After years of paying rent and working 9-5, Lauren and Derek chose to pursue their dream of independent living. Here is the beautiful story of how they converted a retired bus into a beautiful new home.
Meet The Couple
Before their DIY journey began, Derek and Lauren were living in Long Beach, California, where they worked full-time and raised their daughter. But they began to find themselves feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
They had good lives, but they just weren't happy. "We hate our jobs," the couple shared. "The stresses of our full-time jobs are unnecessary." They had spent years on active duty in the US military, particularly Derek, who was deployed overseas for most of the year, meaning he and Lauren rarely saw each other.
Something Had To Change
It was time to make a change - after a shared 15 years in the military, both Derek and Lauren were at their wit's end. They had to prioritize their relationship or they'd never be truly happy. Though they both valued the experiences their careers had given them, it seemed too incompatible with their future ambitions.
So the couple put their heads together and began formulating a plan. They knew they wanted to explore alternative living - they wanted the comfort of a permanent home, as well as the freedom to travel and not be restricted to one place. It was around this time that they discovered the skoolie movement.
An Exit Strategy
The skoolie movement started with people who wanted a similar lifestyle to Derek and Lauren, so they bought retired school buses and completely refurbished them - turning them into liveable, driveable homes. The young couple had found something that resonated with them, and they decided to dive in head-first.
"No one knows who we are, we aren't even sure," they later said. "One thing we are sure about though, is we hate our jobs, the stresses of our full-time jobs are unnecessary. So we bought an exit strategy.... a 1996 Thomas Bluebird diesel pusher exit strategy."
It sounded all well and good, but there was one small problem: the 1996 Thomas Bluebird was almost 3,000 miles away in Georgia. To obtain the home of their dreams, they were going to have to fly across the country and drive it all the way back to California.
It should have been simple enough, except they started having issues on the drive back. "The power steering oil is somehow spraying all over the engine," Derek reported. "We can not find a leak anywhere… We have brought it to 3 different mechanics. No one seems to have a clue."
On The Road Again
The pair had to drive all the way to Houston, Texas, before they could find the right mechanic for the job. He "diagnosed [the lead] within seconds," and soon enough, the bus was road-ready. Some couples might feel deflated by such a shaky start, but Derek and Lauren had anticipated setbacks.
They had researched enough to know that some issues were to be expected, and they had prepared for it. "We budgeted for our bus purchase to also include significant emergency repairs on our inaugural 2800 mile trip," Derek said. In their eyes, it was a minor speed bump, and the bus would be home in no time.
A Family Bus
Once the Bluebird was back in California and intact, it was time to start planning their new home. They had watched and read countless resources online, but they knew they weren’t going to have the typical skoolie experience. They would be sharing the space with their young daughter Luna, and a second child was on the way.
That’s right, Lauren was pregnant! Most skoolies tended to be couples with no dependents, but she and Derek had to undertake converting the bus space into five separate rooms - with the basics of a kitchen, bathroom, and living room… and bedrooms that could comfortably house four people. Could they do it?
Off With The Ceiling
In Derek and Lauren's eyes, they could do anything. So they immediately set to work. "Can't wait to transform this space from a 72 passenger bus to a 3 'bedroom' home on wheels," they shared on social media. But as with anything, one has to tear something down before they can rebuild it.
So the pair began demolishing parts of the bus, starting with its ceiling. They did this by removing every panel of the ceiling and gutting everything beneath the panels. To their pleasant surprise, the bus insulation was in good condition, a "good sign" in their words. "No traces of water intrusion!"
On To The Walls (And Floor)
Though the insulation was still largely intact, the new ceiling wasn’t quite perfect. A few weeks after removing the original panels, a bout of heavy rain showed that there were several leaks in the ceiling and walls. Thankfully, this was the perfect time to patch everything before they started construction.
Once the body of the bus was more structurally sound, they began stripping the interior. 15,000 screws and dozens of metal sheets were pulled from the walls and floor, and the now-defunct air-conditioning units had to be removed too. The first step of the build was complete!
Seal It Up
The next step wasn’t the most fun part of the process, but it was very necessary. After two decades of use and several untreated leaks, the Bluebird had collected quite a lot of rust - not enough to affect its use, but enough to look quite unsightly. Derek and Lauren set upon the rusted surfaces with Ospho.
This product would kill the rust, and Rustoleum would smooth and seal all of the surfaces to protect their home in the future. It had to be done before they started building, and it required hours upon hours of scrubbing and cleaning to get the interior construction-ready.
Time To Insulate
De-rusting and sealing had been a long and arduous process, but Lauren and Derek had the ears of several people from the skoolie community who gave them plenty of advice. This, along with their continual progress, helped to give the couple some much-needed confidence as they moved on to the next stage of the build.
