As a C56 quadriplegic, Lauren cannot move his legs, and he has limited mobility in his arms, as well as difficulty regarding dexterity. The design of the couple's Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, which they named "VanGRATO," fully accommodates his needs. Everything was downsized and minimized to fit the wheelchair and to make room for the equipment that makes life on the go for a disabled person accessible and comfortable.
Initially, the couple employed a builder to carry out the project, but he soon found out that the tasks were overwhelming, so he couldn't complete it. So, Lauren took matters into his own hands – he decided to build the van himself with another friend who uses a wheelchair. This makes this rig even more impressive. Completing a DIY build is already daunting, and being restricted to a wheelchair makes it way more complicated.
On the other hand, with both of them using wheelchairs, they knew precisely what to integrate to make things work. They could test the features themselves and make modifications and refinements whenever needed. That also made the project very time-consuming – it took them 18 months to bring the rig to its current state.
The couple said they would take weekly or monthly trips to get used to the van. However, the goal is to move into it full-time, and the van was designed with this in mind. Let me first tell you about what exterior accessories were fitted.
At the front of the van, you'll notice a CAtuned bumper with a winch rated for 12,000 lbs. (5,443 kg) – the vehicle rides on BFGoodrich all-terrain tires on Method wheels. You'll also discover a Van Compass 4.3 suspension with Falcon shocks. The van's rear is equipped with an Owl Expedition Box, modified to integrate Lauren's folding tracks, as well as a spare tire. A ladder leads to the roof, where 300 W solar panels are located, as well as an awning.
To get inside the van, Lauren didn't choose the conventional wheelchair lift because it can only be used on flat surfaces, and, as the above-mentioned features indicate, the couple also travels off the beaten path. So, instead, Lauren fitted a super arm. Basically, the electric arm attaches to the wheelchair using straps and hooks and lifts it off the ground and into the van. By the entrance is where controls for the awning are located, as well as water and air hoses to clean off the wheelchair.
The kitchen comprises a small sink, a fold-up table, a spacious fridge, and some cabinets and shelves for storage. What's more, there aren't any in-built utilities, such as a stove. Instead, the couple uses portable equipment to maximize the space. The only exception is the microwave, located right above the fridge.
The interior is fully built out of wood paired with 80/20 aluminum. To further maximize space and accessibility, Lauren and Carlo integrated a lifted bed, which can be raised to reveal the "living room." The bed is, in fact, Lauren's custom creation – it can be adjusted using buttons on a wall, as well as through remote controls.
When the bed is in its lowest position, it still leaves room for storage underneath. That's where the couple stores their bikes, one of which is Lauren's hand bike, which is significantly larger than a traditional bike. It allows him to go further into the wilderness, where his wheelchair can't take him.
Among other components, the Redarc electrical system boasts a 3000 W inverter and two 100 Ah batteries, but Lauren left some space to add two more.
Lauren housed some outlets and various connections in the small spaces between the rear doors and the living room cabinets. For instance, there's a port that supports an external solar panel and a port for an outdoor shower. You might've noticed there isn't any bathroom onboard. The couple plans on adding one, but they want to use the van a little more to figure out precisely what they need and how to incorporate a toilet, probably toward the rear of the van.
As you very well know, the devil is in the details. Every single inch in this van was carefully thought of. For instance, Lauren left some small spaces in some spots of the interior that make room to turn the wheelchair around. What's more, some space underneath the fridge allows him to get close to it. The same goes for the sink. Even the handles were specially chosen to be soft not to get hooked on the chair or clothes.
Let me also explain how Lauren drives the van. The first challenge is getting in and out of the driver's seat. To overcome it, Lauren installed a Gantry rail across the top of the van, allowing him to slide to the front of the vehicle. The driver's seat is a six-way seat, and it can be adjusted more than a factory seat. It can be rotated around for easier access.
Lauren uses hand control for both steering and accelerating/braking. The special system enables him to use the right hand for steering. Furthermore, using his left hand, he can push down to accelerate and push forward to brake.
All in all, it's astonishing what Lauren and Carla managed to do with this Sprinter van with the help of one of Lauren's friends. Even though it required immense effort and large sums of money, the result is a rig that makes van life possible even for someone with a mobility disability.
Lauren explained that there isn't a week that goes by without someone messaging him regarding his project. This shows a significant demand for vans that enable people with disabilities to travel. Hopefully, more and more people and conversion companies will start carrying out these types of projects.