My latest series focuses on people who have broken away from the norm, with amazing results.
There is so much pressure to conform in today’s world – it seems to be a function of humanity that we love to fit in and question those who do not. With that in mind I’ve always been impressed by people who consciously decide to live their lives a little differently – it’s important to take note when people stand up and say, “no, that’s not for me (and it might not be for you too if you either if you really think about it)”.
I want to highlight some instances where thinking differently has led to spectacular outcomes, in the hope that it might challenge us out there to look at our lives and wonder if a little (or a lot of!) change might make us more happy.
About a year ago I started researching micro-homes. Search #tinyhome on Pinterest or Instagram and you will find incredible tiny homes that were built for a fraction of the price of a modern new build. These small houses immediately invoke thoughts of a cosy lifestyle beside a log fire, wrapped in a blanket with a mug of tea following a hard day’s work outside.
I live currently in a one bed flat with the GF, and we find it excessive for our needs (it is 514 square foot / 47.75 square meters – so hardly tiny, but excess space nonetheless). Neither of us are particularly rooted to the idea of permanently living in the city (currently in London) and the work-centric lifestyle it entails. The idea of finding a micro home in a remote location immediately struck a chord. We both like exercise, freedom and minimalism.
A House on Wheels
It was a small step from micro-homes to mobile homes, and some of the builds you can find on the internet will blow you away. One such build is the subject of this article. Designed and built by Tom Duckworth, it immediately caught my attention and I went to his website to gather more information on how he got the process rolling. The thing that struck me most was how he seemed like a normal guy who just wanted to try something different. Maybe I can do that, I thought.
Tom’s results are spectacular. His build is a fully functional mobile home that looks like this:
It contains a living space, bed, kitchen, and bathroom. All on wheels!
I emailed Tom with some basic queries, and he got back in contact with helpful pointers. I then asked if we could expand on this for my readers, and he kindly agreed. I wanted to discuss day-to-day life in a micro-home, how he built it, and what advice he would give anyone wanting to build their own micro-home on wheels.
Hi Tom. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
No problem, happy to be of help!
To start, can you give us a brief overview of how you came to decide to do what you are doing? Why build a micro-home on wheels?
It all started when I first moved out of the family home and began to pay rent. The expense! I initially looked at campervans, followed by the tiny house movement in America, and finally decided to merge the two and go from there.
Starting with the build – can you tell us why you decided to use a military Bedford truck as the base, as opposed to a lighter more modern truck?
My job and passion is to restore vintage cars, so I was always on the lookout for an older vehicle with a bit of style. However it needed to be in good condition – I didn’t want to be doing two jobs at once i.e. renovation and building the house. I came across Bedfords in my research and they were perfect. Also being ex-military they are usually in impeccable condition. Bedford TKs (civilian Bedford trucks) were also an option, but they are often in poor repair these days.
As you know I’ve looked at ex-military Bedfords when doing my own personal research. The cost for the vehicle looks to be around £6k (depending on negotiation skills). Can you tell me if this is roughly what you paid? I am considering horse trucks too at the moment though they tend to be in pretty poor condition if cheap!
My Bedford MJ was £4,350 but it’s left hand drive. I agree horse boxes can be rough but sometimes nice ones do come up. When building the house I had to build everything from scratch. A horse box would have been a much easier starting point, even with a bit of repair. Could also use a removal van or similar vehicle. Even with my metalworking knowledge the build was, to be blunt, a nightmare. It took nearly a year to build the outside, by contrast it took just two months to do the inside. So if you can have the outside sorted it’s much easier. More than half way there – literally!
Why did the outside take so long?
I had to plan then construct a custom frame to fit on the truck. I also galvanised the steel which took a while. Galvanising is a method of protecting the steel with zinc. Takes a while to prepare but the steel won’t corrode, making the build much sturdier and long lasting.
Could a wooden frame be an option?
I didn’t really consider it, given I had knowledge of metalworking. There was already so much to learn so stuck with my strengths! Regarding metal, Aluminium was an option as it’s lighter, but a military truck is geared up for weight so I went for the stronger, heavier steel.
You’ve mentioned you have metalworking experience and restore classic cars. Can you expand on how you got this skill set – as a hobby or work?
I left the family home when I was 20 to go to college to learn classic car restoration in Leeds. Part of this was metalworking. Handy skill set for building a house truck!
Can you give me an idea of your total build cost (not including the truck)?