Now it was time to fully insulate the boards, and Derek finally had the chance to flex his building skills. He carefully measured out the wood he would need to frame the floors and cut them to size, before installing insulation boards in the subfloor.
Now the insulation was largely done, and Lauren and Derek were confident their bus would make it through the cold winter nights. The subfloor wasn’t quite done, as they still had to lay some pre-cut corkboard over the insulation boards. Once that was complete, they could move on.
It was going to be a while before they could finish the final layer of the floors thought, so they turned to the four boxes that stuck up from the floor, storing the wheels beneath and disrupting the floor plan. They covered the boxes as best they could, and left the floors as they were (for now).
Tackling The Ceiling
As they couldn't install the final layer of flooring until the fixed furniture had been put in, they moved onto the last remaining parts of the bus's foundations. They were still far from implementing the floor plan and decorating the house, so they turned their attention to the ceiling.
This was about the same process as installing the floors. Derek whipped out his tools and began measuring and cutting pieces of wood to frame the ceiling, but its curved roof proved to be much more difficult. After plenty of trial and error, the framing was done, and they could add insulation boards to the ceilings and walls.
Fun With Furniture
This next part might surprise people. Lauren and Derek were committed to a full DIY skoolie, and that meant doing everything themselves. They were running on a tight budget, and that meant keeping costs as low as possible. So how did they plan to furnish their home?
Well, Derek was about to have a crash course in amateur carpentry. The couple needed everything to be custom-made to fit the bus, but they couldn’t afford to buy entire sets of custom-made furniture themselves. So while Lauren prepared to welcome their child into the world, Derek spent all day in their garage.
The First Room
Now they could begin bringing their house-bus to life. Looking at their floorplan, Derek and Lauren had placed the living room at the entrance to the bus. It was a no-brainer for most skoolie builders and was going to be the first room that visitors saw upon entering.
It was also the first room the couple began working on, and they shared their progress with curious social media followers. "Living room finally making progress," they posted. They had already installed their custom-made L-shaped sofa, which had two functions. "Couch slides out and turns into a full-size bed for guests!"
Separating Their Home
With rooms, come walls. The only way Derek and Lauren could have distinctive rooms with separate functions was by separating them physically. That meant measuring out and installing walls that would help make their floor plan a reality. It was an important step.
Though some skoolie owners liked to keep their spaces open-plan, with rooms sharing multiple functions, Derek and Lauren felt that keeping a little privacy between spaces was essential. Derek’s next task was to frame every wall that would stand between their bathroom and bedrooms.
Keeping Up With The Kitchen
Next was the kitchen, perhaps the most DIY-heavy room in any skoolie. They reserved the next few meters of space after the living room for the kitchen, and Derek began building and fitting their own custom set of cabinets. He did a fantastic job and even sourced a lovely farmhouse sink as the centerpiece of their bench space.
"Super hard to get accurate color of the cabinets but after trying a million different shades of blue, we ended up with a much more neutral slate blue than what we originally imagined would be bright blue," read their next online update. "After deciding on our color palate for curtains and cushions, this color went best."
And right behind the kitchen? That last stretch of space was left for the couple's bedroom. Looking at the row of windows across the back of the bus, it provided the perfect view for a master bedroom. To Derek and Lauren, it felt like the perfect space.
And it was just big enough to fit a full-sized bed, as well as a few other space-saving details. Looking at the picture above, there is a grid of wood pieces above the window, where Derek planned to install a set of DIY cupboards that would provide plenty of storage once the room was done.
The couple was almost done with the walls and ceilings, they just needed to add paneling. Their house-bus was truly coming together. After scouring home renovation catalogs, they settled on nickel backboards (otherwise called shiplap boards) for most of the walls and ceiling.
They did feel that using shiplap for everything might make the interior look a little one-note, so they decided to mix things up a bit to add some much-needed texture and variety. Shiplap was used in the front and the rear, while plywood was added to the middle walls and painted white.
By now, the bus was really starting to feel like a home. Even the bedroom was forming, slowly taking the shape of a liveable, sleepable room. They put a lot of time and thought into how the bedroom was constructed and designed, as Derek was set on having a truly “bougie” boudoir.
So he set to work, not just by paneling the walls and ceilings to make a fully-formed room, but by attaching window sills and trim to the side windows, and tidying up the back windows to make them look more fitting for a home than a bus. Once the last details were done, it was on to the children's bedroom.
By now, readers might be wondering how Lauren’s pregnancy was coming along. The truth is that she and Derek’s second child had arrived in the middle of their DIY renovations! And just after the baby came into the world, it was time to start building her bedroom.
After all, they would need enough space for both of their children. And after months of building custom furniture, Derek felt confident enough to jump into building a set of sturdy bunk beds for the two kids, in the small room built between the kitchen and the parent's bedroom.
