1978 Birchaven

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unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
Quick Introduction

In 2018 I got an opportunity to move to California from NYC. I have been extremely frustrated paying high rents for little space and itching to work on a large project. This move was the perfect opportunity to make a big change in my life. So I decided to forgo tradition housing situation to live full time in a vehicle.

My job provided me with 60 days of temporary housing that gave me just enough time to find the perfect vehicle to live in. After looking at everything from airstreams to cargo vans the GMC MH was a no brainer for me. I was able to snag a very well kept 1978 Birchaven.

While I am mechanically inclined I have zero experience with engines or cars for that matter (this being my first car and house). So I'm diving head first and going to learn the hard way how to keep these things reliable. I manage to drive her 200 miles to my home base where the fun can begin.

Full disclosure - I did not make this journey easy on myself as I decided to renovate the interior while living in her full time. I also don't have workshop or any family/friends in the area for help. This meant I had a lot of logistics to figure out and had to be creative on what I could actually build.
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tmsnyder

Active member
Oct 7, 2019
485
104
43
Buffalo NY
Interesting, I wondered what birch plywood would look like on the ceiling.....

Looks ready to live in!

Engine wise, I'd start by watching as many youtube videos as possible. Look for videos on simple stuff like changing oil on a big block, to trickier stuff like setting the timing with a timing light and changing the water pump. Even if it's not on a 455.

Then start by giving it a tune up, plugs, wires, cap, rotor, oil and filter, tranny oil and filter. Look carefully at the belts and hoses, if they aren't looking relatively new it might be time to start changing them out.

The more mechanical work you can do on your own, the more you will save, and be independent from needing a mechanic. Stay on top of the fluids and it will go a long way.
 

unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
Engine wise, I'd start by watching as many youtube videos as possible. Look for videos on simple stuff like changing oil on a big block, to trickier stuff like setting the timing with a timing light and changing the water pump. Even if it's not on a 455.
Hey tmsynder, I have watched countless hours and read about a million threads on gmc.net I am so grateful that this community exists to help me on my journey

Then start by giving it a tune up, plugs, wires, cap, rotor, oil and filter, tranny oil and filter. Look carefully at the belts and hoses, if they aren't looking relatively new it might be time to start changing them out.
I am fortunate enough to live near Applied GMC and I had Jim K do a full tune up including replacing a lot of components. More on that in later threads

The more mechanical work you can do on your own, the more you will save, and be independent from needing a mechanic. Stay on top of the fluids and it will go a long way.
Totally agree. Ive learned a ton since I got her and I'm aspiring to be completely self sufficient one day.
 

unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
Long Journey of Insulation

While she was kept in excellent condition a lot has changed since 1978. Since this is going to be my full time home I had to make the hard decision of completely gutting her and starting fresh. I want to be completely off the grid and self contained. My wife and I don't plan on staying in RV parks and we don't want to sacrifice any creature comforts.

After 6 months of living in her original state I learned a lot of things that definitely had to change. Priority being insulation. Extremely hot during the day and no protection from the cold at night. I wanted to isolate any heat transfer from the aluminum ribs to the interior. So I decided to glue 1x3 wood beams to every aluminum rib and fill the remaining space with fire retardant insulation foam. Every surface of the coach has at least 1.5 inches of insulation including the wheel wells and generator compartment.
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This process took about 3 months since I had to figure out how to sleep in it while this was going on while maintaining a full time job. But I can confidently say it made a huge difference in temperature regulation.

Once I had the insulation in I was ready to wire in the lights and skin the walls with 1/4 baltic birch plywood.
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We wanted a fixed queen sized bed. The back of the coach seemed to be the most logical place. It also gave me a place to keep our water tank, house batteries and propane.

For those wondering I was working in a vacant lot on the weekends using battery powered tools I charge at my office.
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pvfjr

Active member
Oct 3, 2019
286
80
28
36
Aumsville OR
Beautiful looking coach you have there! I admire your gumption, right down to the detail of charging your batteries at work. What you're doing sure takes a lot of coordinating and planning, and you're overcoming a lot of obstacles and inconveniences to get it done. Kudos to your wife as well! You've done a great job so far.

