Luna Bus Dwelling
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES COLLIER

How One Couple Turned An Old School Bus Into Their Dream Tiny House

To live more sustainably, this couple is making an old bus into a tiny house—wood stove and all.

April 1, 2015

There’s a growing movement of people who are interested in living simply, concerned about sustainability, and ready to escape the rental and mortgage cycles. They’re exploring different ideas for where and how to live, building homes in unusual places and ways. While some people have experimented with using local and sustainabile materials (straw-bale houses in the Midwest, for instance, or bamboo in Hawaii), others are repurposing old and sometimes unwanted elements into interesting and often beautiful structures.

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Permaculture designer Kristen Jas Vietty, 28, and her husband Dallas Vietty, 32, an accordionist and educator, have spent the past two years turning a 38-foot 1999 Thomas International school bus into a functioning tiny house. It’s a work in progress, but it’s fully inhabitable, and they’ve been living in it for about a year. The bus cost $3,300, and they’ve put another $8,000 into renovations, doing much of the material work themselves.

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Although the bus is mobile, the Viettys  currently keep it on a farm in Eastern Pennsylvania, where they plan to remain throughout the growing season. Their idea isn’t to constantly travel but to visit a community for a season, live there, grow plants, and meet people. When they find a place that meets their needs, they will buy land and use the bus as a way to live on site until a permanent home is built. The bus is therefore a test-site for Kristen and Dallas to try out ideas they’ll want to eventually incorporate in a settled home.

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At the back of the bus is their bed: a futon frame on top of two dressers, bolted to the floor. The height allows for extra storage and keeps the Viettys at a higher heat level, which made a difference during this year’s cold, Northeast winter.

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At the front of the bus, the door and driver’s seat are sectioned off with a curtain, which also helps with heating efficiency. In the winter, curtains are hung every few feet, both to divide work and living areas from sleeping and bathing but also to hold in the warm air from the wood stove.

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The wood stove is a modern steel-plate design. Though the Viettys tend to prefer recycling or upcycling older materials, they opted to forego a more vintage cast-iron stove because the modern design can be up to 30% more efficient. Next to the stove is a 2.5 gallons of fresh water in a blue water tank. Kristen refills the tank about once a week and it stays near the stove so even on cold nights it won’t freeze.

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The line from the fresh-water tank runs along the wall to a foot pump, which pumps the water out into this  sink made from a pewter bowl. Kristen found the bowl at a thrift store. The water drains into a gray-water tank, which is used for rinsing out the toilet bucket.

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“As a renter, I got sick of flushing the toilet and wasting all that clean water,” says Kristen. “This is much more efficient. I start with a layer of sawdust filled a quarter of the way up. Then we use ash from the stove, to cover everything. The ash works really well: the airy structure and bits of charcoal are super odor-absorbing.”
 

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Kristen does most of the carpentry and plumbing, and Dallas takes care of the bus’s mechanics and the house’s electrical wiring. The 110 volt, AC outlets are spaced every few feet along the walls of the bus, ready to charge a laptop or run anything from power tools to Dallas’ recording equipment. Though they are currently receiving electricity from the farm’s nearby farmhouse, they’re nearly finished with their plans to make the home entirely solar. It was not a simple process.

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Before being able to to install solar panels, the Viettys first needed a battery bank. They built theirs out of a diamond-plate toolbox—the kind often seen in the back of pickup trucks. It’s waterproof and is secured beneath the bus via a professionally-built rack soldered to the bus’s frame. The bank feeds into an inverter that, along with the control panel and fuse box pictured, are mounted on an old door installed directly behind the driver’s seat. The inverter takes the batteries’ direct current and creates 110 volt AC current—the kind in household outlets. The professional-grade current is “pure sine” AC: better than what feeds most homes and able to run Dallas’s recording equipment without causing huming or other problems. The batteries can supply power for up to a week, and when they’re full, the control panel feeds electricity directly to the outlets.

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One of Dallas’ jobs is teaching music one-on-one, online. The bandwidth of the video feeds requires high-speed Internet. So the Viettys have purchased ethernet cable and run it directly to the bus.

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This shelf was built by a friend of the Viettys, Gabriel Franklin, of The Art of Plaster, as a wedding gift.

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“In a house with a metal roof and walls, magnets are your best friends,” says Dallas.

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“We’ve bought a lot of different kinds to see what work best,” says Kristen. “These little guys are my favorite: they’re super strong and handy.”

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Though it’s just a bookshelf at the moment, this is where the kitchen will go eventually. Kristen plans to make the counter out of leftover hardwood flooring, install a mini fridge, and hold dishes in a drying rack above the sink. Until then, much of their cooking is done at the farmhouse.

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“Moving into a place this small helps you decide  what is and isn’t worth owning,” says Kristen. “I borrow most of what I read from the library now, but I still have a few books worth the space.”

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Both Kristen and Dallas have their own work spaces. Kristen’s is often adorned with plants. She’s found keeping them to be trickier than in a typical house, though. Plants closer to the woodstove tend to dislike the dry air it creates, while those further away have frosted.

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Every nook and cranny gets used. This shoe rack sits right by the entrance.

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One tenant of natural building is energy efficiency, but insulating the bus has taken some ingenuity. Kristen and Dallas needed to raise the floor three inches to provide the necessary space for insulation. The roof was already insulated, though not well, and she’s planning to bolster it. The biggest issue, however, is the long bank of windows along each side.

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The Vietty’s bathtub is actually a feed trough, which they plan to fill with harvested rainwater. To heat the water, they can run copper tubing around the stove pipe. In the summer, passive solar heating will do the work, or running water through tubing buried in their compost piles.

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“I teach people about sustainability and natural building for a living,” says Kristen. 

“It was frustrating not to be able to have any control over the places that I rented. This mixed-species floor, for example, is made from odds and ends that otherwise wouldn’t have been used. I like the distinctive look.”

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“We put way more time into day-to-day housekeeping than you would in a typical apartment,” says Dallas. “When it’s cold we spend a lot of time loading wood, tending the fire, and cleaning out ash. The thing with a wood stove is that it gets ash everywhere.”

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Though the ceilings are low, it’s not a problem for the couple. “We watched a couple documentaries on the tiny house movement before starting this project, and my whole perspective is that what we’re doing is a part of that,” says Dallas.

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“There are tiny houses that aren’t necessarily more sustainable than a regular house, depending on how you build them,” says Kristen. “I drew inspiration from the tiny house movement, but I care more about sustainable living. That’s the main thing that’s interesting to me.”

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Kristen’s work in permaculture involves using the idiosyncratic elements of a space to build sustainable and self-maintaining systems. She’s put much of what she’s learned as a designer into building the bus.

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When they moved onto the bus and became semi-mobile, Dallas gave up some of his regular performance gigs and set up a business teaching instead. He has music students around the country, from California to Florida, Chicago to New Orleans.

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Converting the bus to a road-legal mobile home required many small changes. For instance, all the safety lights had to be disabled.

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The rear exit door opens up to what Kristen calls her garage. The space extends underneath the bed and fits a surprising amount of tools. Dallas added outlets to run equipment, such as the circular saw, and attached a shop light to the ceiling.

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“Overall it’s a great home,” says Kristen. “Most nights we curl up with Law & Order or RuPaul’s Drag Race, but it’s not hard to host friends. We’ve had dinner parties. We can’t have more than a handful of people over at a time, though. Too many, and it gets a little crazy.”

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