Designing the layout of your school bus conversion is one of the most exciting parts of the process. While there are certainly common elements that nearly every skoolie includes, there are infinite ways in which to combine them, which allows you to flex your creative muscles!
In this article, I will share how my boyfriend and I designed the layout of our 22-foot short skoolie, the design process for some friends of ours with a much larger bus, as well as other resources for getting started.
How We Designed Our 22-Foot Short Skoolie’s Floor Plan
Once my boyfriend Aaron and I decided in the summer of 2017 that we wanted to convert a short school bus, we immediately began designing potential layouts even before we had purchased our bus. We had watched hours of YouTube bus tour videos and poured through Instagram for inspiration, which led us to create a list of essential items that we felt were necessary in our bus conversion.
For us, that was:
- fixed bed platform (as opposed to a dinette that converts into a bed)
- plumbed sink
- large couch
I used floorplanner.com to create a mockup first, which is not a sophisticated software but it was all I had access to on my lunch break at work. I estimated the dimensions of the bus based on data I found online and then added in stock furniture items from the website, like a bed, couch, and so forth.
Once we actually purchased our bus in August of 2017, we were able to measure the exact interior dimensions and create a more detailed layout plan. Our design evolved slightly from my first iteration, as we decided to cover the wheel wells in the middle of the bus with the fridge on one side and a pantry on the other side.
We also nixed an indoor shower because of potential moisture and mold issues and we did not want to use a wet toilet after each shower. At this point, the design was mostly in our heads, so I scrawled our revised design on a piece of printer paper and that was our master plan for the rest of the build.
Although Aaron is a talented graphic designer, we didn’t feel it was necessary to create a 3D render of our bus, impatiently opting instead to just begin the build.
Once we had completely gutted the bus, we put down blue painter’s tape to simulate where all the walls and furniture would be so we could move around the space and see if it felt livable. This was super exciting, as we could finally start to visualize our home coming to life.
From that point, we only made minor changes to our design as we built it out — mostly when Aaron’s dad, a construction expert who generously helped us with the build by sharing his tools, know-how, and elbow grease, presented ways to improve our plan with more advanced finish work.
Here’s the full video tour of our bus “Stu”…
How the Evans Family Designed Their Floor Plan for EIGHT People
I also spoke with our friend Tessa of the incredible Evans family, whose Instagram handle says it all: @8people3dogsandasnakeonabus. That’s right — Tessa and her husband Matt, their six kids, three dogs, and a snake all fit onboard their converted 1986 MCI coach bus. This bus is absolutely massive, but it was still a major design feat to comfortably accommodate the entire family!
When we met the Evanses at Skooliepalooza in January 2020, their oldest daughter was not traveling with the family since she was away pursuing her studies, and sadly one of their dogs had passed away. Still, an impressive seven people, two dogs, and a snake lived on their bus!
I asked Tessa to tell me a bit about their design process, and here is what she shared:
“We used both paper and pencil and SketchUp to design our layout. I drew around 25 versions on paper while Matt made several of our favorites on sketch up. In the end, we built a layout that we never actually captured on paper or SketchUp! We picked the best option for our unique needs but as we built, we’d learn or think of things we hadn’t before and adjusted as we went.
We looked at a lot of other cool bus designs online and attended a tiny home festival in Denver but (weirdly ?) there wasn’t really anything we saw that would work for our large family, so we really had to create our own.
We tried and tried to get away from a center aisle layout but in the end it was just the best use of space. We actually started by making a list of everything we needed in a layout and even everything we wanted to bring then we started drawing and scheming.
The kids definitely had ideas but were mostly concerned about their own bunks. When we proposed the idea of a “basement bedroom” or “man cave,” our older boys were all over it! We gave our kids each a budget for their rooms and told them they would need paint, bedding, lighting and any extra storage or decor they might want.
It was a great exercise because they each ended up with their unique spaces but had to learn how to prioritize their spending and rule out non-essentials. Four of our kids are now drawing up their own layout ideas for the busses they want to build when they graduate!”
The Evanses employed many brilliant techniques to save space and allow for the easy flow of people throughout their bus. For instance, their dining room table (which easily seats the entire family) folds out from behind their couches, so they can have no table, half a table, or the full table as it suits their needs.
