UM student turns school bus into home

Martin Slagter
Ann Arbor News

Ann Arbor — Maybe it was a coincidence, or perhaps it was fate that Tori Essex had the red hair reminiscent of “The Magic School Bus” driver Ms. Frizzle.

The recent graduate of the University of Michigan and Grand Rapids native made the connection while undertaking the task of gutting and redesigning the interior of an old school bus as part of a senior thesis project through the university’s Stamps School of Art & Design.

In this April 19, 2018 photo, the exterior of Tori Essex's converted school bus is shown in Ann Arbor, Mich. The recent graduate of the University of Michigan turned a school bus into a stylish home for her senior thesis. (Jack Zellweger/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

When it came time to name the bus, it all seemed too perfect to name it “Magic Skoolie,” tying together the popular children’s TV show and book series with the practice of converting old school buses into compact, transportable living spaces.

“I just merged the two and called it the ‘Magic Skoolie’ because people latched onto that pretty well, and the handle for it wasn’t taken on Instagram, so that was nice,” Essex said, sitting on one of the padded benches inside the bus, parked outside UM’s Art and Architecture Building.

In just six months, Essex has turned the old school bus that served the Hemlock Public School District for years into a mobile living space she hopes to use to travel to volunteer at farms and nonprofits across the country.

The idea came to Essex while she was volunteering with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in Ireland last July. Doing the same thing in the United States intrigued her, but she wanted a place to call her own while doing the work while spending some time “off the grid” with a more sustainable lifestyle.

She initially considered a “tiny house” but determined she would need a diesel truck to haul the trailer. With the help of around $3,000 in micro grants through the Ann Arbor Chapter of the Awesome Foundation and ArtsEngine and Arts at Michigan through UM, she was able to secure enough money make her vision for Magic Skoolie a reality.

It took Tori Essex six months to upgrade the old school bus, which she plans to use to travel across the U.S. to volunteer at farms and nonprofits.

A little more than $1,500 later, following a short bidding war during a bus auction, Essex got her bus. The cost of the project was just under $5,000.

“They had a few buses, so I got to know their mechanic and talked to him about which bus would be best for this,” she said. “This one was more mechanically sound. I drove up to the bus garage and all of the old bus drivers who used to drive bus No. 8 were there and saying goodbye to it. It was really cute.”

The remodeling process hasn’t been easy, Essex said, beginning with removing rows of old, rusted seats to hollow out the interior of the bus. The conversion project focuses on sustainability and eco-conscious living. Essex has attempted to use re-purposed materials to create the living space that is almost 200 square feet, with 25-feet by 7.5-feet dimensions.

Essex credits the help she received from her father, Steve, who provided guidance on how to convert the structure, as well as her professor and adviser Rebekah Modrak.

While all of the elements of the bus are mostly in place, there are still plenty of details remaining to make the living space less “rustic,” Essex said.

Essex also needs to register the bus as a recreational vehicle, she said, before she can drive it. In the meantime, the bus sits where it has for more than six months, behind UM’s Art & Architecture building on North Campus.

The plan eventually is to travel across the country with her boyfriend, Evan Veasey, for six to nine months, volunteering on small, independent farms or at nonprofits. While the bus isn’t exactly eco-friendly, getting around 10 miles to the gallon, there are other eco-friendly aspects to her work, Essex said.

“Considering I’ll be living out of it for periods of time and traveling, it’s sustainable in that I’m not taking up space ‘on the grid,’” she said. “Hopefully, I’m going to have a solar energy system hooked up to my electric, and also saving up for a composting toilet.”