After years spent hard at work in an office, Ben and Mande chose to give up the 9 to 5 and pursue their dream of living on the road. Here’s how they transformed a 1992 school bus into their ideal home.
Meet Mande and Ben
In 2011 Mande and Ben both moved back to Michigan, the state where they were born and raised. They could never have expected what was coming - meeting their soulmates and embarking on the adventure of a lifetime!
Prior to moving home that summer, Ben had been traveling across the US and volunteering with his two best friends. The trio had even lived out of a school bus while they were traveling! Mande, on the other hand, had been working as a school teacher in Utah.
The Missing Piece
Both young people returned to Michigan in June 2011 - to catch up with family and friends. That's when they first crossed paths. "After meeting through a mutual friend, we exchanged stories and were immediately drawn to each other's sense of adventure and appreciation for the outdoors," they later recalled.
Not only did they have plenty in common, but their chemistry was obvious. A relationship quickly blossomed, and within four years, Ben and Mande were married! Mr. and Mrs. Tucker had returned to their home state permanently, settling into comfortable jobs and a comfortable lifestyle. But for Ben, it didn’t feel quite right.
Return To Bus Life
Though he loved his life with Mande, he couldn’t help but reminisce on all those years he had spent on the road with his friends. In particular, he missed the freedom of living in a retrofitted school bus. Thankfully, Mande loved the idea of living in a mobile home.
The pair began searching for their future home, and after some time searching, they found something that fit the bill. "When we found a 24-foot school bus in excellent condition with low miles, we jumped at the opportunity," the couple said. Now it was time to get to work transforming the bus into a home.
A Coat of Paint
The bus finally arrived at their home, and Ben and Mande were able to examine it for themselves. Their vehicle of choice was a 1992 International 3800 school bus that had been on the roads for 25 years! Though it seemed like a long time, the bus was in remarkably good condition.
Due to the minimal wear, tear, and rust, they could begin renovating the bus straight away. The very first step they chose to take was glamming up the exterior. Bright yellow would work for a school bus, but not so much for a home. They quickly painted the body mint green and gave the ceiling a fresh coat of white paint.
Stripping The Seats
As with all skoolie conversions ('skoolie' is the name for a school bus that has been renovated into a home), the interior of the bus had to be stripped before they could begin working on it. "We wanted to start with a blank slate, so we thoroughly gutted the bus down to bare bones," the couple explained.
Ben and Mande were planning to build a fully-equipped home inside the school bus - complete with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room area. So they set to ripping out the rows of leather seats that filled the floor space. It was tricky and required power tools, but they managed it.
Starting From Scratch
Now that the seats were done, the space was much more open. But it wasn't the only thing they had to remove. "We removed the seats, rubber mat flooring, and the bulky heating and AC units," the couple explained. "We were left with a blank slate of bare sheet metal to build from."
As for the windows? Those were one of the few parts of the structure that were left alone. Both Ben and Mande were avid nature lovers, so having plenty of windows to let in the sunlight and provide scenic views was one of the biggest perks of living in a skoolie. The ceiling was also left intact, being tall enough for both adults.
What’s In A Name?
Now that the interior had been stripped of its original features, it was time to begin on the walls and floors. Insulation was essential, as it would allow them to traverse very different weather systems while on the road. While they insulated the home, they were also thinking about something important - their bus's name.
While Mande was teaching, she had a stroke of inspiration. "Mande teaches second grade and was reading Charlotte's Web at the time," Ben said. "The name Fern stuck out and felt right for our bus." Fern was the name of the little girl in the book, and it felt perfect for their new home.
Ben and Mande had done a lot of work together so far, from brainstorming names to pulling out chairs and insulating the bus. But now, it was time to divide the work between the two of them. On one hand, Ben would be focusing on the electricity, carpentry, and plumbing, whereas Mande would take care of the decor and interior design.
"We were both super impressed by each other's hustle to get everything done no matter what it took," the duo admitted. "We certainly didn't go into this project having every skill mastered, but we were open and willing to learn and try constantly to overcome obstacles along the way."
Starting At The Front
But let’s not forget that the skoolie wasn’t just going to be a comfortable home - it was also a vehicle that Ben and Mande had every intention of driving from place to place. In fact, they planned to keep their home in Michigan and mostly use the skoolie as a motorhome for weekend trips away.
So they directed plenty of their thoughts and energies to the very front of the bus, particularly the driver's seat area. "I'm dissecting this console up at the helm and hoping I won't regret it," Ben explained. "I hope to replace all the sheet metal with wood to eliminate rattling/road noise."
As is common with skoolie projects, Ben and Mande had to arrange custom-made furniture that could fit the dimensions of their unique little home. But outsourcing custom furniture would be extremely expensive, so Ben chose to preserve their budget by building most of it on his own.
As can be seen in the photo above, Ben constructed the frame for their sofa all by himself. It would be the centerpiece of the living room space. The sofa was measured out to be the ideal length and width for the bus, and he even built it to have plenty of storage space inside.
