By a Pragmatic Interior Designer
A step-by-step guide to designing the perfect self-build campervan, including small space living interior design tips you will want to know.
Disclosure: Everything shared in this blog is just my opinion, I can't guarantee the same solutions will work out for you! But I can guarantee that I will only ever link or recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are exclusively my own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, I might be lucky and earn a small commission from.”
If you want to design and build your own van conversion campervan, but you aren’t sure where to start, you are now in the right place, welcome!
What do we Know?
After living in our self-built van conversion full-time for over a year, we are still in love with our little home. It has held up like one can only dream a noble steed would, carrying us all the way to Asia and back (almost), still looking fresh and functioning like new. After a year of testing our creation and skills, we now want to share our knowledge with you, so you can design your own perfect little vanlife home on wheels.
We were admittedly, a bit of a dream team when it came to planning our van. I (Chloe) am an interior designer and Tay is a seasoned professional in the realms of plumbing, electrics, carpentry, as well as many more handy magical skills. We had a whale of a time collaborating to design and build our own little hygge home on wheels, so you are in good hands when it comes to following our advice.
One of our biggest concerns we had when we commenced our custom van design journey, were the amount of people that seemed to be completely rebuilding their campervan conversions after living in them for a year or so. This concerned us for a few reasons;
It would cost money to build twice.
It would mean another period in the UK building and finding somewhere to build again.
We didn't nail it first time around.
We spent over 6 months planning our van design before we even purchased the vehicle, and this was a key factor as to why we nailed our build first time.
When I say “plan”, I know this scares a lot of people, and they instantly think they need to be well versed in 3D design software and/or drawing. Whilst this will help you, it most definitely isn’t essential, pen and paper work fine too. There are also lots of things to consider before even getting to this point.
So, if you are starting out on your self-build journey, I am here to share what you can do to avoid a rebuild and nail it first time!
You have made a strong start already, as you have landed here! Congrats. Other than reading this blog, the first thing you are going to want to do is research, research, research! If you haven't landed on a design direction for your campervan yet, get yourself online and start looking at all the wonderful and diverse campers already in existence, it will blow your mind I promise you, there are SO many beauties out there. Hopefully, you will start to gauge which kind of style you are drawn towards; this will give you your starting point.
What’s your style?
Think about what kind of interior style you are drawn towards. Do you like Scandinavian modern? Cosy cabin? Raw & Rustic? Fresh & Floral? (there are plenty more!)
Once you have identified your style, think about how being in spaces with this aesthetic make you feel. For example, do they make you feel calm, happy, relaxed? Or do they make you feel enclosed and a little chaotic?
As campervans are a small space, I always advise that designing an interior which feels calm, with a little sprinkle of cosy is the way to go. You don’t want to feel like you are living in an overcrowded environment, this is easy to create when living in a van as they can get messy in a matter of minutes.
Weekend or full-time
The biggest consideration when designing your tiny home on wheels is whether you will live in it full-time, or it will just be for short trips and weekends. If you are planning to live in full-time, you will most likely have different priorities to those who are designing one for trips and weekends, bare this in mind when researching other campers and note which are for full-time use and which are weekenders.
Creativity, Come Forth.
Now you have identified your preferred design style for your vanlife camper interior, you can start creating some boards to pull together how your campervan will look.
The first board that you should work on is a mood board. This will form the base of your design and will be your visual checkpoint whilst making your design choices, and during the build. If this is a completely new concept to you don’t worry, it’s easy and fun!
Pull together around 4-8 images that visually summarise what your camper interior will look like. The images don’t need to be of campervans, (although feel free to use campervan images if preferred) but this is more to determine the overall aesthetic you will create. Think about the colours and materials you want to feature within your interior. For instance, I knew I wanted our interior to feel light, bright, Scandinavian, modern, clean, with graphical shape elements.
Take a look at my initial mood board below, and click on the arrow to see some other style alternatives for inspiration:
The Bonus Board
Once you have completed your mood board and are happy with the overall feel you have pulled together, but you are still not sure on how this will come together in a campervan, pull together 3 to 4 interior specific images to help you visualise a little better. This should be secondary to your mood board, see it as a visual support. It is also a good anchor point to refer back to and to understand how your design will fit into the space.
Storage is key when it comes to vanlife dwelling, so do some research on all the kinds of storage solutions out there and see what you like. Does closed and hidden storage work within your overall aesthetic? Or is your style more eclectic, and you would prefer more of your belongings on show, therefore opting for mixing in more open storage.
This is particularly important within your kitchen area. Have a read of our kitchen design blog for design tips focused on your kitchen and storage.
Now you have determined your interior visual, you will have a good idea as to what materials you will want to include. To solidify this and ensure you have considered all material aspects and requirements, pull together a material palette and ensure they all work well together. Consider things like, wall paint colours, door finishes, flooring, tile splashbacks, textiles, interior fittings (tap, sockets, heating control) etc. When putting this together, refer to your mood board and ensure they are all in keeping.
TIP: If at this stage you have fallen in love with a particular material that wasn’t included in your mood board, its ok to go back and tweak it, just ensure it all pulls together as an overall design scheme.
Now we know all we need to about the aesthetics of the interior, it’s time to dive into planning your layout. My first piece of advice here is, be patient and try lots of options!