Taking It For A Test Drive
By now, two years had passed since this ambitious couple had purchased the 1996 Thomas Bluebird and driven it from Georgia to California. And though they hadn’t finished everything, it was now finally in driveable/liveable condition, and it was barely recognizable after those 24 months.
That might be because they put so much love and attention into their future home. For example, they took out the ratty old driver's seat and completely replaced it with a near-new chair that had only set them back $3! They also made it so that the new seat could be turned around to face the living room.
Multi-Functional Living Room
Speaking of the living room, they now had a comfortable and functional space for the family to spend time together. When they weren't driving, the driver's seat would swivel to the side, and a cushion could be put in the remaining space to provide extra seating for the family and any guests.
And on the other side of the room was the aforementioned L-shaped couch (and convertible bed) that had been partially painted white. Lauren had taken over with her own DIY skills. The talented momma had sewn a set of yellow upholstery that perfectly suited their new home.
When one lives in such a small space, it's essential to have furniture that can be used for multiple purposes. Take the car seat-holder/sofa bench in the corner of the previous photo - when it was time for the children's dinner, the bench could be opened up and used as a dining table!
Once meals were done, they could just fold it down and cover it up with a cushion again, ready to be sat on. On the other side of the room, between the couch and the kitchen, Lauren and Derek had actually painted a mural that they later chose to paint over.
Though the family was down a living room mural, they still had a fantastically colorful and tastefully designed kitchen. Derek had put a lot of work into this part of the house, building a custom-fit countertop not long after he built and installed the blue and white cabinets.
The countertop was made using two layers of birch ply, and a Formica sheet was fitted to the top using contact cement. The cabinets and drawers had also been tastefully finished with custom handles made out of a simple ⅜ inch copper pipe with 90-degree elbows. The level of care and attention to detail was truly paying off.
Fit For A Family
And Derek and Lauren really had put a lot of time and effort into the kitchen, which would eventually become the heart of the house. They had built their own cabinets, drawers, handles, and installed a carefully chosen sink. When it came to appliances, they chose a Hotpoint oven that would typically be used in an apartment.
It might sound small, but it afforded them plenty of much-needed space for food prep. "We always imagined a L-shaped kitchen," Derek and Lauren confessed. "By putting the oven in the corner, we will maximize counter space." By using their space so carefully, they ended up with a bigger kitchen than the one in their rented home!
Back To The Kids
As guests walk through the living room and kitchen toward the back of the bus, they'd come upon a small nook-shaped room with a gorgeous bunkbed. This was the girl's sleeping area, and their mom and dad had even decorated the structure with a geometric motif.
They added a few extra features to make the two beds super functional. First, Derek built a sturdy ladder for the top bunk. Beside each bed was a small cubby spaced that doubled as both a small shelf/bedside table and a makeshift drawer. The girls could simply lift up the loose panel and keep toys and other objects inside.
If that wasn't enough, Derek and Lauren could also hoist up their daughter's mattresses, where extra space had been built-in for further storage - this is where they kept most of their daughters' clothing and toys. It was a smart decision, considering how limited their space was on the bus.
And that leads us to the family bathroom, another essential component of their new mobile home. They sacrificed certain things, including downsizing to a very small hand basin next to their children's beds. In a small, closed-off room to the right of the sink was the toilet area. But what about the sink?
The Shower Nook
Well, the wall that the small sink was built into was actually only a half-wall. Behind that was the shower in its own little nook. Derek and Lauren chose to leave the space somewhat open, so they wouldn’t feel too claustrophobic while washing. There was also a conveniently-placed window on the other side to release moisture.
But it wasn’t just the open concept that they felt would elevate the shower area. They also chose tasteful grey tile to keep the area simple and elegant, but they spiced it up a little by adding a stunning brass showerhead that matched the custom cabinet handles back in the kitchen.
The Master Bedroom
Last but not least, of course, was the master bedroom. Derek and Lauren had added plenty of tasteful details that truly transformed the space into a little haven for the couple. They used rustic orange as the highlighting color of the room, which went well with the neutral unpainted wood and white detailing.
And Lauren had pulled out the sewing machine again, using her magic touch to quilt two matching sets of curtains that complemented their orange comforter and gave them a little more privacy. For the final touch, they built cane-webbing panels into the doors of their overhead cabinets that truly tied the room together.
The Story Continues…
After two years of sweat, tears, and DIY nightmares, Lauren and Derek had successfully converted this bus into the mobile home of their dreams. It wasn’t easy - learning copious new skills, going through a pregnancy, and juggling two children and Derek’s deployments. But they had come through happy and whole.
Though the motorhome isn’t quite finished, it’s already been put to good use with numerous family road trips, including visiting five different national parks! And after a few more renovations, they plan to be fully road-ready sometime in 2022. All we can say is, bon voyage!