How This DIY Family Turned an old Bus Into a Home
| LAST UPDATE 08/30/2021
Lauren and Derek grew tired of mainstream living and dreamed of traveling full-time. So the adventurous couple bought an old bus and spent years converting it into a home-on-wheels. Here is the beautiful transformation.
Derek & Lauren
Meet Derek and Lauren, a lovely couple who, at the start of their skoolie journey, was based in Long Beach, California. And while the pair had a home and life filled with laughter and love, the truth was that they weren't happy. They wanted something more.
"We hate our jobs," Lauren and Derek admitted. "The stresses of our full time jobs are unnecessary." Both the lovebirds were active-duty military members, and their positions often had them far apart from one another, with Derek getting deployed throughout the year.
Forming a Plan
At the time of this article's writing, Lauren and Derek had served in the military a combined total of about fifteen years. And while they appreciated the invaluable experiences their jobs gave them, it was time to move on. What could the couple do next?
As the California residents brainstormed alternative lifestyles, they realized that their ideal dream was to travel; maybe even live life on the road. And so Derek and Lauren looked for ways to make that possible and came across the skoolie community.
A 1996 Thomas Bluebird
The more they researched, the more the couple thought that the bus life could be the life for them. Derek and Lauren felt inspired by all of the other people who lived on the road after turning an old school bus into a home-on-wheels and committed to doing the same thing.
"No one knows who we are, we aren't even sure," the pair admitted. "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."
A Huge Problem
But there was one catch to the 1996 Thomas Bluebird: it wasn't in California. The pair had to travel to Georgia to pick it up and then road trip back nearly 3,000 miles. And that's exactly what they did, but the journey back home was far from easy as the bus had a huge problem.
"The power steering oil is somehow spraying all over the engine," Derek explained. "We can not find a leak anywhere... We have brought it to 3 different mechanics. No one seems to have a clue." Finally, once all the way in Houston, Texas, the couple found a mechanic who could diagnose the issue.
After many mistrials, the Houston mechanic "diagnosed [the lead] within seconds" of the couple showing up at his place. Bringing the Bluebird bus home wasn't simple, but Lauren and Derek were prepared for such obstacles. The couple knew from other skoolie-dwellers that these things happened.
"We budgeted for our bus purchase to also include significant emergency repairs on our inaugural 2800 mile trip," Derek explained. So while the road trip didn't go as planned, the pair was far from deterred. They left the bus in Houston and eventually brought it to California, fixed and ready to start the renovations.
Three's a Crowd?
But this bus-to-home transformation would be a little more complicated than some of the skoolies Lauren and Derek saw online. The couple wasn't alone! They planned on hitting the road with their daughter, Luna, and would soon welcome another baby as Lauren was pregnant.
That meant that the DIYers needed to build a living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and another bedroom area for their two children. Would they be able to fit all of their necessities? According to the blueprints the pair drafted, it was possible... But time would tell.
"Can't wait to transform this space," the duo shared. "From a 72 passenger bus to a 3 'bedroom' home on wheels." But before the family could start building, there was a lot of demolition to be done. Lauren and Derek had to get rid of the vehicle's original ceilings, walls, and floors.
So they decided to start from the top and make their way down, unscrewing each ceiling panel and removing what was underneath. The insulation was in better shape than they expected. "Which is a good sign," Derek and Lauren shared. "No traces of water intrusion!"
Gutting the Walls & Floor
But a few weeks after the couple removed the bus's original ceiling, rain hit Southern California and revealed that the old Bluebird did have a few leaks. But it wasn't a huge deal since the family was still in the gutting stage of the transformation and could patch it up.
Many screws (over 15,000, to be exact) and metal sheets later, the 1996 school bus was finally rid of its original ceiling, walls, floors, and even air conditioning units. There was still a long way to go before the fun part of the DIY project could begin, but they inched closer.
Sealing the Floor
The bus was over twenty years old and had a nice layer of rust that needed to be handled thanks to those leaks. So Derek treated the rust with Ospho, a rust-killing product, and then used Rustoleum enamel to smoothen the surface and ready it for building.
But getting the floor rust-free and sealed wasn't easy - the California pair spent a lot of time cleaning, cleaning some more, and then cleaning a bit more. The floors had to be perfectly neat to build a sturdy foundation, and with decades of use, that was a sweat-filled job.
Luckily, Lauren and Derek had the support of the online skoolie community, who gave the pair advice on which products worked best every step of the way. It was time to move on to the next project stage now that the rust was fixed and the floors were sealed.
