The Whirlwind Project: A Full and Beautiful 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.