Planning The Bedroom
The couple also set up a floor plan that followed the most convenient layout for a skoolie. Their living room was near the front, behind the driver's seat, and their bedroom would be all the way at the very back. Below are the emergency doors, which were going to be cut off by the bed area.
"We're currently trimming out the bed area," Ben explained. "The shelf-looking thing is part of the bed platform and will be connected to the starboard side once I'm ready to give up use of the back door. It's been my main door during construction, and I'll be bummed to see it blocked off."
Looks Can Be Deceiving
The entire process of renovating the bus took around seven months, which Ben and Mande were able to juggle while working full-time. At the point where they were framing the rooms, the bus looked like an utter mess - but the reality was far from it. They were making excellent progress.
Just look at the picture above, for example. It looked messy, but they knew what they were doing. The sofa frame is on the left, and the beginning of the kitchen is on the opposite side. "I'm about to build a wall to separate the bed and living area," Ben explained."Hopefully, it won't make our short bus feel any shorter."
As we mentioned, Ben was managing the more construction-centric side of things. While he was building the kitchen, Mande was focused on the more aesthetic side of the project. She began by gathering together the upholstery, particularly the curtains and cushions that would add comfort and color to the bus.
She also began arranging the color palette for Fern's interior. She wanted to go with a lighter color scheme that would open up the space, so she chose white for the majority of the wall space. "Mande is throwing up some paint on the interior trim and loving the clean look," Ben mentioned on an Instagram post.
"Sinks and Faucets"
By this point, the kitchen was slowly taking shape as Ben pottered away. He had built the frames for the cabinets and installed several of the appliances, including the oven and stovetops and the kitchen faucets, which they installed before the sink. "We're dreaming about sinks and faucets over here," the team joked.
The sink was an integral part of a much more complicated system: Their water storage. "Water is plumbed to our faucet and outdoor shower, supplied by 25 gallons of freshwater and captured by a 25-gallon greywater system," Ben and Mande shared. "The outdoor shower is plumbed through a tankless water heater for on-demand hot water."
Plumbing was essential, and now that it was all complete, they could move on to the next obstacle. Being able to shower and brush their teeth was important, but so was being able to power all of their appliances. Ben and Mande began setting up their electrical system, one of the last major steps to completing the skoolie.
The couple shared their new system with their followers. "We're powered by both 12 and 120 V electricity. On the road, our house battery and inverter keeps our phones, computers, and our fantastic vent fan running for up to a week while off the grid." They also used liquefied petroleum gas for the hot water heater, oven, and stovetop.
Ben had already set to work building the cabinet frames, and now that the electricity was done, it was time to finish them off. In some houses, cabinet doors were not always needed. But in Ben and Mande’s house, they were extremely vital - without doors, their food would fly off the shelves every time they drove Fern down the street!
So Ben set to finishing their custom cabinetry with the help of Mande's father. They fashioned small rocks into little doorknobs, a charming and rustic touch for the outdoor lovers' home. This was the finishing touch to their lovely little kitchen area, and the bus was finally beginning to feel liveable.
Now to focus on the next room in the house. A little further back is where their future bathroom would be built. "This is where the toilet will go! Remember: we're keeping it simple," they wrote on Instagram. "With a short bus, we don't have much space, so every square inch is valuable real estate."
The lack of space meant they had to think of creative new ways to build. "This has led us to do an outdoor shower," the post further explained. "We haven't designed it yet, but we're dreaming of a simple shower curtain with a removable shower head on the exterior of Fern. That means this is a warm-weather rig for now!"
A Lovely Deck
One of the best things about having a fully converted skoolie was the ability to enjoy views of nature wherever the bus was parked. Ben and Mande made the ambitious decision to build a deck on Fern’s roof, where they could take in their environment and even do a little sunbathing.
"Climbing to the deck gives us a whole new perspective and an elevated view," they shared. Not only did they have a place to put their hammocks, but it gave them more space to store their paddleboards. "We can easily install four posts that extend over the deck, allowing us to swing our hammock high up in the sky," they said.
The Complete Picture
While Ben was hammering away and Mandy was organizing the decorations, they slowly began to transform the bus, day by day. By now it looked nothing like its former self, and almost no one could tell that it was a quarter of a century old. With its clean, modern, and open spaces, it was a home fit for any couple.
The photo taken above shows the back end of the bus, including the kitchen space, the bedroom entrance, and part of the living room. Readers can also see the complementary cushions that Mande crafted for the bus and the cozy mini-fridge they purchased that could fit neatly beneath the kitchen counter.
Let’s take a step closer. Both Ben and Mande put plenty of thought into the small details of the kitchen space, and it paid off. The stone doorknobs added a unique charm to the bright, polished surfaces, and the choice of white paint perfectly complimented the poplar wood of the cabinets and countertops.
The color scheme made this part of the bus feel extra spacious and open, and it matched the dark Acacia wood flooring, which added a pleasant contrast to the decor. And in Ben and Mande's eye, it made it easier to manage any mess. "Dirt and dust and stinky boots are an endless battle," they explained about living on the bus.