Try before you Buy
I see a lot of people plotting their layout physically in their vans once they have already started the build, sometimes after installing insulation, flooring and running 1st fix electrics. Avoid this if you can and give yourself some breathing space with the design. The ideal way to plan your layout is to start before you even purchase the vehicle. You want to allow yourselves the freedom to plan the perfect layout without putting any restrictions in your own way.
Think about your living priorities and what will take precedent in your layout. Consider things like;
Do you plan to work remotely from your van? If so, then a comfortable and practical seating and desk space should be high on your priority list.
Are you an avid cook and want to continue whipping up a wild variety of dishes on the road? If this is your priority, you will want to maximise kitchen space.
Do you plan to wild camp 99% of the time and want to have a self-contained bathroom on board? Have a read of our blog detailing how to design the perfect bathroom for your campervan if this is your priority.
Are you 6ft 5” and need a large bed and extra head height? If this is you, you will want to consider a H3 van and think about fitting your bed lengthways in the van.
TIP: Make a list of your priorities and number them as the most important to the least, this will be a great guide for you to know what to sacrifice if needed!
It gets a bit “list heavy” now, stick with it, you will thank me later.
List it out
Consider all the activities you will want/need to do in your van, make a list and think about where you will do all of these things within the space. This will ensure you aren’t forgetting to include any living requirements.
Make a list of EVERYTHING you will want to store in your van. Yes. EVERYTHING. I sound neurotic I know, but this will give you contentment that you have allocated a home for all your belongings, and you won’t get to moving day and have to contend with “oh no, where will I keep all my pots and pans, I don’t have a draw big enough!” This happens, I assure you. Storage locations will change eventually of course, especially as you live in the van, you will end up swapping things around, but it will give you peace of mind that you have considered the majority of your possessions.
Allocate, don’t dictate.
Don’t forget your services, but don’t let them dictate. As important as it is to allocate space for things like batteries, water tanks, boilers etc. don’t let them rule within your layout. Try to plan them in around all your living priorities. You may find your design needs tweaking to fit them all in, but its best to prioritise your living comfortability, then try to work your service items around this.
Find out the interior dimensions of the van you are thinking of converting and start working within this space. As mentioned above, the benefit of doing this before you purchase your van, is determining how much space you actually need, versus what you think you need.
If you are lucky enough to have access to AutoCAD, SketchUp, or any other similar programmes and are competent using any of these (or have the time on your hands to learn), start planning your layout this way. If you don’t, don’t worry! A pen and paper will do just fine. Grab some graph paper, a ruler and get scribbling.
Once you are content with your layout, sketch up some elevations to visualise how you will utilise your wall space. Think about wall storage units and how they work in conjunction with your seating area/ bed. Try to keep your wall units fairly shallow to keep the space feeling open.
TIP: If you are pretty handy at planning and sketching, think about sketching up a 3D visual by hand as well as technical drawings, this will give you an idea on how your colour scheme will work as a whole.
Your aesthetic is nailed, your layout is functional, cosy and practical so now its time to start choosing your products.
Refer to your mood board & materials board when choosing your products, any items that will be visible, ensure they fit within your overall aesthetic.
If you are struggling to visualise whether they work together, throw all the items onto another page when choosing them. This will allow you to easily check they are all in keeping with your style against your mood board and material board.
The little things
Now you can start to think about the details that will take your tiny home to the next level, the little things!
Consider your textiles, it is inevitable you will want some blankets and scatter cushions on board, choose these in line with your bed linen and material/colour palette.
What handles will you install to your doors and draws? We went with semi-circle cut outs, these are a simple and practical option for a campervan. There are some more tips on these details included in our kitchen campervan blog.
Do you want any wall art and plants to really make it homely? Think about a practical place to put these that won’t take up any valuable workspace/ need consideration every time you move.
If it’s ugly but necessary, keep it discreet. This is relevant to certain controls etc. You can always mount these within cupboards, so they are hidden away.
Back to boards
If you are struggling to visualise whether all the items you are choosing will work together, throw all images of the items onto another page. This will allow you to easily check they are all in keeping with your style.
TIP: Your fridge is usually an item that can’t be hidden and not too pretty, but there is a work around with certain fridges to make them integrated (hide them behind a cupboard door). It’s not advised by the manufacturer, but we integrated ours (naughty, I know!) and it works perfectly. Get in touch if you want the info.
When you start building, things will change, and that’s ok. Your plans will give you the most solid starting point, but its also fine for tweaks to happen during the build. As I have said before, as long as your mood board remains your key reference point, and when changing anything in your layout you know what you are sacrificing, its fine!
If you start to feel a little lost in the design, take some time to refer back to all the things you have pulled together. Refer back to your boards for visual inspiration and ques, and your layout planning and lists for understanding your living needs. We had ours printed and kept them in the van throughout the build, which worked as a great sanity check tool.
Do you really love our van and want to build something similar? You can now buy our entire set of digital, downloadable van design plans, including technical drawings, visual sketches and design boards, click here to take a look.
If you have enjoyed reading all about how to design your campervan, but would still like a little more guidance, we are available for a consultation to discuss all things van design, van build, van dwelling, nomad life etc click here for more information.