The rear tires of a white 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon rest against the sands of San Onofre State Beach as the golden sun shines down on the van’s opened hatchback.
Armand’s feet hang off of his mattress and poke out of his covers, soaking in the warmth of the sun’s rays. He has lived in this same van for about three-and-a-half years now, a lifestyle choice that affords him many of these beach day opportunities.
“I’ll leave the door open and I’ll be in bed with the ocean breeze flowing in,” said Armand, a third-year industrial design student at Long Beach State. “I’m in my sheets and it’s just like heaven.”
Armand, who asked to withhold his last name due to policies against van living, is a native of the Los Angeles-area and attended Santa Monica College prior to transferring to CSULB spring 2017. He decided to live out of his van to save money when he made the move to Long Beach.
“The whole reason I did this is to graduate debt-free,” Armand said. “It was all very calculated for me to be able to arrive here and provide financially in a manner that doesn’t compromise my education.”
It was an ordinary passenger van when he purchased it, but Armand has since redesigned the interior of the vehicle to create a home on wheels. He did the entire renovation on his own, using only a jigsaw and a power drill.
The 3,600-pound vehicle houses a stovetop with dual burners fueled by propane, a sink with running water and a full-length cushioned bench that can fold down to make room for a nearly queen-sized mattress.
The van also has a custom high-top roof that Armand crafted, which allows him to fully stand up while cooking and provides additional storage room.
Living out of a van not only gives Armand a rent-free approach to college, but also allows him more freedom in his schedule to do outdoor activities he enjoys, such as mountain biking and surfing.
“I generally like having an ‘adventure’ kind of lifestyle,” he said. “I always kind of fantasized this idea [of living in a van]. This is a justifiable and really sensible reason for doing it.”
Although the van has a certain comfort to it, Armand said that the lack of space has spurred him to be more active in his study habits on campus. He spends the majority of his time outside of the van, working on projects at the industrial design studio.
“[Living in the van] has helped my education tremendously,” he said. “It’s a cozy space but I don’t want to spend all day in here. I don’t really have a space to be lethargic.”
Between semesters, when he’s not busy with his academic design projects, Armand works on the interior of other van dwellers’ mobile homes.
This has been his main source of income over the past few years, as he has modified or renovated an estimated eight different vans. But Armand had a passion for building long before it became financially beneficial for him.
“Since he was young we’ve noticed that he’s quite handy overall,” said Anto, Armand’s older brother. “It’s a good talent that he has … He’s got a knack for it [building].”
He credits his coursework in the CSULB design department with helping him gain the experience to better renovate the vans at a faster speed.
“Now, with the shop we have here and everything I’ve learned, I can build cabinets in a week,” Armand said.
When it comes to amenities such as a restroom and a shower, Armand relies mostly on public facilities or the Student Recreation and Wellness Center. On occasion, he will visit a friend and get a shower in before he leaves their home.
“I am an excellent guest, so they never mind having me over,” he remarked with a grin. “And if I don’t have access to running water, the baby wipe shower is the last resort.”
However, the availability of a warm shower might not be a concern for much longer. Armand is always looking to make new additions to his transportable home and plans to add an outdoor showerhead to the van, along with a heating attachment for the water tank. The most recent installation to the van is heated floor-paneling controlled by a switch.
Regardless of all his labor and the additions made to the van, the simple ability to pick up and head to the beach in the comfort of his own home has helped produce some of Armand’s fondest memories.
“Those were some of the best days I’ve ever had,” he recalled. “You can literally park right in front of the water … It’s just this representation of California and the coast. I just feel really privileged any time I have those days.”