Derek measured and cut out the wood for the floor's framing and then chose insulation boards to build into the subfloor. This material is a popular option in skoolie builds because it is rather simple to cut into the necessary shapes for the bus floor.
With the insulation in and ready to take on the country's winter cold and summer heat, Lauren and Derek moved onto the next part. That is, after cleaning some more, of course. The DIYers installed a cork subfloor on top of the new insulation boards to finish off the subfloor.
They would later have to cover the box wheels seen sticking up from the floor in the photo above. As for the final layer of flooring on the skoolie? That would have to wait until much later. Derek and Lauren decided to install that after all of the furniture was built.
So the subfloor was done and pretty much ready for construction since the final flooring layer wouldn't come in until the motorhome's furniture was in. But there was still a lot of foundation to finish up on before the actual building part of the project could start.
Derek framed the walls and ceiling with pieces of wood, similar to what he did for the subfloor. But the ceiling brought a trickier challenge since it wasn't a straight line. Once that was done, he added insulation to the ceiling and walls. They were ready to rumble.
Building the Furniture
Lauren and Derek (mostly Derek since his better half was busy baking a bun in her oven) planned on doing everything themselves - a total DIY bus renovation. The couple saved money to make sure they could afford the transformation but needed to keep things as cost-effective as possible.
And that meant making everything themselves, regardless of how little experience in home renovations they had. So once the subfloors were installed and the walls and ceiling were ready, Derek started building the custom-made furniture for the skoolie.
Living Room in Progress
Derek and Lauren designed their skoolie floorplan with the living room at the front of the bus, close to the entranceway. This was a common setup for many motorhome dwellers. The shot below captured the living room after much progress on the couch base.
"Living room finally making progress," the couple shared with online followers. But there was more to this little L-shaped sofa than meets the eye - the living room would eventually double as a guest bedroom. "Couch slides out and turns into a full-size bed for guests!" Derek explained.
Walls & More Walls
But furniture wasn't the only thing the DIYers had to focus on. Although the bus's walls were now insulated and Derek had begun the process of putting up panels on the walls and ceiling, that wasn't the end of it. He also had to build plenty of new walls.
After all, the couple wasn't exactly going for an open-space concept. The bus might've been small, but the family of three (and soon to be four) wanted to separate all of their living spaces from one another. So Derek framed walls that would separate the bathroom, children's room, and main bedroom.
Kitchen in Progress
The next part of the skoolie was the kitchen, located past the living room at the motorhome's entrance. Derek built the cabinets from scratch, fitting them perfectly to the design the couple had in mind. The farmhouse sink would be perfect for washing dishes in the small kitchen.
"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," the duo shared. "After deciding on our color palate for curtains and cushions this color went best."
The Bedroom Coming Along
All the way in the back of the bus, by the gorgeous windows seen below, would be Lauren and Derek's bedroom. The shot below shows the rudimentary framing for the full-size bed the couple would share once the family hit the road. But once more, there's more than meets the eye.
It might not look like much in the photo above, but the finished product would be full of beauty and function. The wood pieces hanging from the ceiling would later become a cabinet with a nice amount of storage. And the blank space to the left of the bed would also have a little something special.
Paneling the Roof
As work progressed on the custom furniture, as did work on the walls and ceilings. Derek and Lauren chose nickel back boards, also known as shiplap boards, for a good amount of the walls and ceilings. But to add some texture and interest, there was some variety in the design.
The couple chose to add shiplap at the front and back ends of the bus but used sheets of plywood in the middle. The sheets would later be painted white, while the shiplap would stay a more rustic color. The 1996 bus was finally starting to look like a home.
The back of the bus was coming along just as nicely as the front. Far from being a bare skeleton, the main suite looked more and more like an actual bedroom. And with Derek's dedication to making the skoolie as "bougie" as possible, no detail went unnoticed.
Paneling went up on the bedroom walls and ceiling. But that's not all. Derek built windowsills, added window trim, and boxed in the back windows to make the bus feel truly like a home and not a vehicle. But what about the bedroom for the couple's two children?
Lauren gave birth to the couple's second child when the family was well into the school bus renovation, which meant that there had to be room for two by the time the gang hit the road. And while Derek didn't have much carpentry experience going into the renovation, he sure did well!
Derek built a gorgeous set of bunkbeds in the space before the parents' suite and the bathroom but after the living room and the kitchen. The shot above captured Lauren testing out the beds' sturdiness, ensuring they were safe and ready for their two girls.
Finished & Hitting the Road
Although there were still some details to be sorted and finished, the motorhome was finally ready to be taken out on the road nearly two years after the couple first bought it. From the front to the back, it all looked completely different from the bus the couple first brought home from Georgia.
