top of page

From Renovation to Research: An IDBM Student's Exploration of Mobile Living

Like many other students, Laura Suomalainen (IDBM BIZ) studied abroad last winter. What made the exchange unique was that she used the opportunity to realize her long-time dream: giving up her apartment to move into a van. Laura took her van all the way to Bergen, Norway for exchange and now continues to reside in it permanently. In this interview, she tells us about her motivations behind vanlife, the project process, and how she integrated it into her IDBM studies.


Laura in front of her van in the Aalto Design Factory parking lot about to leave on the drive to Bergen, January 2023

Turning a lifestyle idea into reality

It is a sunny Friday afternoon at the tip of Lauttasaari (an island in Helsinki) and, a few meters away from a beach, where I am approaching the meeting location for this interview: a small parking lot. What I am now facing may seem like any other white Mercedes van, but opening its door quickly teaches me otherwise. Since November 2022, this vehicle has been the design project, Master’s Thesis topic and, first and foremost, home of IDBM BIZ student Laura Suomalainen.


Laura doing dishes in her van, April 2023

Around her kitchen table, we are sitting down for a chat about her vanlife journey that already started many years ago, around the time when Laura, who grew up in the USA, returned to Finland for her bachelor’s studies. “Like many others, I learned about the whole idea of vanlife on social media. Then, it was only a beginning to be a trend in the US, but not so much in Europe,” she says. Being curious about minimalism and a passionate hiker and traveler, the physical and financial convenience of a van to move from one place to another kept her interested ever since. “I thought: someday that is what I will do.”

Time went on and after starting her studies in IDBM, where she gained experience in hands-on design projects, the idea was concretized. “I realized that I was able to do things with my hands. It helped me gain confidence.” On top of that, Laura received a study place for exchange in Bergen, Norway, for which high rent prices led her back to considering vanlife and thinking: “Hey, I could do that now.”

In a little less than a year, she flipped her life around to fully living in a van by the time her exchange started. From getting a Finnish driver’s license, finding a van, renovating it and giving up her apartment, she dedicated her energy to the project. “I even found that I could do my thesis about this topic among Finns. It just all kind of fell into place.” Looking back, her lifestyle change almost seems surreal to her. “It was a long-term dream that I was suddenly living in”, she remembers.

 

That being said, things did not work out like magic but required a lot of planning, knowledge, and learning on the way. “I had already done a lot of research. I had so many saved articles and videos of different things about vanlife. So, I knew quite a lot about the lifestyle and what it entails, and that's why I was certain it would be my thing. The previous summer, I had rented a van from a family friend and lived in it for a few days which further reinforced that I wanted to do this. The actual process of acquiring the van was a bit more complicated than merely renting. I researched vans through Nettikaravaani with my budget and specs I wanted in mind, and asked, okay, ‘What kind of setup can I get?‘ All the different things I wanted in the van at that point were on a list, based on all my research, so sorting the available vans was more straightforward. I knew I wanted three seats in the front, a high enough ceiling to stand up inside, a wide enough base for someone my height to sleep sideways, driven under 250km, etc. I then found a van which happened to already be converted into a camper, with all my wanted specs and more – lucky for me. It also had a good price, a bit above my budget, but it was ready to live in. I just called the sellers, and a few days later, it was mine.”

 

“Oh, hi friend!” Laura and my conversation is interrupted by a man walking around in the kitchen of the van parked next to us. “He has a very functional one. I need to talk to him later.”

 

Going back to the topic of this interview, Laura describes her moving process: “Little by little, I moved out of the apartment. I first stopped sleeping there, then I sold things. I moved everything that I wanted to keep into the van. Everything else was left in the apartment. The hardest part was getting rid of the remaining things. It was a cleansing experience, knowing that all I needed and, probably, all I would ever want was in the van already.

 

“As the next step, I stopped cooking in the apartment. Then I stopped going to the bathroom there, showering there, doing laundry there, little by little, like one thing per week. To use business terminology, I kind of outsourced everything needed to live to somewhere else, either learning to use something in the van or somewhere where I could access a service after letting the apartment go, like a laundromat. That helped me in transitioning to the lifestyle in Helsinki. It was good that I had still a couple of months in Helsinki to get used to the new daily routines, like emptying a toilet, filling the water, and finding where to take showers, which is still to the day the most common question I get. (Answer: gyms, swimming halls, and in the summer, at beaches or simply with a bucket outside!)

