that are honest, that tell the story of the inhabitant, and allow their lives to unfold in truthful and beautiful ways.

 

WEEK 5 (6, 7 + 8): 1976 Airstream Sovereign

Well. 

Here we are, nearly five weeks after our last post.

Needless to say, we're so focused on the work (out of complete necessity), that we've barely had time to do updates for you all (and we were doing so well at first!). We truly want to give out as much information as we possibly can to you all, but this season of life has been so incredibly chaotic. Not only are we still getting a business going, we're now working on an actual renovation project. Ellen is wrapping up her last year of teaching (we still have one week of school left here!), and then there's that tiny insignificant detail of moving out of our house, downsizing everything we own, and getting back on the road. 

So many rainy, dark days - working in the rain isn't much fun and doesn't lend itself to great photos, either...this image was taken a few weeks ago. 

So many rainy, dark days - working in the rain isn't much fun and doesn't lend itself to great photos, either...this image was taken a few weeks ago. 

With just 28 days until we move out of our house and into the Airstream, we are just trying our best to keep our heads above water, finish the renovation project beautifully, say our goodbyes to friends and family, and transition smoothly (or smoothly enough) into a very new way of life. Yes, we've lived on the road before - but it was a very different experience than this (though the crazy workload is very similar). This time though, it's not our Airstream we're pushing to finish...which brings us to the real point of this post: an update on our progress in Siya and Kristen's Airstream home.

Progress: dry fitting custom countertops and tabletop. Appliances, receiver, subwoofer, converter box installed. Time to paint and make some cabinet doors and drawers! 

Progress: dry fitting custom countertops and tabletop. Appliances, receiver, subwoofer, converter box installed. Time to paint and make some cabinet doors and drawers! 

We've made excellent progress over the last month. We previously left you all with updates regarding reinstallation of panels, paint, wiring in light fixtures, et cetera. Since then, we've done the following: 

  • Laid flooring
  • Framed out the entire Airstream: 
    • bathroom walls
    • bed
    • street side cabinetry 
    • curb side cabinetry
    • dinette
    • new wheel wells (plus insulation) 
  • Installed bathroom/kitchen dividing wall (using 1/4" ply)
  • Installed toe kick on cabinetry and secured to Airstream
  • Built fridge platform and installed undermount fridge 
  • Installed kitchen sink 
  • Built platform for oven and did dry install
  • Cut Elm planks and assembled tabletop, began planing/sanding process
  • Installed a city water inlet
  • Switched out fresh tank vent plumbing for new and properly angled 
  • Fleshed out dinette framing with 3/4" ply and cut drawer front, along with top down openings for storage access
  • Seat cushion foam cut to fit, linen upholstery cut and sewn
  • Installed subwoofer, receiver, outlet, and converter box in dinette benches
  • Built out bed, along with front laundry access
  • Installed and wired AC + DC outlets in bed frame 
  • Began ripping barn wood planks for custom countertops
  • Wiring up the AC + DC into the converter box 

And I'm sure we're missing tons of other little things, especially as this Airstream is really coming together! Though we've still a long way to go (and in all likelihood, 20 hour days ahead of us starting next weekend), we're confident that we'll get finished on time. We are getting so excited to do this big reveal for Siya and Kristen, as they are our only clients who will not be (or rather haven't been), with us for the entire duration of the renovation. Their jobs as travel bloggers take them all over the world, which is so incredible - so there is something really special about this renovation. We're doing our best to keep from oversharing so these two get a big surprise when they walk into their home for the first time! We will definitely be getting some video of their reactions, so stay tuned for that. 

Two months down, one to go. 

 

Week 4: 1976 Airstream Sovereign

Ready for flooring! 

Ready for flooring! 

Sitting with an extra dry gin martini (with a caper berry, my favorite), to soothe the adrenaline rush and relax myself after the past weekend of crazy. It's been absolutely pouring here, just buckets and buckets of rain. Much of the Midwest is under flood warnings, and we are no exception. Rain poured into part of our basement (luckily far from where we're storing renovation supplies), and onto our backs as we stepped out and back into the Airstream repeatedly. I even found myself (not wanting to lose any more time due to the storms) on my hands and knees scrubbing window frames as the skies unleashed. The thunderstorms brought lightning, which dampened our efforts at times, and overall, the rain always contributes to slowed productivity when working on an Airstream, as the lines between indoor and outdoor are so blurred. Yet we pushed through and pushed on, and had an incredible weekend to be proud of. 

Last week, before we laid on that first coat of primer. We used Zinsser on this Airstream, but Kilz is just as good and we've used it in the past. We recommend both of these primers when painting over the skins with the existing vinyl for stain, grease cover-up and fantastic grip/stick. 

Last week, before we laid on that first coat of primer. We used Zinsser on this Airstream, but Kilz is just as good and we've used it in the past. We recommend both of these primers when painting over the skins with the existing vinyl for stain, grease cover-up and fantastic grip/stick. 

