Things We've Learned | Part I

 Alaska, August 2015. THE road to hope.

Alaska, August 2015. THE road to hope.

If you've only been following along with our story for a little while, you may not know that we're not new to the traveling/Airstream renovation scene, though we only started The Modern Caravan last year. Airstream renovation and full-time travel isn't a new thing for us. This post is about what we've learned after doing six Airstream renovations over the course of four years, and though that's not say, the number that bigger companies with big teams do, it's a hell of a lot for two people. We've learned so much because we don't have a team. We are both 100% involved in every single renovation we do. Everything you see (with the exception of some cushions and one countertop) is built and crafted by our two sets of hands. We know the ins and outs of this work, and continue to put ourselves in the way of learning. We don't claim the term 'expert', we claim 'continually learning', with 12,000+ hours of physical renovation labor under our belts alone. That doesn't include the hours upon hours of research we do, or the work of starting the business, or the full-time travel, or any of the other associated learning that comes with living on the road, running a business from the road, etc. 

So let's get to it - here are a few of the many things we've learned over the past several years regarding Airstream renovation. This is largely geared toward those of you who are planning to get on the road, but there's advice in here for any Airstream renovator. 

1. Airstream renovation is a massive undertaking.

It will consume your life. You won't just be putting in the labor hours, you'll be researching and trying to figure out how to do tasks you've never done before. Yes, you might've been a contractor or home builder, but Airstream renovation presents a unique set of challenges. Both of our dads built houses in their early twenties, and when they came to help with our aluminum dwellings, we were teaching them, not the other way around. If you're wanting to get on the road quickly, renovation is not the answer. 

We have folks reach out to us for consultations who are certain they'll have their gut renovation done in three months because they have friends who are carpenters, or they have a strong work ethic, and they can spend every weekend and evening after work doing the renovation...or insert any other reason here for why they will bust out their reno faster than even we can bust one out, and we're doing this full time, not part time, and have actual Airstream renovation experience! Time and again, we've watched those renovations stretch out to eight months...to a year...to two years...there are too many unforeseen circumstances and too many things you don't know how to do that you'll spend more time researching and brainstorming than actually doing. That doesn't even begin to touch on timing, which I'll go into detail on below. 

2. Don't Take the Shortcut

After six Airstream renovations, including a not-so-vintage Airstream from 1994, trust us when we say the shortcuts are never, ever worth it. Anxious to get on the road? We get that. Trust us. We've been there. In many ways, we're still there. Yet you never know what's behind the skins or under your subfloor unless you do the work of looking. We see so many people - who didn't remove their interior skins - complain about leaks and are constantly up on their roof with a caulk gun, but this problem could be solved by being thorough from the beginning. Yes, it's tedious. Yes, it's time-consuming (to check every rivet). Yes, it's scary to drill out rivets and pull down your interior skins. 

Not that long ago, we were in your position, standing right where you are now, afraid to take out the original interior though it was rotted and moldy, afraid to drill out a rivet, afraid we'd ruin something. Scared or not, it's worth it to be thorough. It's worth it to know your chassis isn't rusted and you won't lose the back half of your trailer going down the road. It's worth it to not spend thousands of dollars and many hours of your life building on top of an unsafe, leaky trailer. Please bear in mind we are not saying this to make anyone feel bad, but having seen multiple trailers from various years (including our own, newer '94) in poor condition, we feel it's necessary to say. 

3. Give Yourself More Time Than You Think You'll Need

I'm circling back around to #1 a little bit here, but this is one that even I still struggle with. The issues we see the majority of people struggling with when planning their renovation timeline are as follows: 

