In the engrossing and frequently alluring new book "The Modern House Bus: Mobile House Inspirations" (Countryman Press), author Kimberley Mok — a longtime writer and tiny living specialist at sister site TreeHugger — takes a deep dive into a niche housing trend within a niche housing trend: the conversion of buses into comfortable and cleverly designed homes.
We've explored such living arrangements in the past on MNN. As "The Modern House Bus" explores in detail, the movement is now stronger than ever as an increasing number of potential (and former) homeowners eschew mortgages and extraneous square footage in favor of a new American Dream that celebrates mobility and ingenuity with a prevailing DIY spirit and plenty of style to spare.
Essentially, converted bus dwellings are an adaptive reuse-centered hybrid of tiny houses and the recreational vehicles first popularized by wanderlust-stricken retirees in the 1950s. For many, there's a certain stigma attached to RV living, which the bus-to-home trend seeks to upend while at the same time tipping its hat to the intrepid, silver-haired adventurers who came before. After all, the owners of motorhomes and towable RVs have always been on to something: Why not hit the open road and take your home with you?
"The recent resurgence of interest in vehicle conversions and other small, unconventional homes speaks to the innate human desire to seek true happiness and freedom, even if the approach can seem unorthodox by today's standards," Mok tells MNN of what makes bus-to-home conversions so special. "It takes a lot of courage to go against the mainstream, yet many people will nevertheless have that urge to forge their own path — so in a way, it's actually universal, yet also unique to the pressures and realities of our time."
As for the greatest advantages of transforming a retired transit or school bus — or "skoolie" — into a home, Mok says they usually involve the financial savings associated with downsizing and the opportunities afforded by no longer being geographically tethered to one's career — that is, thanks to the growing digital workforce and the emergent freelance economy, it's now possible to work, travel and live all at once. These things no longer need be mutually exclusive.
"The financial freedom that comes with not having a big mortgage seems to be the biggest advantage for many of the bus homeowners I've talked to," she explains. "Bus homes are often a more affordable option, they are infinitely customizable, and, since they are on wheels, are perfect for traveling. Because of modern wireless technology, some bus homeowners are able to work as full-time professionals or run entrepreneurial businesses in order to finance their travels, which is something that wasn't possible until recently."
There are also distinct hitches that come along with ditching static housing for a more peripatetic life aboard a retrofitted bus.
"The biggest drawback might be finding a place to park, whether one is traveling or living in one spot long-term with a bus conversion," says Mok, noting that this is also an issue with tiny houses as a whole. "Local regulations have been slow to catch up with the rising interest in tinier homes, though mainstream acceptance is growing."
'Stormy,' a Thomas Saf-T-Liner converted into a solar-powered house-on-wheels by Arkansans Zack Andrews and Annie King is featured in 'The Modern Bus House.' (Photo: Natural State Nomad courtesy Countryman Press)
Establishing a sense of home while embracing one's inner nomad
In "The Modern House Bus," Mok explores the pleasures, pains and idiosyncrasies associated with bus-to-home conversions. The first section traces the trend's roots, touching down on the current cultural obsession with tiny houses, camping and RV culture, self-sufficiency, community, environmentalism and the very idea of what "home" is.
"Home is where we remain centered and feel ‘at home' within ourselves," writes Mok. "It becomes a space of belonging and state of mind that we carry with us on the inside, no matter where we go, no matter where we live, even if it's a bus. "
The last half of the book is dedicated to technicalities for those interested in embarking on a bus conversion project themselves: where and how to choose a bus and what to look for while doing so; what to consider when tackling issues of design, layout and construction; issues of registration, insurance and licensing; and, last but not least, pointers on how to implement eco-strategies so that your bus home has the smallest environmental footprint possible.
The heart of "The Modern House Bus," however, are the chapters profiling a dozen conversion projects complete with photos, specific tips and further insights from the owners of the buses-turned-abodes. Throughout, Mok details the journey of each owner: What compelled them to make the leap? And how did they make it work?
In the excerpted chapter below, you'll find the story of Emily and Scott Manning, a young couple who took advantage of the fact that they both work remotely and combined it with their love of travel all the while nourishing a growing family. Here's the how they came about buying an old transit bus and converting it into a smart and functional living space that's now very much home.
'Where we roam'
"For many, traveling the world long term seems like something to do only if you're single, financially well-off, or retired. It takes some courage to break out of those social expectations, but Scott and Emily Manning decided to do just that a few years after graduating from college. They first started with a summer-long trip across the United States and loved it so much that they wanted to continue traveling, with or without a family. So when their first baby was born, they threw conventional beliefs to the wind and set out on a 12-month journey to 12 different countries, with the little one in tow and documenting their travels online. Along the way, they learned a lot more about living with a smaller footprint.
"One central theme to the experience was how little space we needed to ourselves to do so much, both in terms of actual living space and how comfortable we felt in close quarters," recalls Scott.
The idea of "living tiny" and being able to keep one's sense of "home" no matter the location resonated strongly with the couple. Since both Scott, a digital marketing consultant, and Emily, a small business owner and photographer, were already working remotely, they wanted to build a small, portable home that could relocate with them.
They shied away from the cookie-cutter feel of commercial RVs, especially after learning how they could be mechanically fickle. "We wanted something that felt inherently ‘ours,' which we were not sure we could get from a typical RV. Most RVs have a different type of customer in mind when built, which is why they tend have big cushy rocking chairs in the front, a single bedroom in the back, and a lot of wasted space in the middle," says Scott.
The main living area of the Manning's bus home is a multifunctional space that serves as living room, kitchen, playroom, guest quarters and, in the rear, master bedroom. (Photo: Scott and Emily Manning courtesy Countryman Press)
At first, the pair looked into tiny houses, but at the suggestion of Emily's uncle, they began to consider bus conversions when they realized that the square footage would be about the same. So about a month after returning from their ambitious round-the-world trip, they found themselves a 2000 Orion V, a former transit bus, bought it for $3,000 at a public auction, and began renovations.
One major motivation behind the design was to make it feel houselike. "Less bus, more house — I was gung-ho about making the bus feel like you're stepping into an actual home, not an RV and absolutely not a city transit bus," says Emily. "There's certainly remnants of its former buslike self in the front area where the driver's seat remains, but as soon as you cross the threshold, the space really does feel that you're walking into someone's living room and kitchen."
The entire conversion process took about 10 months and cost about $35,000 (including meal costs for friends who pitched in). Like a typical RV, the Mannings' bus is designed to be plugged into the main grid and water line, and runs on 30-amp power. The couple and their young son began to live and travel in the 240-square-foot bus when renovations were almost complete. Their second child, a daughter, was born around this time.
After nearly a year of travels with the bus all over the United States, they have a third child and are now living in the bus, parked on rented land in Oregon. The couple continues to work remotely, while the whole family has made connections with other families in the area. "We wanted to find our new ‘hometown,' where we could put down at least a few roots and be a part of a community." says Scott. "This is that 'hometown' we've always wanted to find."
Through their bold decision to make travel a part of their lives no matter what, Scott and Emily were able to forge a path ahead that felt right for them. But they also admit that living the bus life is not for everyone — it can be challenging, but with patience and faith, it can be done.
"The Modern House Bus: Mobile Tiny House Inspirations" is now available online or at a brick-and-mortar bookseller near you.
Excerpt of "Where we Roam" chapter of "The Modern House Bus: Mobile Tiny House Inspirations" by Kimberley Mok provided by Countryman Press
Insert image of rear office/kids' room: Scott and Emily Manning courtesy Countryman Press