Introducing the Van-Go Project!

The Van-Go project is our mission to build an off-grid vehicle that we can live and work out of to more effectively pursue MycoSystems and other open-source/activism related projects. The idea is to build a powerful mobile platform for building and deploying digital infrastructure by combining a typical off-grid van conversion project with a variety of power-efficient open-source technologies.

In addition to the typical off-grid technologies used in conventional van projects, we hope to integrate a complete workstation, equipment for electronics tinkering and prototyping, a miniature low-powered server for self-hosted applications, as well as radio equipment for experimenting with SDR and sub-GHZ radio transmissions. Brooke and I are planning on living out of this thing full-time, so it will need to be fully-featured to allow us to continue pursuing our projects.

So why on Earth do we want to live and work out of a van?

Well, aside from the fact that housing in any desirable part of the city would require a couple of black-market organ sales to afford, there are a few major reasons:

  1. We hope to minimize our living expenses in order to expand our capacity for taking on more not-for-profit projects.
  2. We hope make it easier to build relationships with people and organizations all across the continent by maximizing our freedom-of-movement.
  3. We want to enhance our overall self-sufficiency to decrease our reliance on our capitalist overlords and on money in general.
  4. A mobile hacking station would let us bring our tools and equipment with us so we take on bigger projects in other geographic regions.
  5. The project itself can act as a platform for exploring all sorts of open-source projects and technologies that we can then share with the world.
  6. It’s fun!

Throughout the project, we’ll post a number of build logs documenting our progress. As we experiment with and implement relevant open-source technologies throughout this process, we’ll make sure to post detailed write-ups documenting what we learn, as well as any relevant code/files over on our Gitea.

This is going to be a very big project on a far-to-small budget. We will need to DIY the vast majority of this build to even remotely afford it. But after doing a lot of planning over the last several months, we have a few -unconventional- strategies in mind for how we’re going to accomplish this task…

Building the ultimate mobile camper for living & hacking through scavenging and mutual aid

Now if you know anything about van builds, you may be aware that ambitious, self-sufficient builds like this are expensive. Fancy van builds can easily reach $30,000+ with many going as high as $100,000, and we certainly don’t have that kind of money. Instead, we’re going to try to keep this build under $10,000 total. We have two primary tricks up our sleeves that should both be familiar to the anarchists in our audience: dumpster diving and mutual aid!

How mutual aid can facilitate bigger projects for less money and work

This consists of a bit more than just asking some friends for a hand here and there, although that is something we will certainly be doing for this project. The key component of mutual aid is that it’s mutual, meaning it provides benefits to more than just one party. A large project such as this van actually presents quite a few opportunities to give back to those that would help out!

  • skill sharing: everything from auto maintenance to woodworking to electrical work can be taught to those who want to learn are willing to lend a hand.
  • materials trading: if anybody our network has spare building materials, they can be traded for something in return. Trades I’ve done in the past have included home-cooked food, spare computer hardware, custom built websites, random odd-jobs, and all sorts of other things.
  • services trading: if anyone in our network has a skill needed for the project, such as welding, their services (or even lessons in the skill) can be traded for something they need.
  • tool sharing: why should everyone in a trusted network individually buy every tool that they might need, even if it’s just for a small job? Better to inventory all of the tools within the group and share them around whenever and wherever they are needed.

These types of mutual aid can certainly be done to great effect on the small scale with friends, family, and neighbors. But the beauty of mutual aid really shows itself when orchestrated across much larger networks of people. Here in Atlanta, communities of anarchists, activists, and otherwise cool people around here have created a number of Signal group chats to orchestrate decentralized mutual aid on the scale of hundreds of people. In these groups, people are encouraged to request, gift, trade, barter, or otherwise distribute resources, services, skills, and more, with only one rule: no monetary transactions (except financial mutual aid requests). As the groups get larger, it becomes easier and easier to find anything you might need.

(Side note: If you want to take part in something like this but don’t have access this kind of network, that’s okay. You will likely be able to find some public “buy-nothing” groups on various online platforms, which usually operate as local gift-economies for physical items. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to talk to your friends and neighbors to pursue building a mutual aid network within your own community.)