I think £11k for the build so just over £15k all in. A lot cheaper than your average first home! I would also be able to resell for at least £15k (probably a fair bit more) so it’s an investment in much the same way as a standard house.
Do you know the finished weight?
I am 8 tonnes. The lorry has a gross max of 9.5 so I have a fair bit left for more modifications.
And the rough square foot of your interior?
72 square foot. Or 8m2 ish. That’s the living space without counting the bed which is a full-size double. That goes up into the ceiling to save space.
Have you have ever had to change a tyre? Can imagine that could be a pretty tricky job on one of those!
No not had to change one yet. I have taken the spare off and moved it about a bit – it’s not too bad to move or lift.
Fuel consumption – is this an issue?
Fuel is not great at the moment but I know someone with the same lorry as me that gets 22mpg with a few engine mods. Something for the future..
So start to finish how long did it take to build and install the home on the truck?
I bought it September 28th 2016. After two months of planning I started work December 4th. Moved in Nov 14th 2017.
Is there anything you would change/do differently regarding your build?
First, I would have done a lot more planning. You need to consider everything. If you don’t know how to install electrics, then you will need to learn. Same with carpentry, etc.
Second. being financial stable would be sensible i.e. don’t spend your life savings on the vehicle and hope for the best! It’s a full-time job so you don’t want to be working on the side to make money or you’ll never get anywhere.
Regarding the build itself, I built a roof/beer terrace over the cab; some people decide to extend the living arrangements over the top but that presents a few difficulties. First, it extends the build time, and as discussed that already takes a while. Second, the Bedford cab doesn’t tip. In modern commercial vehicles the whole cab will tip forward to allow easy access to engine. Not the case with Bedfords. So had I built on top it would have made it harder to access the engine (there are access panels, but they aren’t always the best depending on the scale of the issue).
The roof terrace is also great fun – causes a few looks and makes me laugh which is hugely important. Also, I want to be able to put the original canvas over the top to make the truck sleeker and I wouldn’t be able to do this had I built over the cab.
Does the truck require much maintenance?
It’s an old truck that just need to be looked after. Only normal vehicle maintenance required – greased, brakes checked, oil changes, etc. It’s not a complicated vehicle as it’s from the ‘60s. I do most maintenance myself and have good mechanic friends for the rest. You need a campervan MOT.
Moving away from the build and on to daily life – do you live in it full time, and if so where do you park normally?
Yes I do, I am stationed in Ower near the New Forest.
Do you work? If so, how do you find work living in a mobile home?
I do vehicle restoration which is a full-time weekday job. So currently I’m parked up and I just live a normal life! Up at 6am, work 7am – 6pm on vintage cars. In the evenings help with campervan renovations. I do this as I was pretty low during certain times of my build, struggling and wondering if I would ever get there, so want to help out other people in the same situation. I haven’t historically charged for this but I’m thinking of starting, mainly as it costs a fair bit to travel around.
Instead of going home in the evening to a rented flat I go home to the truck, and paying no real rent allows me to save a lot more than I would normally. On the subject of finances, I didn’t go to university. I had my UCAS application ready but deleted it. This caused quite a stir back in the day! Everyone I knew was pushed towards uni, so it was tough to say it wasn’t for me. However, I simply wasn’t passionate about going, and the debt concerned me – borrowing money for sake of piss up seemed crazy. If you’re in the same situation give it some real thought. It’s so easy to follow the trend because everyone else is doing it. This applies to everything in life!
Can you give me a ballpark figure of running costs per month?
I hire a bit of farm land to park on. I am 10 minutes to Salisbury, 15 minutes to Southampton. Hiring space is not strictly necessary but when I leave the lorry it’s safe and I know I am never going to get moved on in the middle of the night. It’s £35 a week so £140 a month. So worth it as there is lots going on and lots of different people there. Living in a small space it’s important to have the option to socialise – even just living on your own can be very lonely. The farm is a great community.
Then gas £10 to fill my bottle up at the petrol station. I have to do this every month in winter and every couple in Summer as I BBQ a lot. Gas does all cooking and hot water.
I also have a Mobil Wi-Fi as well which is £20.
My insurance is less than £300 a year.
So all in all £200 without moving the lorry. Moving it costs more buts it’s lots of fun!
What kind of speed do you get on the mobile internet?
Not sure but I can FaceTime and get Netflix. That’s all you need!
I’m more concerned about playing online computer games if I’m honest! Nintendo switch ftw. Speaking of speed, any idea of the top speed of the truck?