They even replaced the driver's seat for this junkyard find that cost a mere three dollars! That way, whoever was driving could drive in style and comfort. Best part? The seat twisted around to face the rest of the bus. And the spot behind it, where they installed the baby's car seat, had multiple functions...
The Living Room
While not in motion, the spot where the car seat was located in the previous photo could be replaced with a cushion, as seen in the shot below. That provided the perfect amount of seating for the family of four. Across from that was the finished (and gorgeous) couch.
Derek worked hard to give the custom-built sofa a polished look. Painting it white and leaving some of the wood its natural color added variety and texture. And Lauren put her sewing skills to work and made stunning yellow cushions for the small sofabed.
A Pop-up Dining Table
Surprise, surprise! The car seat holder that doubled as a little sofa bench had a third purpose: a dining table! The cushion could easily be removed, making room for the small eating area. The table - also made from scratch by Derek - was foldable and easy to store under the cushion.
While Lauren and Derek originally painted a beautiful mural on the cabinets between the L-shaped couch and the kitchen (which contained a nice amount of storage), they later changed their minds about the painting. The duo swapped it for a clean, white look instead.
Welcome to the Kitchen
The completed kitchen did not disappoint. Derek complimented the colorful cabinets with a simple custom-made countertop. He created it using doubled-up birch ply glued and screwed together and painted-on contact cement to place a Formica sheet on top.
Even the cabinet handles were made by Derek and Lauren! They used a 3/8 inch copper pipe cut to size, matching 90-degree elbows, and then inserted and glued a dowel to the inside of the elbow. The stunning handles were then screwed onto the cabinets and drawers.
Custom countertops, stylish cabinet handles, and a farmhouse sink weren't the only things the kitchen had to offer. The DIYers chose to install a Hotpoint apartment-sized oven in the skoolie, powered by solar panels on the roof, which meant they could cook delicious family-sized meals.
"We always imagined a L-shaped kitchen," the couple shared. "By putting the oven in the corner we will maximize counter space." And that's exactly what happened! A quick glance at the photo above and one can see there's a nice amount of chopping space. In fact, the couple revealed this kitchen was bigger than the one in their Cali home!
The Kids' Room
Making way towards the back-end of the bus is this little magical bunkbed. The family added some fun touches to the childrens' room by painting the beds with geometric shapes, easily done by placing painting tape in the desired pattern. Derek also made a sturdy little ladder.
But these beds offered much more than a pretty aesthetic and a place for the kids to crash. Thanks to the L-shaped design of the bunk beds, each of Lauren and Derek's girls had a little cubby next to their place of sleep. The blank space by the mattresses pulls up for storage - or a treasure box!
A Tiny Sink
The custom bunk beds also had storage underneath the mattresses. The bed base lifted to reveal plenty of room to store clothes and toys for the kids while on the road. Past the girls' tiny bedroom was another crucial part of the skoolie: the family bathroom.
Seen in the photo above is the tiny bathroom sink useful for washing hands and brushing teeth. The family would definitely use the kitchen farmhouse sink for dirty dishes! To the right side of the sink, not visible in this photo, was the toilet room, closed off from the rest of the skoolie.
The Open Shower
The half-wall behind the tiny sink separated the shower from the rest of the bathroom. The couple chose to leave the shower with an open concept, giving an airy feel when they bathed. The uncovered window allowed for water moisture to easily exit the bus.
And the beauty was certainly in the detail here. The DIYers chose large slabs of simple, grey tiles for the shower. Sometimes in a skoolie, less is more. Tying the bougie kitchen handles to the shower was the gorgeous gold showerhead. The family had water tanks installed to get the kitchen and bathroom plumbing going.
The Cozy Bedroom
And finally, all the way in the back of the bus was the finished main bedroom. Laurene and Derek's suite turned out to be a cozy, magical getaway. The couple complemented the neutral colors on the walls, cabinetry, and ceiling with touches of rustic orange.
Lauren quilted the pretty curtains around the bedroom to match the comforter, and the couple made the finishing touches on the overhead cabinets together. Derek and Lauren covered the bare wood with detailed cane webbing, bought at a local store in California.
Not Done Yet...
Lauren and Derek worked hard on their bus transformation, putting in long hours between raising their kids and Derek's many military deployments. The pair stayed at their jobs throughout the DIY project to save more money for the family's future travels.
And while they already traveled a bunch on their skoolie and visited five out of their intended 63 national parks, the motorhome isn't totally complete yet. The family hopes to be on the road full-time (after quitting their jobs) sometime in 2022 and continues to add to their beautiful home.