I've never seen brackets like those on your ladder. I imagine they might swing out and hold bicycles? Do you know what brand those are? I kinda dig them.
 

unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
Layout V1

I spent a lot of time thinking of layouts and very little time building anything. Thats where my lovely wife steps in and plans a trip for us to drive from San Fransico into Mexico down through the Baja Peninsula. With one month to plan and build the requirements were simple. A functional toilet and a room for that toilet to live in. We always had our eye on a composting toilet since it would simplify the whole septic system. We chose to go with a Nature's Head Composting toilet. After a steep learning curve I am truly happy with its performance. No smell and very minimal cleaning required.

Thinking ahead I want a dry bath so I decided to build a bathroom as close to the grey tank inlet as possible. Which meant it would have to be butted up right next to the bed.


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Of course nothing is as easy it as it seems. The blue tape on the floor is how wide I can make the bathroom before the walls interfere with the roof air conditioner. So I angled the wall and decided I would figure out the shower later down the road. We spent 3 days trying to get this shell of an RV as comfortable as we could. Installed a cheap sliding door and vinyl flooring before calling it good enough for our first trip.

I was inspired by Justin Brady's build and took some design cues from him. Unfortunately it doesn't work well in a 23' GMC. With this layout there's no room for a comfortable shower.

It was too late to change the design now as we needed to start our trip down to Mexico.

 
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unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
First Major Trip - San Fransico to Baja California (Dec 2018)


I was really impressed on how well the GMC handles on mountain roads. We drove all of highway 1 with no issues. We made it to Mexico and across highway 3 with out incident.

The next morning the engine failed to start. Luckily we were in a town full of mechanics so I had one teach me how to get her purring again. It was a lesson in tuning a carburetor which I was very grateful for finally learning on how to do properly. Iv'e been considering going EFI but now I think I can live with a carburetor after learning my way around it.

The next leg of the trip was onto highway 5. I did very little research on this trip and apparently highway 5 was completely washed out due to the last hurricane season in October. This meant we were off roading for the next 90 mile stretch. The roads we super rocky and the detours to get around collapsed bridges proved to be difficult to pass. One of the hills took three tries to get over. After 11 hours of choosing our lines carefully and hoping not to fall off a cliff we finally make it to a paved road at 2am on New Years day.

The next days were very mild compared to those 11 hours. We stayed with my in laws for the next couple of days.

The day I had planned to head back up the coast the engine water light came on when I tried to start her up. Sure enough the radiator had developed a leak. I spent the next couple of hours looking for a shop willing to get this fixed overnight so I can head out by Monday. Luckily we found someone with the right tools and willingness to get the job done.

Even though we were in the desert it rained just about every day. Lucky for me I had planned on sealing the roof while here. I redid all the rails and end caps. I was able to do the work while the radiator was being repaired.

$100 dollars and a bottle of tequlia later I was back on the road.

Made it all the way back to San Francisco in 22 hours with out a problem.

Theres videos of the whole trip in the album below. Enjoy :)

 

unthinkablecreation

New member
Jan 13, 2020
16
5
3
San Jose, CA
Layout V2

After a month on the road it became very clear what needed to change. The bathroom wall blocking in the bed definitely had to change. So we ripped out the walls and started from a blank canvas yet again.

This time around we started with a sketch.


Then we mocked up that sketch with foam to double check for sanity.


Backside of the bathroom wall becomes a closet area


This is where we found out how annoying it is that the air conditioner isn't centered


But we decided to move forward with this design and figure out the AC cover later.

I start off by building a bathroom cabinet (way too high) and the first dividing wall.


I was able to find a local maker space that lets me use their wood shop. So I can really focus on making it how I want to.
My first attempt at a laminate counter top using 3/4 birch


The planer was down when I needed it...


Reworked the cabinet to be the correct height and then we made a last minute change to move it to the curved outside wall


So after reworking it for a third time, I trimmed the backside to fit the curvature of the wall


Then my wife visited and we decided to go back to the original plan...


The depth of the mirror made the countertop too short


So I had to rework the countertop


Finished the closet


Finally got the countertop installed after a month of reworks


I am proud of my toilet paper storage and how well the spray bottle fits


I purchased HepVo waterless valve and it was a huge upgrade. No more dried out p traps.


The plumbing came together nicely


I installed the pump on the wheel well box


The angle I had cut in the back of the cabinet worked out nicely to hide all the utilities


Here is where I added the water inlet and vent for the grey tanks
 
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