  • Too much excitement and starry-eyed dreaming. Believe me, I get this struggle. Ellen still has to remind me to be more realistic. I get overly excited and make giant, hopeful lists to accomplish by day's end, and I'm inevitably disappointed when night comes and we've barely accomplished the thing we started doing that morning. There's always something that halts progress, and more often than not, the really good, crazy productive days don't generally come back-to-back. You might have a couple, but you're gonna have setbacks. You can't avoid them with this work. 
  • Assumption that building in an Airstream is like building in a house. It's just NOT. I'm not even talking about scribing curves (though that's frustrating, it's not tough if you have the right methods and tools). I'm talking about how nothing is square. Traditional measurement doesn't always work. You've gotta learn how to adapt, and then do it a million times over throughout your build. There are also many necessary steps that have to happen before your build even begins that require a vast knowledge base, much of which most DIY-renovators learn while they go. Learning new skills takes time. 
  • Airstream renovation is not for the faint of heart. I read recently that these old trailers have a way of making you earn their respect, and I agree wholeheartedly. If you're not taking shortcuts and doing this right, you're learning RV electrical (AC, DC, solar), RV plumbing (tanks, proper venting, 12v pumps, pump bypass, city water, fresh water!), propane, tank monitors, installation of AC units, fans, RV appliances with multiple power sources (12v, AC, propane). You're waterproofing and restoring. Repairing chassis frames. Removing all the old shit, which isn't just removing furniture. You're grinding off a hundred rusty bolts and drilling out thousands of rivets and scraping off old caulk with a heat gun, bit by bit. The work is dirty and gross sometimes. It's mentally and physically challenging. It will test your patience and your limits, over and over again.

If you're working full-time and renovating your trailer on the weekends, I would absolutely advise to allow yourself at least one year from demo-to-done. If you want to have a life and not feel chained to your renovation, stretch it out to a year and a half or even two years, which would allow you weekends off occasionally (without guilt!), time to take vacations, go to weddings, and see your grandma. 

4. It's Expensive as F**k

Our first Airstream renovation cost around $22k, when all was said and done, including the cost of the trailer itself ($4k). We didn't have fancy countertops, appliances, a hot water heater, etc. Our compositing toilet was homemade using a kit, a box we built, and a walnut toilet seat purchased on Amazon. It was bare bones simple in there because we spent so much on replica pieces, frame repair, skin repair, new windows, et cetera, not to mention all of the specialty tools we had to purchase, like a buck riveting kit, polishers, and angle grinders. Lucky for us, we had a lot of 'traditional' tools already, or we might not have been able to afford that fancy a$$ back window replacement we desperately needed. We still spent $22k, and that didn't include decor. We didn't purchase anything special to outfit the trailer, we just used things we already had on hand. Even our "upholstery" was made using two wool Army blankets cut up and sewn back together. 

Our second Airstream renovation cost $42k. The cost of the trailer itself was $5k, which means we spent $37k on supplies. We didn't need to purchase tools this go-round, we already had them. Now, this was June, which is one of the most-pinned renos on the ol' Pinterest boards, and we absolutely went "high-end" this time around. In this case, that meant we had a hot water heater, fridge, and oven/cooktop...which felt like pure luxury in comparison to Louise, and then we got a little fancy and added Fireclay Tile, Pergo flooring, and custom made solid walnut countertops and Belgian linen cushion covers wrapped around natural latex core. We had a heftier battery bank too, and we splurged on a Nature's Head Composting Toilet. Overall, we spent twice the amount of what we spent on our first renovation...and made a solid, gorgeous, comfortable home with common conveniences we'd not had before. For reference, the body work was similar to Louise, and the chassis repair was more extensive (the entire back end fell apart when we took up the subfloor, it was so rusted). 

Your budget should be planned accordingly. While I can understand this is difficult to gage (one of the questions we get asked a lot is regarding budget), I recommend asking other renovators who have done full-gut renovations without hiring anyone (big difference here - they're not paying for tools and they are paying for labor). Note the fixtures and finishes they've used, along with amenities and technology they installed on board. If it's comparable to your desired outcome, loosely base your budget around that starting point, and always plan to spend more money than you think you're going to.

5. The Work Doesn't Stop When You're Finished

So you've done the work, you've got your Before & After shots posted to Instagram, and you're ready to get on the road. You've spent all this time and money and you did thorough work, so everything should be smooth as silk from here on out, right? 

