Off the Grid, on Maui
When Graham Hill began designing a house on Maui, he wanted more than a rustic surf shack. “I wanted to see what it was like to live in the future,” he said.
Mr. Hill, 47, is probably best known for starting the sustainability and design website TreeHugger. Since selling TreeHugger to Discovery Communications for $10 million in 2007, he has continued to champion sustainable living, and his current venture, LifeEdited, focuses on developing hyper-efficient, small-scale homes with moving parts.
Over the past decade, he has built a couple of tiny shape-shifting Manhattan apartments with sliding walls and expandable furniture, each of which served as his primary residence and a proof-of-concept for potential business partners.
But while he was attempting to solve the problems of urban living, Mr. Hill, an avid kitesurfer, would spend winters on Maui, visiting his cousin, Chelsea Hill.
“It’s whales and rainbows, wind and waves,” said Mr. Hill, who is Canadian but still prefers to excuse himself from New York snowstorms. “It’s just spectacular.”
In 2011, his cousin sold him 2.2 acres of agricultural land in the community of Haiku — with a verdant gulch and views to the ocean and distant West Maui Mountains — for about $240,000. And he began dreaming about how LifeEdited concepts developed in cramped city apartments could translate to such a wild, open place.
A few years later, Mr. Hill, who has a bachelor of architecture degree, and his team started working in earnest to design a vacation house they hoped would be a shining example of what could be achieved by following LifeEdited’s mission statement: “Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.”
At 1,000 square feet, with an additional 330-square-foot lanai and 1,330-square-foot garage, the resulting house — completed with help from the architecture and engineering firm Hawaii Off-Grid — isn’t exactly small. But it packs a lot into that envelope, including four bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms.
Three of the bedrooms offer more than a place to sleep. Outfitted with Clei transformable furnishings from Resource Furniture, one bedroom has a Murphy bed with an attached desk that rotates into place, when the bed is closed, to serve as an office. Another has a Murphy bed with a table that unfolds for dining or games, and the third has folding bunk beds with an integrated sofa for watching television. In this bedroom-cum-media room, a custom pegboard wall with shelves made of Richlite (a countertop material made from recycled paper) can be adjusted to respond to Mr. Hill’s evolving storage and display needs.
Even the lanai, open to the elements under a broad cedar-paneled ceiling, has adjustable furniture, including low coffee tables that pop up and expand to become larger dining tables, and modular sofas with weighted back cushions that can be pulled forward for support during meals or pushed back when Mr. Hill or his guests want to recline.
Building a stand-alone house also gave Mr. Hill the opportunity to play with the sort of green technology featured on TreeHugger but almost impossible to deploy in a Manhattan apartment. The standing-seam metal roof is covered with thin-film solar panels from Sunflare that are nearly invisible. They generate enough power not only to run the house but to charge Mr. Hill’s car (a 1973 Volkswagen Thing that he had Hawaii Off-Grid convert to an electric vehicle with recycled Tesla batteries) and his electric Magnum bicycles.
The roof, gutters and rain chains channel water to a 15,000-gallon tank used for irrigation. The Separett composting toilets use no water.
The house was completed in January for just under $1 million. “It’s not as inexpensive as I had hoped, but it’s a prototype,” Mr. Hill said, explaining that trial and error drove up the cost. “We know we can make it a lot less expensive on the next one.”
But the comfort of the finished house seems to have surprised even its owner. “I’ve been doing environmental stuff for almost 20 years, and I had no idea how cool it would feel to be living off grid,” he said. “Done right, green can actually be more luxurious” than a conventional house.
Just remember, if you’re in Maui and happen to see Mr. Hill zipping past in his electric Thing with a surfboard strapped to its roll bars, he isn’t on vacation — he’s just doing his job.
“Everyone in Manhattan thinks I’m being a slacker, and everyone here thinks I’m being a workaholic,” he said. “The truth is probably somewhere in between.”