56 miles an hour is the max I’ve ever got to. Cruising speed 45 mph.
Is there much of a mobile home community, and if so how do you find it?
Facebook groups are great. If you make the decision to live differently often some of the people around you don’t like that, so you may need to find new friends who are on your wavelength. The community is very friendly and welcoming, though much like any community you get a mix of different people. I took a trip to Wales not long ago and found a random car park through an app, pulled up to find a house truck already there with a great group of people. Spent the next few days surfing and travelling with them. The app by the way is called ‘park4night’ – essential for those on the move.
If you go on a road trip, is parking an issue – how much do you need to plan ahead and find designated places as opposed to just parking off a secluded road?
Always do a google maps check. I’ve had to do some phenomenal reversing after going down small lanes. My truck doesn’t have power steering so it can be tricky. Can just about park in a normal car park but need make sure for things like height restriction. But the app is great gives recommendations, height restrictions, if people have been moved on overnight, etc.
Regarding driving, do you need a special license? Is it difficult to drive the truck?
C license is required as per any rigid body heavy goods vehicle. It’s very hard to drive! No power steering and left-hand drive. Plus it’s terrifying as my whole house is on the back! I now understand why snails go so slow. Things fall out inside all the time, stuff moves around. Never had any serious issues, though had a little incident with a tree which slightly dented a roof panel. But as I’ve made everything myself I simply remade the damaged panel.
How has the truck affected your personal relationships? You mentioned above not everyone has been on board with what you’ve done.
The all-consuming nature of build is important to note. All my conversations for a long while related the build. I would probably be chatting to someone but absently wondering how to fix the guttering.
Family and friends were generally ok with it, mainly as I had talked about it vaguely for two years, so they were on board with me just getting on and doing it. Most people just thought it was weird, at least initially, especially when it would have been much easier to just get a van.
I’ve had a relationship end in the time I’ve been in the truck, but that’s not the fault of the truck, it’s just the way life is. There are always going to be ups and downs, doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Have to make the best of it and do what you love as much as possible. Get as much joy and laughter as you can!
Have you ever considered trying to use the home to make a passive income? (E.g. renting it out, shows, paid Instagram posts)
I’m considering all of it. Currently thinking of making and selling artwork through Instagram. If I ever wanted to move to a standard dwelling I’d be able to Airbnb the truck, there are a few similar things being done. I’m also talking at a few shows this year. Never been a confident public speaker, but it’s a subject close to my heart.
How do you occupy your time? Can you take us through a typical weekly schedule?
Mostly, work! Close to 70 hours a week at the moment. My hobbies are rugby, surfing, cycling. I’m also building a trailer for the truck.
Going to back to minimalism and consumerism, what are your views on the ecological imprint of modern life, and people’s carbon footprint. How much did that figure at all in your initial thinking?
It factored enormously, and the older I’ve got (I am now 24) the more important it is to me. Minimalism is a passion of mine, although living in the truck it kinda has to be! We are all indoctrinated into consumerism, bombarded by adverts 24/7, but it’s pretty clear buying material items isn’t the way to happiness. The things in life that bring true joy tend to be free.
Regarding carbon footprint, I have installed solar panels and a rainwater collection tank. It’s 360 litres which is plenty for cooking and washing. I can last 2 weeks without any rain.
I do often get comments about the diesel use when moving. It’s a fair point, however my average ecological imprint is far lower than most people.
What has surprised you the most about living in the truck?
That I like it as much as I do!
What was the biggest challenge when moving into a truck from a house?
When I first moved in I had no shower for three months – had to go outside and use a bucket from November to January. That was tough!
So you’re set on staying in the truck for the foreseeable future?
Yes, I’ve proved we don’t need the space we think we do! I live in an area smaller than the corridors of most houses. It makes me laugh and is a little bit ridiculous, and I would highly recommend it.
What else have you got planned for the future – short and long term?
Short term – help more people do conversions and save money. Probably for a couple of years.
I’d like to make some more modifications to the truck. Nothing with regards to living space, rather better batteries and some upgrades to the engine. Maybe power steering.
Long-term, I’d like to drive south Africa from Norway. All weather, all terrain. About 10 thousand miles including round trips! Possibly about 5 grand in diesel. Really I’d like to travel in perpetuity – surfing, climbing, running, cycling. Making money on the way doing the things I love.
Fascinating. Thanks very much for your insights!
My pleasure. Hopefully this can inspire someone else out there to think differently!