When a Home Is not a House

In 2011, we asked writer Tom Stevens to recall an earlier, simpler Maui, when businesses (even the gas stations) closed on Sunday, women wore mu‘umu‘u on Aloha Friday (translation: every Friday), and 100 folks or more would gather for a first-birthday lū‘au. Maui has changed a lot since then, but not entirely — if you know where in the boonies to look.

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Story by Tom Stevens  |  Illustration by Guy Junker

non traditional maui homes

On Maui, the workaday world where people live in houses and go to jobs exists alongside a more precarious one whose people live where they can and do what they want.

I first became aware of this alternate existence in 1976 when I fell out of a marriage and landed at Gecko Mecca, a sprawling hippie house at Waiehu Beach. Among the many characters who dwelt there were a photographer who lived in a wood shop, a playwright who lived in a gazebo and a yoga couple who lived in a tree.

I met the yogis on my first day as a Gecko Meccan, and they forever changed my assumption that people were supposed to wear clothing and live indoors. I was walking toward the house along a sandy forest path when I heard a series of chuffing blasts, like a yesteryear locomotive leaving the station.

As the backyard came into view, I beheld a magnificent, unclad, Edenic-looking couple posed side by side, inhaling and expelling great “fire breaths” with fierce Dionysian joy.

Amazed, I sought out the playwright in his gazebo.

“The couple in the yard,” I said. “Do they rent a room here?”

“No, they don’t live indoors,” he replied. “They have a platform in the trees.”

Starting with Mākena in the 1960s, tree dwellers have a long and illustrious history on Maui, but they are not alone in the alternate-housing cohort I call “the adapters.” Like hermit crabs, successful adapters can conform to nearly any dwelling space, and I’ve known several Mauians who lived quite happily in trees, caves, yurts, teepees, tack sheds, camper vans and Matson shipping containers.

While these situations confer a sort of frontier machismo, most Maui adapters eventually weary of the mildew and mosquitoes and long for more traditional homes of their own. For those without trust funds, the time-honored route has been to buy a lot and then slowly, lovingly, painstakingly erect a house. It’s through this process that adapters evolve into “recyclers.”

As resourceful as bowerbirds, recyclers fan out over the island each day, seeking
materials, furnishings and building supplies others have discarded or overlooked. I had friends who salvaged the hardwood timbers from a dismantled sawmill ramp in Kahului and used them to build two homes and an art studio. Another group dismantled a WWII barracks at Kahului Airport by hand, recovering enough finish-grade lumber to build a complete jungle village in “Hanavana.”

Such recycling feats are legion on Maui, where big construction projects, second-home remodels and hotel decor renewals create a Niagra of surplus materials and furnishings. Between the coconut wireless and the brotherhood of the building trades, every useful discard soon finds a willing recycler and a new adoptive home.

Maui recyclers who stay at it long enough to complete their own homes may eventually join the most elite cohort, the “converters” — landowners who had just enough kālā (money) to finish the house, but not enough to build the ‘ohana unit that pays the mortgage. Enter: the empty water tank.

Kitted out with sash windows and Dutch doors, Maui’s mineral-cured, antique hardwood water tanks can be transformed into rental units as charming as a hobbit house. Other conversions I’ve seen include refurbished farm buildings, dry-docked boats, retired school buses, old wine vats, even circus trailers. My favorite was an old train caboose that became a quaint rental unit in Kula.

However, the progression from adapter to recycler to converter is not an easy one, and it’s definitely not for everybody. The yoga couple, for instance, left their treehouse … and moved into a cave.

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