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Building a van facility from scratch
Old 7th August 2013
  #1
Here for the gear
 

Building a van facility from scratch

Hi guys,

New on here so please go easy!

I'm interested in starting a business revolving around a van/truck studio specialising in location recording and post-production.

Once I came to this decision I went straight here and became inspired by the high quality facilities some of you guys have built in trucks and vans. If I can create something a fraction as good as what I've seen I'll be a happy man.

I know price is completely subjective but I was wondering if anyone could tell me the calibre of facility I could build with about £50k? Including van, construction materials, maybe acoustic treatment, gear, cabling, electrics, ventilation etc.

Any help would be much appreciated.

Cheers,

Jack
Old 7th August 2013
  #2
0VU
Gear Addict
 

Hi Jack,

I'm guessing from your budget in £ that you're in the UK?

If that's the case, having built a few recording vehicles over the years I'd say that if you're starting from scratch, and plan on buying everything new, then the answer to what can you build for around £50K is 'Not much.'

I've worked in location recording and outside broadcast for getting on for 30 years and have built and run several vehicles over the years. As a vague guide, Some years ago, we modified a VW transit sized van (LT35) as a self contained unit (carrying all necessary gear - no trailers or tender vehicles) to do small scale (up to 32 inputs) direct to stereo (with multitrack backup) work. This had heating and ventilation but no aircon and we already had all the gear. Modification costs were about £15K to install soundproofing and bulkheads, fit carpets and basic electrical systems (most of which we already had). We also already had the vehicle so it was a matter of buying materials and a bit of tradesman time to do the bits we couldn't/didn't have time to do. It was a very solid little van and did loads of work over the next 8 years without missing a beat but despite being nicely finished and well equipped it always had a bit of a home made feel to it.

A specialist pro coach built conversion of a similar sized vehicle including power systems and HVAC currently would run at about £35-90K depending upon spec levels.

For a larger scale vehicle we built, a 16 Tonne truck with a 26' long coach built body, in 1996, the cost of the chassis and coach building including complete electrical fitout and HVAC but no gear or tech wiring was around £150K from a specialist coachbuilder. I vaguely remember the coachbuilders telling me at the time that the delivery price for a scratch build on a customer supplied bare chassis-cab to the roughly spec level I designed (which was technically a fairly high spec with smart but but not luxurious finishes) averages out at about £5K per running foot of body length. A more recent construction quote suggests that it's now between £7K-8K per running ft. Though this is for a high spec specialist coachbuilder. Converting an existing box van with your own work and maybe a bit of work by a specialist to add doors/lockers/cable flaps etc. would be a lot cheaper. The advantages of the specialist builder were access to things like proprietary aircon gear that minimizes space usage and (and a few other things), complete custom building of every component if necessary, superb quality of finish and absolutely airtight construction that looked as good when it was 10 years old as it did when it was new. (Haven't seen the truck for a while as it's now in Germany.)


So, I'd say that on £50K you'll need to go used on the vehicle, keep the spec sensible, use as much re-cycled construction materials as possible, and do as much work as possible yourself. And you might have enough money left over for some basic low end gear. The problem with that is that the only person who'll want to use it is you. Have you looked already at what vehicles are around in the UK/European/World markets on different scales? These range from small vans, even land rovers, which are home converted to professionally built units of similar size at many times the cost, up to the high end articulated trucks costing six or seven figures to build and equip. and the kind of cost no object builds of state broadcasters like the BBC where the wiring installation alone would stretch your budget.

If you want some ideas, perhaps have a search in the tags provided by our esteemed and hard working moderator at the top of this very forum and maybe do some general searches of the forum for info on other people's construction projects. There's a bunch of good threads on here that can give you some good tips as to how you convert a vehicle at different levels and from these and a bit of time spent on Google you should be able to get together a reasonable guesstimate of the costs of different methods, materials and types of conversion.


