With gas prices normalizing somewhat, there are fewer and fewer excuses not to pack your life into a van and hit the road. One company will even help you do it. VanLab USA makes flat-pack DIY conversion kits that are designed to transform your vehicle into a home on wheels, with a bed, a kitchen, and plenty of storage. All you need, says the company, is a day or two, and a screwdriver.
"You put the van interior together the same way you assemble Ikea furniture—using labeled pieces and a manual," says Ian Fitzhenry, one of VanLab’s founders.
Tables, beds, and built-in benches with storage compartments are made of half-inch birch plywood panels that are marked with letters and numbers and fit together via a peg-in-hole system. Once assembled, the pieces are designed to be taken out just as easily, and the kit can also be removed section by section for more flexibility.
"It’s engineered as a single unit that snugly fits the van interior and doesn’t move—we made everything fully removable for people who lease vans or use them for work and pleasure," Fitzhenry says, noting that the panels securely fasten to other panels and nothing actually screws into the van itself. "A person can put the kit in for holiday and then take it back out when it’s time to go back to work."
As it happens, Fitzhenry was planning his own holiday when he came across the idea. He and his wife were headed to New Zealand to do what a lot of folks do there: cruise around in a camper van. Some Googling lead him to his now-business partner, Andy Jones, an aeronautical engineer by trade, who had started VanLab New Zealand. The company was providing custom builds and conversion kits, and Fitzhenry, who has a background in creative production and branding, was impressed. "Andy’s designs were simple, and cleaner than other rental campers I saw," he says.
So Fitzhenry reached out, and the two began talking. "We really got on," Fitzhenry says. "We discovered that we grew up only thirty minutes from each other in England—Andy is from Nottingham and I’m from Sheffield."
During their conversations, Fitzhenry couldn’t help but think about how he hadn’t seen anything like what Jones was doing in the U.S. "As far as I knew, there was no company like it in America," Fitzhenry says. "So, I eventually convinced Andy to partner with me and bring VanLab to the United States."
Jones sold VanLab New Zealand and in 2019, he and Fitzhenry started anew in the U.S. to sell kits everywhere in the country. "We’re focusing on the kits versus customization because I’d seen too many expensive and timely builds," Fitzhenry says. "The kits can be shipped to even the most remote areas of America, where they don’t have van conversion services on the street corner."
The kits come in a few different sizes and work with a range of vans, says the company. Currently, the designs fit a Nissan NV 200 or a Chevrolet City Express, a Mercedes Sprinter 144, and the Ford Transit Cargo/Crew. Eventually, the company plans to develop one in a smaller size to suit a Ford Transit Connect and a Ram Promaster City, and a larger kit that will fit a Ram Promaster. "We also plan to offer add-ons like upper cabinetry in case people want or need more storage," Fitzhenry says.
Kits are priced reasonably enough when compared to what it might cost to go completely DIY. Before shipping, the small one is $4,750, while the medium and large kits go for $8,995. Those numbers become even more approachable when compared to other similar offerings, like a DIY kit from Zenvan priced at $18K, or one from Wayfarer Vans at $11K. But, at least for now, VanLab USA’s kits don’t include wall or ceiling paneling, though they will soon, says the company.
VanLab USA’s hope is that it’s making striking out on the open road just a little more attainable. The time you could spend YouTubing tutorials on van conversions, let alone in trips to the hardware store, is enough to stop anyone from starting. But what if modifying your van were as easy as setting up an Ikea Ektorp in your living room? "We want everyone to have a taste of vanlife," says Fitzhenry. "Not just the fortunate few who can afford custom builds."