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Business student Neil Schindel turned a hypothetical class assignment into a real-life tiny house on wheels

Story by VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY July 7th, 2017

Neil Schindel wants to sell houses. He just doesn’t want to live in one.

When leaders at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business launched the EPIC strategic plan, which calls on its cohorts to drive the future of business through the power of creativity, they wanted students to learn to veer from the conventional and apply creative solutions to real life.

And that’s exactly what Schindel, a finance and real estate major, did when a hypothetical class assignment inspired him to take on a very real, very hands-on project he never imagined.

It all started with a simple assignment in Joe Ruiz’s Creativity and Ideation class near the end of fall, 2016: Compile a list of all the things you need to live, then figure out how to incorporate all of those things onto a school bus. Schindel tackled the assignment with relish, researching buses online so he could draw up the plans.

“This particular assignment came out of a class assignment just to try to stretch the imagination,” Ruiz said. “Fluency — creating a lot of ideas, and narrowing those ideas down, and challenging people to think creatively and not be constrained by ‘here’s the correct answer.’”

Two weeks later, while helping a friend find a van on Craigslist, the rising senior stumbled across a school bus for sale. With Ruiz’s assignment still fresh in his mind, Schindel went to look at the bus and bought it the same day.

“Neil comes up to me after class with a big grin on his face and said he had, based on his inspiration from doing this project, gone out and purchased a bus, and I thought that was great,” Ruiz said. “I have large classes, so there’s a lot of students that can, unfortunately, go unnoticed just because of the size. Neil’s one of those students who really caught my attention because of his work ethic.”

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"I’m no mechanic, no carpenter. I can’t do any of that stuff. But I have YouTube, and I can learn."

Schindel wasn’t looking for this opportunity, but it fell into his lap. And, “Why not?” he thought. The bus had very low upfront cost and nothing needed repairing. From there, he started thinking of how he could use it. He loves traveling and seeing new things, and this would give him the freedom to do both. Fate had dropped it all into place. He wasn’t going to let the fact that he had no carpentry experience stop him.

“After that, I kind of just took it step by step,” Schindel said. “I had no idea what I was going to do, how I was going to do it. I’m no mechanic, no carpenter. I can’t do any of that stuff. But I have YouTube, and I can learn, and so it has been a process. And it’s been hard sometimes, but I always have friends that help me. It’s come out good so far.”

One of those friends, Nathan Garber, who came home from James Madison University on weekends to help, offered more than just elbow grease. He had experience working on houses with his dad, who would lend the students tools and give suggestions if they ran into snags.

Garber’s dad let them do the work on their own even if that meant allowing them to mess up.

“We made a few mistakes,” Garber said. “He was just here laughing in the background.”

Schindel didn’t get to work on the bus much over the holidays or spring semester, but he did manage to master a vital skill during that time — driving a vehicle with a stick shift. By mid-April, he had removed the seats, put in a floor, painted the interior and started building furniture. At that point, Schindel was working on a strict deadline: mid-June, when his cousin was getting married in Maine. While the rest of his family planned to fly there and sleep indoors, Schindel was determined to drive his bus and live in it for the duration of the trip.

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In that time, he built and installed cabinets and storage benches that convert into beds. He also installed an electrical charging system with two generators (with the help of his roommate, in exchange for the promise of a sweet trip down the line). In early June he took the bus — dubbed the SS Space Cadet — for a test run by driving it to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee with three of his friends. The Space Cadet held up and maneuvered through the mountains with ease.

In fact, the biggest problem he had was finding a place to shower.

While there are eventual plans for a full — albeit small — bathroom, Schindel did not have time to implement them before summer and settled for a porta potty used in RVs. He’s researching eventual shower options, but for now is looking into membership at a national gym chain, where he can shower. He’s also learned that many truck stops offer showers for drivers who fill up with gas.

Rainy days in Vermont call for indoor tourist attractions like a tour of an ice cream factory and samples. While leaving Ben and Jerry's we passed a Cabot creamery and couldn't help but go in and try all of their cheeses. Today turned out to be a dairy good day • • • • • • • • • • #vermont #benandjerrys #skoolie #skoolieconversion #conversioninprogress #skoolielife #cabot #cheese #toomuchdairy

A post shared by Neil Schindel (@neilschindel) on

“I had to do a lot of research,” he said. “I was on the road and I had no shower, and I was just like … what do I do here? My search was so weird. It was like, ‘What do full-time travelers use to shower?’ There were 1,500 options.”

On June 14, Schindel and Garber headed north for the wedding. While in Maine, an aunt taught Schindel how to sew cushions and curtains. After spending a few days with family, the friends continued north to Niagara Falls.

Schindel couldn’t be happier with how the adventure turned out.

“My goal for this trip was to experience life on the road and what living out of a confined space like a bus truly entails,” he wrote on Instagram, where he chronicles his adventures. “There are luxuries and habits that I will have to give up and unique hardships that I will face but I’m ready for them. But I’ll own them, along with all the great experiences this life will bring me. For now though, I’m going to be happy with how far I’ve come.”

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"I think a house that I can move is the house that I want.”

Schindel is a shining example of how practicing creativity can affect students, Ruiz said.

“I think this is spot on in terms of what the market is looking for,” he said. “I think students who embrace this concept of [creative thinking] have more of an advantage than they can ever imagine. I’m starting to see more real-life examples in this community from businesses who are saying, ‘We are looking for students who have this capability.’”

For his part, Schindel appreciates the school’s creative focus.

“School gets you to think in different ways and without that project, and without that different way of thinking, I probably wouldn’t have thought of this bus as something more than a bus,” he said. “If you asked me two years ago, ‘Could you do any kind of, like, fixing a house, anything mechanically inclined?’ I would say no, absolutely not. But so far, everything’s come out great.

“I still want to go into real estate. I still want to get people the houses they want, but I don’t know, I think this is the house I want. I think a house that I can move is the house that I want.”

Neil Schindel (left) and Nathan Garber (right).
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Footnote: Story by Leila Ugincius. Photos by Allen Jones and courtesy of Neil Schindel.