An environmental entrepreneur goes upscale while downsizing.
Story by Sarah Ruppenthal
Photography by Tony Novak-Clifford
Graham Hill’s 1,000-square-foot Ha‘iku home has four bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, and enough space to entertain more than 20 guests. On paper, that description might arouse some skepticism – it’s a lot to pack into 1,000 square feet – but in person, the layout makes perfect sense.
Graham knows a thing or two about making the most of minimal space. He is the founder and CEO of LifeEdited, a consulting firm that helps homeowners, architects and developers design compact homes and apartments. His most recent project is Carbonauts, which hosts workshops that help people optimize their lifestyles to build a greener future. “It’s the way I think,” he explains. “I’m not the kind of guy who would do a big house.”
He walks the walk and talks the talk. Literally. In a 2011 TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness,” Graham extolled the virtues of pared-down living. Twenty years ago, he and a business partner sold their Internet start-up, and Graham used the windfall to purchase a four-story, 3,600-square-foot home in one of Seattle’s trendiest neighborhoods.
He soon realized that a supersized house required an inordinate amount of stuff – and upkeep, too. “My life became unnecessarily complicated,” he says. The novelty wore off quickly; Graham sold the home and most of his belongings, packed what remained into a few bags, and set off to travel the world.
In 2010, he debuted “LifeEdited1,” a 420-square-foot apartment in New York City that functioned more like 1,000 square feet, thanks to a flexible layout with moveable interior walls and convertible furniture. Later that year, he moved into “LifeEdited2,” a 350-square-foot apartment in the same building.
An avid surfer, kiteboarder and stand-up paddler, Graham would routinely fly from New York to Maui and would stay with his cousin Chelsea Hill at her home in Ha‘iku. “I always came in the dead of winter – for obvious reasons,” he laughs. He’d stay in a 200-square-foot cabin – which had neither a kitchen nor a bathroom – on Chelsea’s property. In 2011, his cousin offered to sell him the 2-acre vacant parcel behind her home, and he pounced on the opportunity. “I told myself I’d do something with it at some point,” Graham says.
That point came in 2016, when he hooked up with architect and engineer David Sellers. They had met years before in New York but lost touch when David moved to Europe to attend graduate school. Neither knew the other was on Maui until one of Graham’s associates spotted David’s updated profile on LinkedIn. (Remarkably, David was living less than a mile from Graham’s property.)
The two met for lunch one day, and Graham shared his plans for LifeEdited’s first project in Hawai‘i. He wanted to build an off-the-grid family home – one that would harvest more energy and water than it consumed – on his Ha‘iku property. David signed on as the architect and engineer; Graham also tasked him with designing the home’s water, wastewater and energy systems.
Right off the bat, the project presented a strategic challenge. A single dirt driveway was the only way to access the small construction site at the summit of the steeply sloping property. To prevent a congested work area, David imposed a strict timeline for the delivery and use of materials and equipment. And given the difficult terrain, many components were fabricated off-site.
All of the construction equipment operated on 100 percent biodiesel, including a pile driver that pummeled steel columns as much as 9 feet into the ground. David and Graham opted to forgo a standard masonry wall in favor of galvanized steel – a more durable material, and one whose scraps could be more easily recycled. (In fact, the only concrete on the property is the garage floor slab and the driveway). Once the home’s skeleton was complete, David handed the project off to general contractor Massimo Pandolfi to finish the structure.
Completed in 2017, the fully off-grid residence has more than its share of conversation-worthy features. The roof’s near-invisible, ultra-thin, 10-kilowatt solar system powers the home. Custom rain chains direct rainwater from the gutters to a catch basin below, then down to a 15,000-gallon tank on the property. In each bathroom, composting toilets require no water (just some helpful instructions for amateurs). There’s no air conditioning, but when the prevailing trade winds stop, sleek ceiling fans pick up the slack.
In the 1,330-square-foot garage, a maintenance-free battery system captures excess energy from the rooftop solar panels and stores it for use at night; the system has 48 kilowatt hours of off-grid storage. Graham wanted the home to have the lowest possible carbon footprint, so there is no generator on the property (and with that much energy storage in the garage, it’s unlikely he’ll ever need one).
Indoors, Graham outfitted three bedrooms with convertible furniture that creates the functionality of a much larger space. Murphy beds occupy two of the rooms; one folds up to reveal an integrated desk, the other a dining table.
In the third bedroom, bunk beds fold separately into the wall; when pulled down, the bottom bunk doubles as a sofa. There’s shapeshifting furniture on the 330-square-foot covered lanai, too, including reconfigurable outdoor sofas with adjustable backrests, and a coffee table that lifts and extends into a dining table. The multifunctional theme extends to the kitchen, where moveable cabinets, shelves and drawers snap into a lattice system attached to the wall.
Then there’s the Thing in the garage. One afternoon, while the home was still under construction, David and Graham were driving along Hana Highway when a bright yellow Volkswagen Thing zipped past them. “I said, ‘Now there’s the perfect car for an electric conversion,’” David recalls. Graham was instantly intrigued – even more so when he learned that David could do the conversion himself.
David logged on to Craigslist that evening and serendipitously found a 1973 Thing for sale on Maui. He forwarded the listing to Graham, who bought the car a few days later. The home’s battery system can now charge the fully electric Thing.
Graham hopes his Ha‘iku home, which he now offers as a long-term rental, will not only serve as a model for off-grid living, but also demonstrate the upside of downsizing and having fewer material possessions. After all, he says, “The best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all.”