Nope, not so much. If you're getting on the road, for starters, your entire life is about to change. Familiarity, comfort, convenience, support...you're willingly leaving those behind, but no matter how willing or excited, it's still a big adjustment to travel full-time. Constantly changing scenery is fun, but vigorous change can also wear on you, especially if you're simultaneously learning how to live tiny and learn your rig. Building out your trailer and actually using it are very different, and it takes time to re-train your brain to remember to heat the water before you're ready to take a shower, or that you've gotta fill your water tanks and charge your onboard batteries. You no longer have the convenience of free-flowing water into your home, or the ability to flush your poo and no longer think about it. Black tank or composting toilet, you're gonna be dealing with that shit. Literally. 

Here's a couple of tips on getting acclimated: 

  • When scheduling out your renovation, try to pad the end of the renovation with a 'dry run', so to speak. Go to a local campground or park in your folks' backyard for a week or two to really get to know the ins-and-outs of your space. Practice living before you get on the road, which is another major step, in and of itself. Look at it in steps:
    • Renovation/paring down/planning to hit the road 
    • Dry run
    • Moving in/getting on the road 
  • Give yourself ample time when hitching up the first time (and several times after), and have two checklists: one for inside, one for outside. List everything that you need to check and do before you get on the road. We call this 'battening down the hatches'. Examples of the exterior list items are things like removing chocks, checking the air in the tires, and checking the running/brake lights, and for the interior list, it's things like turning the water pump off, closing fans and windows, securing drawer latches, et cetera. **Pro tip: install your water pump switch right by the front door so you can flip it off right as you're getting ready to lock up. 
  • Learn to back up and haul a trailer in a big, empty parking lot. If you have a partner or older kiddo, this is a great time to learn to communicate regarding backing the trailer up, which you'll have to do at many campsites. If you have cell signal available, use FaceTime or Skype...the last thing you want to be is THAT loud, angry couple at the campsite. Using the video capability on your device allows the person standing at the rear of the rig to show the person at the wheel what's really going on, and it can be a lifesaver in compact spots. If you are working with a partner, decide on a set of terms that the driver can easily understand and use them clearly every single time. Yelling 'go the other way' isn't clear to the person at the helm, but 'point the curb side rear two feet to the left' is. In our partnership, we've realized through a lot of trial and error how to communicate when traveling and parking with our rig, but now it's smooth as butter.
  • Things are going to break. Fantastic builder or not, you've got to be ready for issues on the road. If you're hauling a trailer, it's being shaken up like a magnitude 8.0. earthquake back there. On the road to Alaska, we had wires shake loose inside the walls! If you're in that big, EMPTY parking lot on your test haul, take a turn riding in the back just to hear and feel and see everything creaking and shaking. It's a good education - it helps you understand what its like back there. Then multiply that, because highway speeds or crazy washboard roads are gonna be worse than a smooth parking lot at 10mph. (DON'T DO THIS ON A ROAD.) A lot of people think that everything will stay in place because that's what we see in a still image on Instagram, but those trailers aren't in motion! They're at a full stop, leveled, set up and styled for a photo. That's not reality. 

To wrap up, you will be dealing with things breaking or not working. All that shaking can loosen what you thought was tight, and you've got to care for your rig and the things inside (i.e., don't leave your water heater on without water inside and burn it out, check your plumbing connections on the regular to ensure you haven't sprung a leak after a particularly rough stretch of road). Living in a vehicle that you haul down the road takes regular, deliberate care and maintenance - yes, you got rid of that big yard and house, but you aren't off the hook for home care and repair. 

6. Living the Dream Means Working to Keep the Dream Alive

When people find out that we live in an Airstream, the response is pretty common: "You're living my/the dream!" This sentence and varied iterations lives in the comments section on Instagram and in our email inbox. We've been hearing and reading it from people for four and a half years who don't live this lifestyle. The issue with the Airstream/nomadic life being 'the dream' is that the work of living this lifestyle is lost in translation. Pretty Airstream interiors (when parked, set up, and styled), don't allude to the tough aspects of living on the road. Sometimes it can feel lonely and isolating. Sometimes your grey tank backs up into your trailer. To put gas in the tank, pay for campgrounds, food, and bills, we've gotta work full-time, same as someone who lives in a brick-and-mortar. Sometimes you're in transit and your window shade knocks into your faucet handle, flipping the water on, and at the same time, your faucet swings to the top of the counter and when you stop, the entire contents of your fresh tank have flooded your floors (true story, this happened to our friends Kate & Adam). Sometimes you're cold and sick and just want a hot shower, but you're out of propane. Sometimes you break down on the side of the Alaskan Highway and you don't have the tool you need to fix the crazy freak issue (one of our stories). 

