The designer of a cutting-edge home on Maui’s north shore is working to recast what it means to live well while also living sustainably.
“Money is the source of parameters,” says Graham Hill, a 47-year old environmentalist entrepreneur who you’d easily mistake for 37. And he has plenty.
But Hill found as his wealth ballooned, his home and lifestyle did, too. Happiness, on the other hand, seemed stagnant—or worse. So he decided that when money doesn’t constrain you, you have to constrain yourself. He started with his house.
“Every cubic foot has to be heated, cooled, lit,” Hill says, of the environmental impact of a dwelling. So he traded his sprawling Seattle home for a studio apartment in New York that was almost a tenth of the size. That experiment in shaving down his footprint led Hill to start a company focused on sustainable design; he recently completed his minimal living coup de grâce: an off-grid house that catches, cleans, and heats all its own water, carved into a hillside on Maui’s north shore.
The home combines “small living”—a self-imposed set of parameters in a world where wealthy Americans have so few—with the latest environmental design and technologies. It’s the third and most ambitious project by LifeEdited, Hill’s consulting firm that helps others learn about building small but smart. He may have decided to scale down, but he’s still an entrepreneur. And there is, after all, money to be made in streamlining—just ask Marie Kondo.
Small living is about creating “functionality beyond its size,” as Hill explains it. It’s a concept analogous to the tiny houses trend, but instead of shrinking a home to the point of absurdity, it employs careful design and convertible interiors so the space works like a larger one. So you don’t have to go to the bathroom three feet from where you eat.
In the 1,000-square-foot Maui home, most rooms have dual purposes. The sleeping areas collapse into the wall, Murphy bed–style, revealing a dining table or an office space. Instead of a sprawling kitchen full of brushed-steel gadgets, Hill has four knives (very good knives). The social spaces are mostly outdoors, and some of the bathrooms are open-air. The toilets come from Sweden and are a feat of environmental design. The quarters do not feel constrained, or like an incipient health hazard.
“We have so much stuff that we sometimes cannot find our stuff,” Hill says. “My theory is that for thousands of years, more was better.” He thinks the tide is turning, and ever since his “quarter-life crisis” in Seattle, he’s been working on balancing comfort, environmental impact, and sophisticated design.
He’s also the first to admit that there are restrictions to living small, which is, of course, the point. He has fun with them. Once he held a dinner party for ten in his 350-square-foot LifeEdited apartment in Soho. But unbeknownst to them, everyone he invited was named Zach.
The cleverness in the Maui home goes beyond minimizing its physical footprint. For instance, the home is off-grid, but Hill’s car, a Volkswagen Thing he converted to electric with parts from crashed Teslas, can serve as a backup battery for the house for days when the solar power isn’t sufficient.
Many elements of the home are imported from New York City. Bento Box, which did the kitchen cabinets, is based in Williamsburg. The lighting is from a company called Rich Brilliant Willing that hails from Industry City, Brooklyn.
There were things Hill splurged on, such as the paint, called Airlite, an Italian product that absorbs toxins and is practically “safe enough to eat,” in Hill’s estimation. But it’s pricey and may not make sense for every home. He skimped in other areas, opting for cheaper drywall, for example, and is looking at other ways to mitigate costs in the future.
He went over budget, reportedly spending about $1 million, and that was with many components donated. But he hopes that by learning about new products he can help other projects integrate them more cheaply and show skeptics how viable—and comfortable—an off-grid home can be.
Of course, being eco-friendly is not without its complications. Admittedly, in the Maui house, going to the toilet is a little complex. The Separatt system does just as you’d imagine, separating number one from two. That allows it to sort solid waste, which becomes compost after it’s been aged long enough to be hygienic, and liquid waste, which is reclaimed (it is mixed with vinegar by the user about once a day) and used to water plants.
But like growing your own vegetables or composting your own kitchen scraps, there is something to be said for a more hands-on approach. The Separatt is more than a way to reduce waste. It creates an awareness of the processes that make up our lives and of the waste we produce, even literally. That is part and parcel of the LifeEdited project.
Hill started treehugger.com in 2004; it’s one of many projects with a green angle that he’s embarked on since becoming independently wealthy. (He sold it to Discovery Channel in 2007 for $10 million.) Treehugger’s true success, Hill says, was not its billion page views, but that it showed there is money and interest in a less strident type of environmentalism.
If he helped “take back” the once derisive term “tree hugger,” as he believes the site did, then perhaps he’s about to do something similar for the idea of reducing the footprint of your built environment. The consultancy has already booked millions in business, Hill says. Make way for toilets with detailed instruction manuals.
Maui, with its nearly always enviable weather, is also a perfect place for off-grid living. There is enough rain and sun that there’s rarely a shortage of clean water or energy at Hill’s home. The house is doing a lot of the work itself: capturing the rain, cleaning it, and heating it with the sun. All that’s left to do is enjoy a guilt-free, long, hot shower.