This studio was created as an independent study in which two fourth year architecture students, Tyler Wurr and Joey Bahnsen, tasked themselves with researching and developing how the lifestyle of a digital nomad in today’s society could cross into the lifestyle of the modern designer. The goal of this process was to identify key factors in how the modern designer lives, works, and sustains a moderate and healthy lifestyle both fiscally and professionally.

Project Website

Shelby Doyle, AIA LEED AP, Assistant Professor of Architecture

To fully understand what the movement of “Van Life” included, the two researched the development of nomadic living in the early 1960s as an American phenomenon. The Volkswagen Bus created not only a vehicle for travel but a means of living on the go. This was the first step into the digital nomadic age that would be born in the 1980s during the technology boom with the focus on technological and data innovation alongside how we live. The research found that the practice of living on the go was something that was not only tangible but something the two could do themselves. The focus of the project from that point forward was understanding the costs that go along with simply living in some of the most prominent cities across the United States and how designers are set at a disadvantage for income in comparison to being able to live in a fiscally responsible manner. The key aspects of research narrowed in on three major factors: median starting salary for an intern architect in 20 desirable cities for design, the median monthly rent cost for a single bedroom apartment along with the yearly cost, and the comparison of these two factors to 30% of the median salary in each city. The duo assessed cities and their livability for a young architect to understand if nomadic living would be beneficial in certain environments. What the two found was the majority of major metropolitan areas do not pay starting intern architects enough to live with salary payments standing still as the cost of living continues to grow throughout the country.

The initial design phase came with an understanding of how the two could transform the 1989 Chevrolet G20 conversion van into a vehicle for living and working. The team created three laser cut models of the van and 3D printed themselves to scale to understand how they would inhabit the space. Next they developed scale versions of furniture, installations, and design concepts to plug and play in the models. This helped to narrow down the design concepts and iterations to the two final ideas. From there the duo worked to create framing plans and assess how much space would be used and how much would remain open both by assessing square feet available and volume of the space used. After assessing these factors the team decided on a final design that would utilize a sliding bench seat to transform into a bed, a drop down kitchen/work table that would finish off a second row of bench seating, and a fixed bed in the back that would have storage underneath.

The team quickly set out to price out materials and create a detailed construction schedule in order to understand both cost and time comparison for the project. With a budget of $1,300 for renovation and remodel the team began to assess where money would be allocated. With a focus on both aesthetic and function, the team decided that lightweight and durable construction with a clean aesthetic was ideal.

The van was first framed out with 1”x2” and 1”x4” pieces of economy pine for furring. After this was completed the van was insulated with blue board (XPS) on the floors and ceilings and the walls were covered with mineral wool. The team then laid 1/8” Plywood over the foam to act as a subfloor in which to apply the permanent flooring. The team chose to utilize cork laminate flooring for its durability and resistance to scratches, heavy traffic, and spills. The cork makes up the flooring for the main living space while a high impact and highly durable plastic wall barrier was laid for the back storage area flooring for its resistance to constant sliding and scratching.

The walls are lined with a pine wood paneling that is thin and flexible which helped when fitting the curves of the van. The ceiling and sides of the storage are faced with a 1/8” melamine panel that create a clean white glossy surface along with the ability to bend and fit to the curves of the van. The van has been equipped with eight LED lights in the ceiling that run down to a common source of energy that is fed by two 28 watt solar panels that are applied to the roof. The roof is also equipped with a vent fan to allow for ventilation throughout the living and work space. Finally the entire van is trimmed out with pieces of pine that were painted and stained to have a weathered red aesthetic that plays back into the scenic colors of Iowa.

The team utilized laser cutters, 3D printers, and vinyl cutters to both develop and complete design elements of the van. The van has ventured to 10 different states and has travelled over 4,000 miles with the team inhabiting the space to understand what it is like to work, eat, sleep, and all around live in a small and mobile environment.


Joey Bahnsen, Tyler Wurr


Primary funding for the studio was provided through a GoFundMe campaign and a generous in-kind donation by Power Film Solar in Ames.