Name / Laralyn Mowers
Project / Sprinter Van Conversion
When Laralyn Mowers walked into made in November 2019, she had one big goal in mind: to finish turning her Sprinter van into a home on wheels. She came into MADE’s lobby, and asked, “Can I renovate my van here?”. Naturally, the answer was, “Yes!”
Laralyn has been working for three months at MADE. Her project is almost complete, and we wanted to know more about her, her project, and how she made it at MADE. She sat down to share her story and answer our questions.
MADE: Where are you from, and what inspired you to start this project?
I was born in California, and spent my formative years in the Bay Area. I moved to New York for grad school, and ended up staying for 10 years. After moving 9 times in 6 years—you know… bed bugs, the bathroom ceiling collapsing (again), the crazy Vietnam vet upstairs, gentrification pushing rent up—I was lucky enough to finally land a rent-stabilized apartment in Queens. I was very lucky. New Yorkers fall into three categories: white collar workers who can afford to pay whatever the market demands, people poor enough to qualify for subsidized housing, and everyone else who is just trying to survive. Affordable housing is hard to come by. That apartment in Queens is probably why I stayed the last few years.
There’s a lot I love about NYC, but competing with 24 million people wears you down over time. After 10 years, I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t know what I wanted. I only knew what I didn’t want. And that’s not a healthy way to move through the world. When I accepted it was time to leave, I knew I needed some time to detox. To rethink how I want to live. And where I want to live. Where do you go after San Francisco and New York? This is a big country, and I wanted to explore with an open mind. I wanted a year to climb, camp, see national parks, check out the culture in some new cities, and just learn how to fly again! Sprout little wings on my heart and find the right place for life’s next chapter. That’s why I bought the van.
MADE: Tell us about your van.
It’s a 2005 Dodge Sprinter—but really it’s a Mercedes disguised as a Dodge (as we’re seeing, tariffs make international brands get creative).
I originally bought it ‘finished’, meaning I spent a bunch of money on something that was supposed to be ready to live in. But when it broke down on my first trip, I got to spend 6 weeks living out of it in a mechanic’s parking lot, and find everything that didn’t really work with the build. By the time I got to St. Louis, I hated it. The guy who did the conversion didn’t put much thought into the layout. From a usability perspective, there was so much that didn’t make sense. I was constantly hitting my head on things that shouldn’t have been there; there were no shelves or drawers for storage; counter space was so nominal that I had to put things on my bed when I cooked; there were leaks because the plumbing wasn’t configured properly. Plus, he didn’t think about how climate would affect the materials: changing humidity and temperatures; the inherent flex that comes with building a house in a vehicle. After having the van for just 3 months, the walls and ceiling were already warping. It was unacceptable.
By the time I got to St Louis, I knew I had to gut it and start over. It was frustrating to spend so much money on something, only to have to scrap it and build it from scratch myself. But now that I’m almost done, I can see that this project was fate (or whatever) giving me a chance to take the reigns and design my own perfect home. I’ve spent countless hours thinking about how to optimize the layout, how to give purpose to each design feature. Can I turn the 10 inches of dead space next to the bed into a storage area (that also serves as a place to recline comfortably with a book)? Can I recess my stovetop into the counter, and build a fold-down chopping block to maximize the functionality of my counter space? If I stack my water tanks, can they both fit under my sink so I can have a full set of kitchen drawers? What are the essentials, what can serve multiple functions, and what can I go without?
Of course, I had to think creatively about materials. You can’t use drywall in a moving home. I went with cedar planks for my walls because cedar naturally resists mildew, and bugs don’t like it. I used vinyl wainscoting for the ceiling because it’s lightweight and will be easier to clean than wood. I lined all storage spaces with felt to reduce rattling. I found a silicone-based grout to use with my tile backsplash. In the end, this forced me to learn about my options, and now I feel like I didn’t just defer to someone else’s knowledge—I actually know my shit. Plus, now I have a home that’s 100% custom designed to my needs.
MADE: What brought you to St. Louis?
I came here because my (now) ex grew up here. We originally intended to just stay and help out with the family for a few months. At first, I was using the tools at the house. They had a table saw, miter saw, and a bunch of other tools. But I was building in isolation. A lot of days ended in frustration because I didn’t know how to build something I had designed—or I’d build it, and break it, right away. A guy at my climbing gym recommended I check out MADE for my project, and that’s how I discovered this amazing resource. I ended up staying to finish the build because of the amazing community here.
How has MADE helped with your van?
Before this, my only ‘maker’ experience was photography, and a bit of restoration work. At MADE I’ve learned how to weld, how to work with wood, how to build something out of steel.
As a woman doing this, it’s really empowering to develop this kind of skill set. These things (welding, metalworking, woodworking, etc…) are typically passed down from father to son… They’re not difficult to learn, but they do feel inaccessible if you don’t have that natural liaison to show you the way. MADE has become that liaison for me, and it’s empowering to know that I can design something and then build it (or if something breaks I can fix it).
It’s also been great to build friendships with other makers. Sometimes all you need to do is talk through a design problem with someone who thinks a little differently, and these little epiphanies start to happen. We truly are greater than the sum of our parts.
What are some other local resources you are super jazzed about?
Refab is an awesome resource for reclaimed material, and for general help. Their staff and community is welcoming and helpful. MADE and Refab are the two most unexpected gems I’ve discovered in St Louis. Also, I never would have found MADE or Refab without the community at Climb So ill. It’s been my experience that climbers are multidisciplinary and multifaceted. In this case, the climbing community helped me find my maker community.
Do you have any advice to share, for someone who wants to start a big project?
Oh man. For a big thing that has so many different uses, figure out what your Minimal Viable Product is—your MVP as we say in the tech space. What essentials do you need to test your concept? For me, it was a bed, a sink, and a fridge. Whatever your MVP is, build that, and then [usability] test it. Take it on a trip, figure out what you got wrong, and fix it before you invest a bunch of time building your ‘extras’ and finishing the surfaces. You don’t want to have a fully built home before learning that your bed is 2 inches too tall to sit up comfortably!
Also, build in sprints. Chunk your work so that you are always building towards your next usability test. Use prototypes wherever you’re not sure so that you can build quickly and test whether you got it right—without having to undo a fully built product feature.
As a woman travelling alone, there is this pre-existing culture of fear about what can happen to you on the road. It’s perpetuated by the news, and also by other people’s fears (“aren’t you scared to do this by yourself??”) I think it keeps a lot of us from living our best lives. The first few nights sleeping alone in the van were scary. I just laid awake thinking about all the bad things that might happen. But I soon realized that there isn’t a boogeyman creeping around, looking for vulnerable women to prey on. The scariest thing I’ve had to deal with was hearing a bear sniff around my van in Yosemite National Park. But the people I meet on the road are usually curious about my lifestyle, and are interested in what I’m doing. I’ve found that a lot of them want to live vicariously through my choices. That’s been empowering, and also validating.
I wish I saw more women taking big risks: whether it’s a lifestyle risk, a career risk, or whatever—it’s been my experience that the level of reward is commensurate with the level of risk. And more often than not, the risk is totally worth it!
Follow Laralyn’s travels on her IG, @lalalaryn