 

“Then I figured out how much it all costs and was surprised how cheap it was. The biggest expense, of course, is the gas. But if you don't move around a lot, then the “rent” is cheaper.


“By now, I am confident that I can find the things I need anywhere. But it wasn't like, ‘bam, I'm traveling the world right now.’ It took a long time to adjust to it.”


“By now, I am confident that I can find the things I need anywhere. But it wasn't like, ‘bam, I'm traveling the world right now.’ It took a long time to adjust to it.”

Snippets from van life in Norway, Spring 2023


Van lifestyle as an IDBM student project

Besides being her home, Laura’s van and her life in it play a central role in her IDBM studies, as she is writing her Master’s thesis about it. “When people ask me about my life in the van, it is mostly about the ‘how?’ not the ‘why?’ The latter is the more interesting question to me,” she explains her interest. Focusing on the ‘why’, Laura is studying Finns who live in their vehicles and the discourse between their identities and their motivations behind choosing the lifestyle. She asks: “What are Finns’ core motivations for participating in the lifestyle and how do they manifest or change? How does the identity of Finnish vanlifers connect to their lifestyle and the motivations behind it? And this all falls under what I would call lifestyle design.”


"Simply put, IDBM gave me the confidence to do things until the very end."

To define the topic and even begin to understand how vanlife could be something she could integrate into her studies, Laura attaches great importance to the IDBM courses: “Simply put, IDBM gave me the confidence to do things until the very end.” She continues: “A lot of studies teach you to do only one element of a bigger whole, but you never get to learn how to go through with the entire thing. For instance, with my background in business, you might make a report, a product proposal, or some type of business plan, but you don't learn to create the product or see how to start the company completely. With these kinds of studies, seeing through a whole project that you want to do feels really distant.

“But then there is IDBM: With so many different skillsets among students of various backgrounds, completing such a “whole” project in teams didn't seem so hard anymore. I thought, “Oh, I could see myself doing that” when watching a team member weld, or create product mock-ups, for example. You put different parts together, turning them into a whole. It's like: ‘Oh, that works. That wasn't that bad.’ This grew my confidence immensely. The van seemed like a big project as there were many things I didn’t know, and I still don't. But I have become comfortable with it. I'm comfortable with not knowing because I know there's someone who I can ask for help, or someone teaching it online. And probably figuring it out is a lot easier than you think. You just need to start. This learning I am most grateful for, it has allowed me to stop waiting and start doing so much more.”


Laura doing renovations, October 2022

Given her passion for product-based design and the hands-on nature of her van project, Aalto Design Factory played an important role in Laura’s process. “I had discussed before with them that I have this project which is part of my thesis as well. I asked if I could park the van at Design Factory, renovate it a bit, and learn how everything works here?’ Everyone at Design Factory was so helpful and nice. Klaus and Vesku there helped me get access to everything I could need, from tools to knowledgeable people. And I mean, in the first week that I had it, the batteries went out and I needed help getting them going again, but help was still nearby. The time at Design Factory also helped me gain confidence, it was good to learn what I need to know when I'm on my own, and more importantly, what could go wrong.”

"If you have a project that you're really passionate about, people tend to want to join you in that passion"

Learnings and advice

Unconventional project ideas are frequent among IDBM students and Laura’s van is one example of how to integrate personal passions into your studies. For students aspiring to similar projects, she would advise finding a way to just start and collaborate with the people around you. “It sounds so simple, but if you just keep it as an idea in your head, then nothing will come of it. Do a bit of research every day. Start it somehow. It doesn't matter what part of the project you start with. Talk to others about it. You're not alone. If you have a project that you're really passionate about, people tend to want to join you in that passion.”

 

 

Curious to learn more about the project? Feel free to reach out to Laura (laura.suomalainen@aalto.fi) and follow her on LinkedIn!

 

Author: Nicole Hußmann




bottom of page