If you really believe that all your problems are going to be solved by living in a dreamy-looking Airstream and traveling, you're going to have a good, cold slap of reality once you get on the road. If you're expecting this life to be as easy as it looks on Instagram, remember that it's Instagram - and anyone and everyone can pose for a picture and tout their lifestyle to make it look better than it actually is. What those bare-butted women posing for #vanlife aren't telling you is that they're laying in a bed so full of dust and sand that if you slapped the mattress with your hand, it would look like a dust storm on I-10 coming out of those linens and that that cute butt was a few inches above the ground, shitting in a hole they dug themselves that morning after using dry shampoo for the 9th day in a row. Nothing wrong with any of that, I've done all of that myself (minus the bare-butt pictures, but my equivalent is being an interior designer - my job is to make Airstreams pretty), yet this is why I write real captions under the images I post. I'm careful to share the realities of this life, which are beautiful and ugly, good and bad, easy and tough...because behind any dreamy looking nomadic life is a bevy of discomforts and insanely hard and daily work. 

If you really want the nomadic life, you'll put in that work. You'll sacrifice convenience and comfort. When something breaks, you'll fix it (and not expect someone else to do it for you). You'll read and research and listen to locals and seasoned nomads alike. You'll learn from your mistakes, because you will make mistakes. You won't give up when it gets tough. Hell, we've been working toward a nomadic, free life for 4.5 years now and have watched countless amounts of people get on the road in the way we'd like to be while we're still over here, toiling away just trying to get there while also having the freedom of working for ourselves...and we've had setback after setback, shitty circumstance after shitty circumstance...and we still work toward having the life we want. We're not giving up, no matter what life tries to throw our way.

In conclusion, this list isn't meant to scare you off. It's meant to tell you some nuggets of truth that a lot of people aren't talking about. We're all so worried about making our lives look perfect and together all the time (even nomads, who say they wanted to leave all that behind) that we don't talk about the tough stuff. Airstream renovation looks easy online only because we make it look easy, yet I still  believe wholeheartedly that anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. Hell, I never thought I'd be someone who would have done any of this...and everyone in my life was completely taken aback when I did. I'm working to make the life I want happen because I want it more than anything, and I work my ass off for it. 

If you want the "dream life"...you'll work to build it. You'll find a way, you'll overcome the difficulty, you'll learn what you don't know, you'll find the money, you'll find the time, you'll ignore the haters and naysayers, and you'll work like hell to not only build your rig, but build your dream life and you'll keep the dream alive, no matter how much work it takes or how uncomfortable it may get. You can have it as long as you're willing to work for it...which, for us, is a good long while. 

Q + A Series: Inspiration to Reality

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Q. I would love to know where you go for inspiration and then your process for turning the inspiration into reality. Do you have your go-to list of sources or are you always looking for it? Also, how do weight concerns influence your design approach?

These questions are so good, but the first is tough to answer! It’s difficult to convey exactly how I take inspiration and turn it into reality, because so much of it is abstract, a feeling. I’m inspired by not just spaces, I’m inspired by things around me. Songs, a meal, the way light came through a particular window and fell on a particular subject on a particular day. The way the wind felt in that one place, that one time.

It’s worth saying the way I design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. The way you design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. That’s the way it should be. I don’t have a step-by-step guide for how to take inspiration and turn it into reality (i.e., design), but I do have one hard and fast rule, and it’s simple: I don’t copy or replicate. It’s one thing to take a small element or two from someone else’s design, but in the same way we’re taught to not plagiarize in school, copying someone’s design is taking the easy way out. It doesn’t make you a designer or an artist, it makes you someone who copied someone else's hard work - the same way that plagiarizing someone’s written work doesn’t make you a writer. I’m very careful to not look at rooms or spaces as my sole inspiration, and instead, gather inspiration from everywhere. When working with a client, I make it clear from the beginning that we’ll be creating a space unique to them, their needs, and their aesthetic. Even if they present an image and say, "let's make it look just like this", I redirect. That space has been created by someone else and for someone else. Look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration and think about your own needs and style above what anything else is doing, what's popular or trending (trends die, classic design lives on). What do you love? What are you drawn to?