Perhaps as an alternative to a full spec truck with gear, you could perhaps spend a bit more on the vehicle and domestic infrastructure and partner up with someone who has gear to put in it.

Or perhaps see if you can find a market in letting out a bare-bones box on wheels with a comfortable fit out in terms of soundproofing, bulkheads, cable flaps, aircon (or at least heating and ventilation) and good lengths of power cabling and the means to flexibly set up the van to take whatever gear a client wants to put into it for a given job. You could then acquire your own gear and add it as you see the kind of work the vehicle attracts and the kind of stuff your clients do with it and use/want to see.

On a very tight budget, I'd aim to get the best used vehicle I could find and put as much money as possible into converting it well, even if I had to leave out things like aircon initially, I'd make sure they were allowed for in the future. Compared to lives as normal commercial/delivery vehicles, mileages covered by mobiles are pretty negligible so buying used can be fine so long as it hasn't been thrashed and not maintained but you want something solidly built, that is reliable (readily and preferably inexpensively serviceable), and not prone to rust or other nasties. Also be aware of things like strangely placed service access hatches and the like that could become a problem with your construction into the vehicle. Ime, VW, Mercedes are good and solid (though the heavier build makes for lower payloads per GVW), Renault/Citroen are ok (and front wheel drive so have masses more headroom in the load space compared to RWD vans of similar external height). Ford Transits can be ok, especially the newer ones. Avoid anything with the word Iveco on it! Unless you have a strong desire to fix things all the time or want to start collecting rust! Others can be fine if you have a dealer or good garage nearby or you're good with doing your own maintenance. Newer vans are more reliable (apart from Ivecos!) and often come with nice things like driver aircon/ABS brakes/halogen lights/satnav etc.. but you pay for this and a carefully chosen used van from a decent maker is probably a better bet.

Of course it goes without saying that you need to keep a careful eye on things like permitted axle weights and bear in mind that you're putting in a load of structural stuff that will reduce your tech payload so you'll need to be aware of weight distribution and work a juggling act between the optimum and the affordable in terms of materials. Also construction methods and materials make a huge difference to the lifespan, weight, and appearance/feel of the end result. Keep in mind too that for some types of work you/you client will want to carry extra gear over and above the basic recording/mixing hardware and mic stands, multicore and perhaps even a little bit of simple speech PA gear can add up very quickly in weight terms.Make sure you have spare capacity for all the extra hire gear and client specific junk you'll be asked to carry. Fines for overloading can be very steep. And that's the good option. Having to remove gear to another van at the side of the road or worst of all, getting the vehicle impounded are pretty bad news if you're on your way to a job on a tight schedule. (Been there with transporting a pile of extra hire gear for a client - it's no fun - even though we just had to re-distribute the weight to load the axles better. It all looked fine and the sums suggested we were there or thereabouts on the GVW, but we were over the load limit for our rear axle and we got a £5000 fine which killed the profit from that and a few other jobs!)


You definitely don't want to skimp on construction of something that's going to be bouncing and bumping along roads and you don't want to fill it with gimmicks and pretty lights if to do that in budget you end up having to rip it to pieces in a few years to add things which should've been there from the start. Design the infrastructure properly and you can always add to it; get it wrong and it's an expensive and tedious re-build for any major additions/changes. A well designed and built vehicle should serve you well for 10-15-20 years without major work (other than ongoing maintenance and maybe occasional cosmetic updates) so it could easily outlast several generations of the tech gear that you put in it. Gear comes and goes and it is (or should be) easy to accommodate change. Needing to keep replacing cheap/duff infrastructure gear like HVAC, power systems, etc. is both expensive and usually very time consuming. Far better imo to get the basics right from the start. You (or the client) can always rent the pretty stuff as needed or you can add it as the work builds and you can afford it.


