Gear

Building the Plywood Palace


A former commuter bus becomes a warm and rustic home on the road.

Words By Kate OliverPhotography by Katy Quinn and Sam Tay

Wildsam

Updated

15 Feb 2024

Reading Time

5 mins

ON A COOL, BLUE MORNING on the Olympic Peninsula, during the summer of 2020, when much of the world was shut down, Katy Quinn and Sam Tay awoke on foldout sofas in their friends’ 40-foot, self-renovated school bus. The night before, the group had pulled into a darkened lot, unsure of what would await them at dawn.

For many of us, it’s a familiar curiosity: the feeling of arriving in the dark, eagerly awaiting morning and the discovery of new surroundings. But for Quinn and Tay, this was a new experience. Tay was in grad school in Seattle, and the couple had jumped at the chance to explore with their friends as they traveled through Washington. Waking up along the foggy, craggy coastline, surf pounding while they ate banana pancakes in the golden warmth of the bus— that’s when it started dawning on the couple that they too could live this life.

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“I realized we could have rich experiences like this, a density of rich experiences,” Quinn said recently, Zooming from the cozy dining nook in the bus she and Tay have nicknamed the Plywood Palace. The couple was staying outside Asheville, at a farm they found on Hipcamp. Out the windows were the jewel-toned foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After that morning on the Olympic Peninsula, bus life grabbed at their hearts. A self-professed homebody who also craves adventure, Quinn saw it as a way to indulge her contradicting desires. That December, the pair spent $7,000 on a Blue Bird bus—a shuttle bus in a former life—and embarked on a year-long $50,000 buildout, with the help of the friends who’d introduced them to the lifestyle. During the build, the two families moved into a house in St. Petersburg, Florida, parked their buses in the yard, and got to work.

Quinn and Tay’s home is reminiscent of a ’70s-era northern California beach shack. The plywood interior fit Katy’s desire for earthy materials that wouldn’t compete with the landscapes out the windows. “Designing the bus was a ton of iteration,” Tay says. “Mostly involving me drawing on graph paper, Katy taping out layouts on the bus floor, and lots of conversations that often felt like going in circles. ... Somewhere in my notebook is the exact polynomial defining the shape of the archways.”

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They prioritized the living, dining and kitchen spaces, designing them around their lifestyle. They wanted a pair of sofas, for hosting friends, but also room for a small dinette. Quinn loves sharing breakfast at the table and setting it to eat dinner together each night. The bedroom, though small, is Tay’s favorite precisely because the bed spans its whole width. It’s cozy, he says, and he appreciates having windows on three sides—especially lovely when the bus is tucked in the woods or parked at the beach.

The kitchen is where Quinn and Tay spend much of their time. She loves baking bread, he loves drinking tea, and they both appreciate cooking and eating well. They installed a 120-volt Furrion oven, crafted extra-large drawers for small appliances, and gave the bus more counter space than any apartment they’ve ever lived in. Tay’s teaware can take center stage and still leave plenty of room for their Berkey water filter and woven baskets, stacked to the brim with produce.

When she thinks back on the year-long build, Quinn remembers the scent of the copal incense they burned to keep the mosquitos away and how, at the end of the day, they’d all collapse, like family, on a big blue sofa, spent from manual labor.

In December 2021, Quinn and Tay moved onto the bus and drove back to Washington, where they lived on a farm outside Seattle while Tay finished his degree. Last June, the couple took to the road full-time, exploring more of the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and the Eastern Seaboard.

“I feel we’ve created a space that’s calm and inviting while we travel,” Quinn says. “Even when we have to sleep parked on city streets or in Walmart parking lots, we pull down the blinds, and it feels like we're in a little Zen cottage.”

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