From a more literal standpoint, I take as many images or samples as I can, and group them together. I pull out the items that make sense together. I start to see patterns emerge, certain tones that I'm drawn to continuously for that particular project. I then begin to sketch layouts and think about how concrete sources will look in the space, which involves sourcing those - I do a lot of research for products - and generally play with three options for each element (three faucets, three different types of tile, three different floors), especially when designing for a client. Too many options tends to overwhelm us in the design process. My job is to streamline and create for the client based on who they are, their needs, and conversations I've had with them. I mesh together my own inspiration with what I've learned.

The next steps are to go over the furniture and cabinetry builds with Ellen, who is responsible for actually bringing them to life, and we problem solve together until we have it just right. It's like a lovely puzzle, and I know the design plan is finished and ready to execute in my gut, though I truly allow the entire process to be organic, from start to finish. Once the plan is "finalized', it doesn't mean I may not feel something needs to change. I leave myself open to options, always, and for the design to ebb and flow naturally. This is how the best designs have come about for me. 

I do have companies that I prefer to source from (for example, I love Delta Faucets), but I don’t solely rely on those products as the only option. Creating custom spaces requires me to get creative and always, always be on the lookout for solutions, fixtures, and finishes that suit the design and feeling I’m going for. Part of being a good designer is educating yourself as to what fixtures and finishes are out there so you don't get stuck recreating the same space over and over. 

Weight is absolutely a consideration. For example: there are quite a few folks who are adamant in their opinions on not using tile and solid wood in travel trailers and RVs, yet these same folks add in a lot of other heavy stuff: extra appliances that aren’t necessity, metal, TVs, et cetera. I say - to each their own, as long as you're careful with your choices. We are mindful of the weight of the tile, and use a lightweight adhesive product called Musselbound, as opposed to thinset (mortar) to apply the tile (only on walls, not for use on a shower floor). We keep the tiles small and use a flexible grout. We’ve yet to install a hardwood floor, but there are folks who do.

In all of our projects thus far, we have kept the weight at 5800 pounds or less (dry weight), and we’ve used quite a lot of plywood and hardwood for countertops and cabinetry, and tile in each project. We are mindful of the weight of our appliances, and in our designs, balance weight from side to side. 10% of your overall trailer weight should be at the front. We consider every option we possibly can before making final decisions, and ensure we're meeting at least the first two of these three goals: is this piece/fixture/finish functional? Does the weight of this work with the other elements? If it's visible (i.e., not a water heater): is it beautiful? 

The Isla Project

Where do I even begin?

It's Monday morning, and we're sitting in Arizona. Out the window of our Airstream is our extended awning, a field of wheat that will eventually become Italian pasta (go figure!), and a beautiful mountain range. The dirt here is red and soft, which we decided was great, as our trailer wheels leveled themselves out and we didn't even have to pull out the leveling blocks. The scenery isn't as idyllic as one would hope, but we are tucked away from where we'll be working, and that's a definite bonus. 

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We wrapped up work on Isla around lunchtime Friday, and hurried to take last minute showers, dump clean laundry onto the bed, and pack up the truck with our tools before hitting the road. The goodbye was quick, and we were ready to go, but it was hard to say goodbye to Chris and Paige. They became like family in a way, living on their property and spending so much time with them. Paige and I would sneak in lunches at cute places in Austin when we went in to get supplies, we all prepared dinners together, rang in the New Year with fireworks and champagne, and got to know one another on a deeper level. They saw how we live and breathe our work, and how challenging it can be for us at times, and offered comfort and childcare and community. 

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Isla, in and of itself, was an extremely trying project in many ways. Our initial goal was to do the renovation in four months, which seemed doable. Our first client project was wrapped within three months while we both still worked: Ellen was teaching elementary art full-time and I was doing freelance design and photography. However, the difference was that the chassis, subfloor, and tanks were already new and complete, done by another company before our clients brought us the project. 