On The Road
Now that Fern was all but complete, it was time for Ben and Mande to take her on the road. They quickly began traveling by bus, eager to explore while they had the time. But many skoolie owners find transporting an old school bus can be overwhelming. What did the Tuckers think?
Well, Mande and Ben were in luck - their new motorhome was surprisingly simple to drive and certainly not as complicated as they had expected. According to the couple, it was the "perfect balance of being a large and spacious home, while also being maneuverable and compact enough to take us almost anywhere."
Plenty Of Pitstops
But where did they plan to go? Ben and Mande were set on adventuring through North America with Fern in tow, making friends and fantastic memories. And for a while, they did. After preparing Fern, they traveled through South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and even across the border to Canada! And those were just a few of their pitstops.
They set off on the road and didn't look back, at least for a while. "We knew there was so much unbelievable beauty and solitude to be found out there," they explained. "So many fascinating people to meet and stories to exchange, and we wanted more of it."
With all the comforts and conveniences of their new house bus, it's easy to forget that Ben and Mande Tucker originally bought Fern as a means to escape the boredom of a 9 to 5 routine. "Taking life on the road is our way of breaking out of habits and shifting momentum in a new direction," Ben said.
"Comfort can lead to complacency, but adventure is deliberate. We're able to eliminate the burden of distractions and let hectic routines fall away," they explained further. "In this simplicity, we find that freedom comes to the forefront... We find that we value relationships and experiences over things."
Becoming One With Nature
Ben and Mande also found themselves becoming much closer to nature, which had a more noticeable effect than it might in a 'normal' house. "In a small space, you're more tuned in with nature," they said. "We adapt to the natural rhythms of day and night and the mood of the weather."
"Living in our bus, we're a bit more impacted by the rainstorms and wind gusts, the heat waves and cold snaps," they explained further. "For the most part, this is an absolutely positive thing. However, when it's rainy for long periods, everything can become damp, and we find ourselves confined inside."
But their mood and temperature wasn’t the only thing affected by the bad weather - their hygiene was too. They chose to rig up an outdoor shower, which was great for warm days and clear skies - but significantly more unpleasant when it was rainy and stormy.
The setup for their shower was relatively simple. All it needed was a tankless water heater and a removable showerhead, as well as a shower curtain to provide a bit of privacy. Once they were done, they could just pack up the shower components and store them beneath their bed, the couple’s makeshift ‘garage’ space.
The Best Part Of All
But it wasn't their beautiful kitchen and DIY rooftop deck, or even their travels that Ben and Mande loved the most. It was the people. "Our favorite aspect of being on the road and living in the bus is meeting people we wouldn't have the opportunity to get to know otherwise," they told their followers.
They elaborated further, highlighting the more wholesome aspects of skoolie life on the road. "The bus is unique enough that people are drawn to approach it, pop their head in to say hello, and chat for a while. People everywhere have been warm and kind and hospitable. We're so refreshed and optimistic because of the people!"
The Evolution of Fern
But there had to be a physical feature of their DIY house bus that they appreciated most of all. What could it be? Well, the answer was more philosophical than some might expect."Our favorite feature is that she's always in progress, a perpetual state of modification," Ben and Mande shared.
"As we spend more time living in the bus, we find little things to add or change," they continued. "Since we built everything with our own two hands, we know her ins and outs and are capable of giving her little renovations whenever needed. We love that Fern continues to be our blank canvas and is happy to adapt with us."
A Third Member On The Way
Adapting to the occasional "little renovation" was one thing. But adapting to a "little" person was another! Just one year after completing their bus, the Tuckers discovered they were pregnant! They took to Instagram, writing, "We are excited to bring a sweet boy into the world this spring."
Soon enough, Mande gave birth to Sawyer, their first child and the apple of their eye. The new child was quickly acquainted with his second home. The new mom and dad had to stock up on baby food and diapers now, but it wasn’t the only change they were going to have to make.
"The Same Goals"
Before Sawyers' birth, they spent plenty of time adventuring with Fern, but a new baby meant more time spent on stationary ground and back in their Michigan home. "Life looks very different than when we first started this journey," they admitted. "But one thing is for sure: adventure is something our grateful souls crave."
"What started out the two of us is now the three of us, and we still have the same goals: live simply enough to have it all," the couple continued. "Travel, spontaneity, stability, comfort, freedom, balance... There is very little relaxing to be done when there is such a big world to discover!"
Despite spending more time in Michigan, the family of three still put aside some time to travel. But within a year of Sawyers's birth, it became clear that they needed a larger mobile home to accommodate a growing toddler. They made the tough decision to sell Fern and opted to buy a larger skoolie: Fern2.
"It'll look pretty different but hopefully feel similar and more convenient," they explained of the new floorplan for the new Fern. With all their prior experience, it's clear that Ben and Mande Tucker are going to create a beautiful new skoolie - and we can't wait to see it!