I Brake For Innovation
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 7/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
"I became disillusioned with practicing architecture," Dries Stevens admits. "These days, it's so much about the business side. So I gave it up." Now he drives a truck instead.
His professional and personal partner, Nancy Neukermans, still designs the occasional project under their firm name, Living Is—but only for friends and only to earn enough to spend six months a year exploring the world in a modern-day caravan that, ironically, doubles as a perfect showcase for the firm's architectural and engineering talents. The vehicle is a Unimog, a formidable all-terrain four-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz truck that's been given a highly creative makeover. "We live in it basically year-round," Neukermans says.
To finance its cost, the couple sold their flat in Brussels and ended the lease on the warehouse where they performed the transformation. Then they bought a smaller warehouse in Antwerp as a place to park and, partly, to live. The Unimog's customized tent extension, measuring 8 by 15 feet, is the couple's bedroom and bath. The warehouse, at 680 square feet, serves as living room and kitchen whenever the truck isn't on the road.
The conversion was a first for Living Is. Despite the fact that Stevens had been making drawings for more than two years, the learning curve was steep when it actually came time to execute. "Our biggest underestimation was weight. The chassis and cab alone weighed 5 tons, and the eight water-tank additions I'd planned would have added another 2 tons, on top of everything else," he says. "But we realized, the first time we took it out to drive, that it was unstable, and fuel consumption was too high. We had to scale back." The final product, minus five of the water tanks, is 7 ½ tons.
Another big challenge was to find the right materials. They had to be lightweight and durable, just for starters. Walls also needed to be flexible enough to be packed away for driving but sturdy enough to withstand high winds when the tent is up. (Northern Norway and Iceland were two early destinations.)
The Unimog had to be fully weatherproof as well, insulated for warmth in the winter and endowed with good air circulation in the summer. After extensive research, Stevens found a pliable neoprene with a completely closed-cell structure—crucial, in such a small space, for keeping the humidity from seeping in. On top of the neoprene, he glued a superthin layer of PVC for extra water protection.
When fully extended, the tent rises 10 feet above the Unimog's flatbed, with two operable polycarbonate skylights installed in the slanted roof. The interior can be reached through a flap in the back or a porthole cut out of the roof of the cab. Climb through, and you're standing more or less next to the round sunken tub, which is handily covered by a sliding plywood floor when not in use. Running along either side, aluminum units house a cooktop, a sink, a small refrigerator, and cubbies for storing pots and pans. At the far end, under the lower skylight, is the padded sleeping platform.
In short, there's everything that this adventurous couple needs to see them through a half year of journeying. What's next? "Alaska's definitely high on the list," Neukermans says. (They'd get there via freight ferry.) And what about maximizing the Unimog's ability to cover desert terrain? "We're not so into Africa now. But we could completely change our minds," she replies.
After this four-wheeled success, here's hoping that she and Stevens will also change their minds about practicing architecture.