Brooke and I have already accumulated many of the materials and resources we require for this build through these same mutual aid networks; for example, we traded a file server (built from salvaged components) for a nice pile of lumber, we received a water pump from someone trying to downsize their things, and we even made some home-made banana bread in return for a large roll of fiberglass insulation! Throughout our build logs we hope to document the ways in which we utilize mutual aid like this to assist us in this project.

How we’re turning trash into functionality

If you’re a weirdo like me who likes to spend their free time rummaging through trash, then you certainly know that dumpsters are effectively loot-boxes. This horrible societal wastefulness is something we can take full advantage of while the price of construction materials like lumber are through the roof and our van budget is too small to buy a semi-new Prius.

If you know what you’re doing, I believe that dumpster diving can eradicate 75%+ of the total cost of building materials for projects like this one. In future build logs, we will analyze just how much money worth of materials we were able to scavenge, and see how my estimate stacks up.

For now, let’s talk a bit about strategy!

1. Dive construction dumpsters for generic building materials

These are the big steel bins that you’ll often see outside of construction sites, renovations, or other kinds of trash-producing work sites. They are very commonly completely full of surplus construction material: hardwood planks, stone countertop off-cuts, wooden floor panels, building hardware (doorknobs, latches, buckets of screws/nails, etc), cuts of metal (sheet metal, aluminum extrusion, etc), and even usable tools!

2. Locate e-waste dumpsters to find electronics, screens, electrical equipment, radio gear, buttons & switches, cables, and more

One of my favorite dumpsters to dive is an ewaste dumpster underneath a major building in Midtown. It is a goldmine for usable electronic devices; from it we’ve salvaged entire servers, network switches, expensive wireless access-points, desktops, vintage consoles, heavy-duty electrical switches, 10+ Raspberry Pis (3B+), and so much more. Dumpsters like this one will be a vital resource for the equipment we’ll need to turn this van into a mobile workstation and hacking space.

3. Explore suburbs on big-trash pickup days to snag furniture parts

All of the seemingly inconsequential items we’ll need for a basic interior, such as cabinet doors, door handles, drawers, knobs, shelves, etc, really do add up in cost if we were to buy them all outright. Luckily for us, people throw these kinds of items out all the time! Big trash pickups dates (the days where all the suburbanites put their unwanted furniture on the curb to be picked up) are almost always public information, and if you live in a large population center, there will usually be one happening weekly somewhere in the area.

4. Grab scrap metal and sellable items while on scavenging runs to make additional money and offset overall cost

This one’s pretty self-explainitory; there will be plenty of useful and valuable items that we’ll find in the trash that we will not need. Construction dumpsters are often full of metals that can be hauled to the local scrapyard for reasonable profit. In addition, practically all types of dumpsters will have all sorts of items from electronics to antiques that have resale value through platforms like ebay. While we’re scavenging for the things we need, there’s no reason not to pick these items up to recoup some of our overall project cost.

5. Take full advantage of Hippie Christmas

Hippie Christmas is the dumpster diver’s term for college move-out day. It’s honestly astounding what rich college students throw out when they’re trying to quickly get out of their dorms for summer break. Macbooks, espresso machines, flagship phones, valuable textbooks, iPads, and so much more. Big-ticket items worth hundereds or more are not uncommon if you get the location and the timing right.

6. Share the dumpster wealth using our mutual aid strategies to take full advantage of our recovered treasures

All of these dumpster diving strategies become especially powerful when complimented with the mutual aid strategies we discussed previously. Easily over half of the useful items we find while dumpster diving will not be applicable for our purposes. However, they will likely be useful to somebody within our network, so they can instead be gifted or traded to those who need them, often in return for items or services we will need, or just for building valuable relationships with people in the community.

We’ll make sure to document the successes and failures of these strategies in future project build logs and budget analysies. I have high hopes, since we’ve already managed to scavenge much of what we need over the last few months, so I’m confident we’ll acquire much more as the project goes on.

Lots of updates coming soon

This project has been incubating for quite a while at this point. While waiting for the perfect (in-budget) van to pop up on used marketplaces over the last few months, we have been creating CAD models, planning out various systems, and gradually acquiring materials.

After a long wait, I am proud to announce that we have finally acquired our van! I mean, it’s not exactly a van, but still, I think it is the perfect vehicle to build this project out of! In the next post for this project, we will talk about our process designing the interior of the van in CAD, show how we determined our criteria for shopping, and finally show off the vehicle we ended up with! See you there :D

— eyes