If you read our last post, you know that we made the rookie mistake of overextending ourselves. Our projects need to be spaced out, and we need to allot more time so we can have a life outside of renovation. Working on Isla allowed us to come to this realization fully, and like all projects we do, there is a learning curve. So much of what is seen on social media is not an accurate representation of the work. Yes, we work fast...but we also don't have a life outside of work in our current time frame. Yes...it looks seamless and easy when it's all complete, but what you can't see is the effort, the frustration, the bruises, blood, and tears. 

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Isla was the toughest project we've ever taken on. The time frame would have likely worked out better if the Airstream itself hadn't been in such rough shape. The exterior skin was pitted, for starters, but we also had to undertake a full restoration on five vista view windows and three flat fixed windows, which took two and a half weeks we hadn't anticipated or calculated for. We outsourced a few things this time around (for the first time ever!), like countertops and custom cushions, and the countertops were installed two weeks late, which pushed us back even further. We dealt with bad weather (ice! snow! eight degrees!), illness, and general overwhelm. The day we were supposed to finish the project, Ellen was in Wisconsin for a family funeral. We gave up our Christmas plans and powered through the days working instead, thinking we’d get caught up. Our momentum took a beating time and again, and our patience and strength was tested - hard. 

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In those final days, however, as we oiled cabinetry and grouted tile, cleaned the interior, installed those blush velvet cushions on the sectional, styled, and photographed the space…the months of work and stress and pain didn’t melt away, but they, like always…began to make sense. The walnut cabinetry and trim, the gorgeous tile from Fireclay, the countertops…all the elements that make Isla a beautiful home, began to shine. Our strengths as designer and builder, when working together, make magic that we can feel and see. Standing in the finished space, I took the time to   be still with each and every aspect that we worked so hard to craft and dream up. I knew, without a doubt, that the space I designed was completely unique and that it fit our clients perfectly.

Though they named their Airstream 'Isla', we affectionately referred to it as the ‘Paige Project’. Paige was so involved, helpful, and supportive throughout the entire process: she wanted to be a part of the build. She happily wielded a polisher, paintbrush, and drill…and was always ready to run to Lowe’s or order supplies. She’d slip beers into our hands after long days, and as we hit the final stretch, insisted we take a night off and rest before the crazy, providing a fancy night for Adelaide at their house, complete with homemade pizza, cookie baking, art projects, and a movie. 

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More than anything, we felt taken care of by Paige. She genuinely cared for our well-being, and wanted us to feel at home. Having met her, to know her, is a true gift and we will carry her with us always. To have built her home…her beautiful home…was just as much a gift to us. 

Regarding the design, this particular project was so incredibly seamless…each tone, texture, and fixture compliments each and every other. From the gorgeous tiles generously provided by Fireclay Tile, champagne brass faucets and shower hardware, white star shower tile,  herringbone floors from Kaindl, the custom walnut cabinetry/trim/wardrobe crafted in house, Corian countertops with integrated custom sinks that look like marble but are simply solid surface, the butterscotch sconces from Schoolhouse, and last but not least, the blush velvet cushions crafted by Paige’s talented, kind, and fun sister, Claire…it’s nearly impossible to pick just one element. They each work together to create an incredible space that we are so proud of.

If we had to pick? We’d say the entire living area, but especially the custom sectional and those Robert Allen blush velvet cushions. The living room space is definitely different from what we’ve done in the past, and it made sense for the clients’ lifestyle. They plan to eat at the coffee table, perched at the counter on stools, or outside. They didn’t need additional sleeping space, and having a real living room and a big kitchen was the perfect fit for them.

The layout really does make it feel more like a house, with a private bedroom, complete with en suite bathroom and full wardrobe with his and hers drawers and hanging space. Pocket doors divide the bedroom/kitchen and the bathroom also has a pocket door. 

I could easily write a novel (pretty much already have), about how much we’ve learned throughout this process and how much we love this project, despite how tough it was to build…but we’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves now. We love you, Chris, Paige, pups, and Isla, and we are wishing you an amazing first year calling Isla and the road home. 

To view the complete gallery, click right here.