They custom-built a drawer to efficiently store a staggering ten sets of dishware, and purposefully separated their bathroom sink, toilet room, and shower space into three distinct areas to facilitate shower and teeth brushing schedules.
Perhaps the most innovative feature in their bus, however, is the bedroom in the storage bay underneath the floor of the bus. That is the space that their oldest son and their snake call their own, and it’s accessible through a port on the floor of their closet space or through the exterior storage door.
This “man cave” along with four bunk beds and a queen-sized bed in the master bedroom provide plenty of space for everyone.
I also asked Tessa to share some layout design advice for those just getting started:
“It’s really hard to make decisions about your layout when you’ve never experienced living in such a small space while traveling. You just don’t know what you don’t know. So, I would say to make sure you’re very clear on your purpose over the process.
There are thousands of cool features and ideas out there but what is the reason you’re building a bus in the first place? For us it was all about soaking in our kids, making some epic memories as a family, and cultivating an intentional family culture.
That meant our priorities for our design had to reflect that – a large family dining table and full sized appliances, enough open space for family dance parties, storage for art supplies, adventure gear and games, and a big enough space to cuddle up for a movie. Make a list of your priorities and how the space will be used and don’t let aesthetics or anything else come before the things on that list.
It is your home and must be unique to your goals.”
If you are interested in replicating their incredible table setup, you can contact Matt and Tessa on Instagram to purchase the plans. Here’s a video tour of their awesome bus as well…
The 4 Steps to Designing Your Bus Layout:
Now that I’ve laid out how we and the Evans family designed our buses, allow me to distill the process into four easy steps:
1. Make a list of your necessary amenities
Before choosing what size of bus is right for you, I recommend making a list of everything that you want in your bus, including items that are absolutely necessary, things that would be nice to have but aren’t critical, and finally anything that is a stretch but that you would include if space wasn’t an issue.
This will allow you to think realistically about how much space you will need in your bus. Especially if you plan to be in cold or wet weather, you may want to plan in space for a miniature wood stove. Going to be traveling with kids or guests? Consider planning for bunk beds or a couch that converts into a second bed.
2. Select a bus size range and purchase a bus
Once you know roughly what size bus you are aiming for based on your list of needs and wants, it narrows down your bus search considerably. And, once you’ve purchased a bus you can measure the exact dimensions including where doors and windows are, the height of the ceiling, whether there are wheel wells to look out for, and so forth.
3. Plan your design
This can be achieved in many different ways, whether you go for a back-of-the-napkin sketch or a beautifully detailed 3D rendering of your plan. Using design software allows you to easily rearrange elements until you are satisfied. Later in this article, I’ll cover some of the most popular design software for skoolie layouts.
Do your research online to find inspiration, whether it’s from Instagram, YouTube, or Pinterest. You can also tour skoolies in person at tiny home festivals, skoolie gatherings, or other events. A Google search will turn up events near you. Going inside a skoolie in real life can help you visualize more accurately the size of the space and how different things fit inside.
4. Finalize your design and start building
Once you’ve done all your research and planning and double or triple checked your measurements, it’s time to start building! As I mentioned with our design process, we used painter’s tape to ensure that our 2D design translated to our 3D space before we began putting up walls.
Things to Consider When Planning Your Skoolie Floor Plan
There are several things to keep in mind in terms of practical and logistical planning that may not be immediately evident if you’ve never built a home, particularly in a vehicle.
Balance Your Weight
It’s important to try to distribute the weight strategically inside your bus as you build, both evenly from side to side and with the heaviest weights concentrated near the rear axle(s) if possible. Having most of your weight low to the ground will help your bus from becoming top heavy and reduce the chances that you will tip or roll.
Balancing the weight evenly on both sides (i.e. water tanks on one side and fridge on the other side) will help your bus drive smoothly and help reduce unnecessary wear on your tires, axles, and suspension.
Account For Wheel Wells
While some buses do not have wheel wells, most often they do. You will need to plan around these awkwardly placed humps. We just boxed them in so they were square and then built over and around them by placing our mini-fridge on top of one and a pantry on top of the other.
Plan For Your Climate
This mainly comes into play for whether you install your water tanks and other plumbing elements inside or outside of the bus. If you will be in very cold areas for extended periods of time, it’s a real possibility that your tanks, lines, and/or pump will freeze, causing a huge and expensive mess.
