This post will explore what I like to call “alternatives to the alternatives” in housing. This story demonstrates what’s possible if you’re willing to try something new and a bit out of the ordinary. Many years ago I became friends with a couple in San Francisco who migrated to Hawaii. Partly they loved the islands, partly San Francisco was starting to get on their nerves, and partly they realized they could sell their modest condo in the Bay Area and buy ten acres of farmland overlooking the ocean in Hawaii and have enough money left over to pay cash to build a pretty nice house. Keep in mind, these folks weren’t rich. One was a tile setter who specialized in kitchen and bath renovations, and the other was a physical therapist. Fortunately, both those skill sets translated well in the local Hawaiian economy.
Here’s the kitchen. Pretty spiffy, huh? What you notice right away, aside from the high quality tile and wood work of the custom space, is the openness of the home. You really know you’re in the tropics when you’re in this house. The twist is that instead of standard construction they bought a commercial greenhouse kit from Holland, had it shipped to Hawaii, bolted it together themselves, and set up house inside the 4,000 square foot open air structure. This gave them a huge space at a very economical price. The roof provides protection from the rain, and the insect screens of the side walls keep out bugs. In a location with a perfect year round climate on a remote ten acre parcel there’s no need for solid walls. Once the greenhouse was assembled they gradually built a small house-within-a-house that contained the kitchen, bath and a 1,000 square foot sleeping loft above. They did almost all the work themselves over a period of years. I kept visiting them as the process unfolded and I documented the evolution of their space.
At a certain point during the construction a cargo container arrived from the mainland that held everything they ever owned. For anyone who has ever endured a home remodel you know how everything takes longer and is more complicated than you ever anticipated. They lived with their possessions in various states of disarray and gradually digested everything. The end result is pretty spectacular.
There were some difficulties along the way. They asked the local power utility what it would cost to bring electricity to the ten acre site and the number was off the charts crazy expensive. They were only a mile from the existing infrastructure, but bringing that power up to the property and running it to the house was a serious endeavor. Instead, they installed solar panels and a battery bank using a second hand shipping container as their secure on site home grown power station. Solar was infinitely less expensive and they’ll never have a power bill again. With no need for heat or air conditioning and only a handful of appliances and lights the system works perfectly well. Municipal water wasn’t available either and they were too close to the beach to drill a well since the water would be too salty. But they were able to harvest rain water from their massive roof and store it in a 15,000 gallon tank. That’s enough water to last a typical household for many months even during periodic droughts. The water is run through a high quality filter and then zapped with UV light before it enters the house to ensure the water is safe to drink.
It’s been thirteen years and the greenhouse has survived two hurricanes. With no mortgage and minimal expenses they were able to ride out the economic crash of 2008 better than most people. While the house is in a remote location there’s still plenty of community. Local families and neighbors look out for each other in farm country. And the landscape continues to mature and improve. This is a radically different set of arrangements than working a nine to five job and paying a mortgage and HOA assessments on a condo in the city.