In terms of construction costs, running costs, and convenience, (and regardless of budgets) if you're not planning to record large scale festivals, bands like the Rolling Stones, or national scale broadcasts, I'd stick with something like a panel van. Gear these days is getting ever smaller and lighter (and comparatively cheaper) and jobs which even ten years ago needed a 16T truck and £000,000 of gear easily can be accommodated in a panel van with £00,000 or less in gear. I know that jobs for which I used to a 16T truck, I now do using a 3.5T panel van worth of fly packed (flightcased gear) and a bunch of computers to record. If I need to mix to stereo then I can easily drop something like a couple of small analogue consoles to do 48 track mixdown or 56/112 channel digital console into the van and achieve this. Add a small case full of outboard and there's enough in place to cover most jobs. Compared to the running costs and inconvenience of using larger vehicles in the UK this is a major benefit and why I doubt I'd ever want to shell out on a much larger vehicle for my own use. On the rare days when I actually need something bigger, there are still a few 'full sized' trucks around which aren't exactly over-worked and I'll hire one of those for the day I need it and let their owners have the joys of the ongoing ownership costs.

Whatever you do, don't forget to allocate money for the running costs of the vehicle (including any storage/garaging costs) and particularly insurance for the vehicle and gear. (I usually do those separately as it works out cheaper).

The problem with all of this is that at the moment, mobiles in the UK are not exactly a growth market. If you have clients with work frequently asking you for the facility and/or you have suitable work of your own, then great - the only problem is the budget. If you're hoping to build it and they will come, you might want to put the money in a Post Office account instead. You'll probably make more in the long run.

This all sounds very negative but far be it from me to try to put you off doing something you've obviously thought about just do be careful. If you want to build this for your own enjoyment or as a hobby and/or to serve an existing need, and you have the spare cash burning a hole in your pocket then ok. You can probably put together a hobby level vehicle that'll be fun to build and use. If you're doing this as a business proposition then I really wouldn't and I'd suggest that you're going about it wrong.

Rather than setting notional budget and seeing what you can do for that, you should identify a potential market/markets, then establish what you need to build to address the needs of clients in these markets then decide whether you want (and can afford) to build it. You can only shave a certain amount off the budget/spec of a mobile before it fails to address the needs of its market and ends up missing the point of anyone's needs and sitting redundant. The costs of building a mobile and of keeping it on the road and up to date can be quite high, depending upon your market, and you might be better off looking at a flightcased rig in the back of a car on a lot of jobs. Mobiles are great fun and always give you a nice warm feeling when you're sitting in your vehicle, using it for the job for which it was built and everything is working well. They're less satisfying when you're sat yet again going through the bills and staring at it in it's rented shed or parking space, depreciating, costing a fortune in maintenance and insurance costs and losing work to competitors with an estate car or hire van full of flightcases and laptops doing all your easy bread and butter work, leaving you to pick up the handful of difficult, expensive to gear up for, large scale events that they can't be bothered with. (However, with a budget of £50K you won't have the vehicle to pick up that kind of work so your direct competition is the flightcases in car/small van guys who will have spent their cash on their rig rather than a load of building materials and their running costs will be a fraction of yours!) Thankfully I'm now usually the guy with the car/van load of cases but I've watched quite a lot of friends and/or former colleagues end up as the former until either they give up or the bank gives up on them. :(

Hope that's not too negative. If you want to chat about it in more detail (I promise not to nick your ideas ) I'd be happy to help in any way I can so do feel free to PM. And Good luck, whatever you decide to do. (Incidentally, I do need a vehicle to work from on an outside broadcast near London in the third week of September (no space available in the venue for a de-rig kit setup). The kit is simple - remote micpres/ADCs to fibre MADI to multiple computers for recording and monitor mixes. I was going to set up some tables and sit in the back of the van we usually use to transport the gear but if you've built something and want a beta tester.... )
Old 7th August 2013
  #3
Gear Addict
 

@OVU - now that's how people are supposed to work the internet. nice post!
Old 8th August 2013
  #4
With what is happening in the world of pro on location recording I am not sure that this is a great time to build a new remote vehicle.

But....

Best of luck if you decide to go in that direction.
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