To help mitigate this problem, you can either make space in your layout to have all your plumbing inside the bus, or you can include tank heaters and heat tape on your lines if they must be outside. Other heat-related considerations include ventilation fans in the ceiling, space for a wood stove or diesel heater, or even potentially an air conditioning unit.
Measure Your Home
I had never considered things like how tall a kitchen counter usually is or how far off the ground the seat of a couch should be for your feet to touch the ground comfortably. So, we started measuring everything in our apartment to make sure that our skoolie would be comfortable and functional.
I’ve been in a few buses where the couches are so far off the ground that your feet are dangling or you have to sit cross-legged, and after a while it can be quite uncomfortable.
Install Your Electrical System and Lights ASAP
We waited until the very end to do this because we had never attempted any electrical work before and were slightly intimidated, and it was a mistake. We ended up causing far more problems for ourselves by waiting until the last minute, and even now after almost two years on the road, we still don’t have satisfactory lighting.
So, call a friend, hire an electrician, or do in-depth research and get your solar energy system, battery bank, and lights installed as soon as it makes sense to do so.
Floor Plan and Design Software Options
While it’s certainly possible to get by without any digital designs, it is helpful to visual learners and a fun way to see what your home will eventually look like. There are several options available to help you do this, both free and paid.
This is the free website that I used back in 2017, and although it’s not super sophisticated, it does make it easy to mock something up even if you don’t have a background in design. You can choose from already-designed elements in the program and simply drag and drop them into place.
This is another free (for personal use only) program that many people use for designing their skoolie floor plans. It is fairly simple and there are all kinds of video tutorials available to help you. SketchUp allows you to get much more detailed than floorplanner.com, although it can take quite a while to input the exact dimensions of every single element.
Illustrator is part of the Adobe suite and it can be used to create beautiful in-depth layouts, although it is subscription-based. You can choose between a single Adobe program on a monthly or yearly plan, or subscribe to the whole suite on a monthly or yearly basis.
Common Bus Dimensions
If you want to get started designing before you’ve actually purchased a bus, you can assume that the interior width of your future bus will most likely be about 7.5 feet. As far as length, buses come in a huge range of sizes, from about 20 feet to over 40 feet long. For more information about bus size and how to estimate the square footage based on the number of windows on the bus, check out this article.
Where to place Bunk beds in Skoolies?
As we saw in the Evanses’ bus, it is completely feasible to build in bunks for kids on a bus conversion. They have four bunks, and I have met other families on the road who have anywhere between one and four bunks as well. Every single bus that I have toured that includes bunks has them placed generally in the middle of the bus.
This allows for a private master bedroom for adults in the back, and a communal living and kitchen area towards the front. While you certainly could place bunks elsewhere in a layout, it usually makes the most sense to have them further back, behind the busy communal areas.
Skoolie Floor Plan Ideas
As I mentioned above, we did most of our research on YouTube and Instagram. We never had the opportunity to tour a skoolie in person before we hit the road, but that is a great option as well if it’s available to you. Some examples of the best places to find layout inspiration are as follows:
Tiny Home Tours YouTube Channel
This channel is managed by our friend Chris and is basically a who’s who of the skoolie, tiny home, and vanlife community. As you may have noticed, the videos embedded above for the tours of our bus and the Evanses’ bus are posted on this channel. It’s an excellent place to be able to explore in depth a myriad of bus builds and get inspiration for your layout.
Simply search Instagram for bus-related hashtags, like #buslife, #busconversion, #skoolie, and so forth to find a wealth of posts that show layouts, building progress, and so much more. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions of those who have already built out buses!
We asked tons of questions when we were getting started and now we get to be on the other side of the conversion and help inspire people as they get started with their builds, which is such an awesome feeling!
Pinterest is another excellent source of designs and layouts for skoolies. It’s also a great place to find decorating ideas, easy meals to cook on the road, and so much more.
Final Thoughts on Skoolie Floor Plans
Keep in mind that just because most people do things a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you have to. A lot of small bus builds especially have similar layouts simply due to the limited amount of space, but there are so many ways to get creative and design a floor plan that works perfectly for your needs!
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