Cutting the aluminum - keep it in the box while it's still got quite a bit of length to it. Cut a slit along the long side of the box and slide the aluminum skin through the slit. Repeat this process until all your pieces are cut to length. This image was taken when we only had this length left in the box, and removed it only then. The tight coil and pressure could be dangerous, but mostly, it's much more manageable to cut, especially in a tight space. 

Cutting the aluminum - keep it in the box while it's still got quite a bit of length to it. Cut a slit along the long side of the box and slide the aluminum skin through the slit. Repeat this process until all your pieces are cut to length. This image was taken when we only had this length left in the box, and removed it only then. The tight coil and pressure could be dangerous, but mostly, it's much more manageable to cut, especially in a tight space. 

Friday night we took off, per the usual - our one night off per week to recuperate, be together as a family, or hang with our people. We spent time with our amazing friends, Scott and Erin, and their brood of girls. Lots of wine and the most amazing salmon (flown in fresh from Alaska) and such good conversation. We are going to miss them so much! 

We were up bright and early Saturday morning to strong thunderstorms, making a Lowe's run for some electrical supplies and then crossing some items off our personal to-do list while we waited for the lightning to slow. As soon as the dangerous weather cleared, we hit the Airstream work hard. We worked consistently the rest of the weekend, taking breaks only to eat and sleep, with serious focus and determination. Knowing we've had this Airstream for one month and have only two months left to finish is pretty good motivation to kick it into gear and get shit done. 

Clean, gorgeous end cap. The dining space is going to feel so open and inviting. Picture some cozy benches with neutral, gray linen cushions and a custom solid Elm table, made right here by us. 

Clean, gorgeous end cap. The dining space is going to feel so open and inviting. Picture some cozy benches with neutral, gray linen cushions and a custom solid Elm table, made right here by us. 

Here's what we've been working on since we last checked in: 

- Finished installing/riveting in ceiling panels

- Installed remaining patches

- Cleaned the skins thoroughly

- Custom cut aluminum for both end caps and installed

- Primed

- Painted

- Installed electrical boxes (in skins only)

- Wired in 35 DC recessed lights and 2 custom made swing arm DC sconces, installed

Wiring in one of the DC lights - after 35 of these, I definitely felt like Popeye. My forearms were getting a crazy workout. 

Wiring in one of the DC lights - after 35 of these, I definitely felt like Popeye. My forearms were getting a crazy workout. 

- Installed/wired AC outlets

- Installed/wired DC switches (in skins only)  

- Cleaned and installed window frames/screens

- Reinstalled door frame

- Painted window frames

- Cut aluminum to square and installed Fantastic Fan framing (link below to the fan model we love)

- Reinstalled AC unit and ceiling assembly

- Installed four Furrion speakers

- Cleaned and prepped for floor installation 

Lots of white primer and lots of wire. 

Lots of white primer and lots of wire. 

Most of this work was done in the past two days, starting at the DC lighting in the above list. The end caps, along with priming and painting, took about a week. We've been surprising ourselves, quite honestly, with our ability to keep at this work at such a fast clip. Hard to believe that just two weeks ago, we were finishing up insulation and installing interior skins, or that just one mere month ago, we were gutting and taking out interior skins and wiring to start fresh. 

Everything starting to come together. The recessed 12v lights came from Amazon and we love how they look so much we may replace the ones in our own Airstream. Link below - we purchased the white finish, which we love. The lights blend in perfectly with the ceiling, keeping the look clean throughout, which is good, since we have 35 lights up there!    The 12v swing arm sconces are from   Lucent Lightshop  , and were custom made for our partnership. They are launching a 12v line of RV lighting and asked if we'd try out their product. We love how they look and the smaller sizing suits the Airstream bedroom space so well. 

Everything starting to come together. The recessed 12v lights came from Amazon and we love how they look so much we may replace the ones in our own Airstream. Link below - we purchased the white finish, which we love. The lights blend in perfectly with the ceiling, keeping the look clean throughout, which is good, since we have 35 lights up there!  

The 12v swing arm sconces are from Lucent Lightshop, and were custom made for our partnership. They are launching a 12v line of RV lighting and asked if we'd try out their product. We love how they look and the smaller sizing suits the Airstream bedroom space so well. 

Thanks to Airparts, Inc. for the aluminum for our custom end caps - we ordered the 60-inch width this time around and just loved the flexibility it gave us in cutting those curves for this project. While the end caps aren't a quick project, we love how they open up and modernize the space instantly, as opposed to reusing the original molded plastic from the 70s. We think a lot of folks make the originals look fantastic, we just prefer the open, clean look for our Airstreams. 

On another note of gratitude, this one is for you all: thank you for hanging in there, guys. Our tight turnaround on this project, along with finishing up our current jobs, limits time to produce content (and respond to comments/emails) significantly. We can't thank you enough for your patience with us! 

Until next time, folks. 


DISCLOSURE:

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