Off the Grid Doesn’t Have to Mean Being Off Society
A green entrepreneur in Maui wants to reconcile low-impact living with modern comforts.
If you ask Graham Hill what his idea of a sustainable, off-the-grid life is, it isn’t a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water. It’s a home fully capable of being built within a residential neighborhood, compact and efficient in the space it uses, fully powered by renewable energy and water, and dressed up in a hypermodern facade and interior that rivals even the most sleek celebrity home. In Hill’s view, there’s no reason living off-the-grid is incompatible with living modern.
Hill decided the best way to prove his point is to show, not tell. So through LifeEdited, his design consultancy businesses and the latest in a series of projects he’s started over the last several decades (including the founding of environmental blog TreeHugger), Hill built a prototype 1,000 square-foot, off-grid, four-bedroom family home in Maui—powered by solar, running on rainwater catchment, fitted with toilets that don’t flush (more on that later), and boasting an impressive amount of multifunctionality for virtually every room.
“What I’m trying to show,” says Hill, “is that you can build what would normally be perceived as a very small house, that can give you tremendous functionality for a decent amount of people, and use smart design and technology, so it’s possible to live a green lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be sacrificial or feral. You can create a luxurious house that’s also incredibly low-impact.”
The most pervasive element to the Maui home is also strictly tied to an aesthetic Hill has been trying to push forward for a few years since he began LifeEdited: mo’ space, mo’ problems. He first showcased this idea through a pair of prototype apartments in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood (420-square-foot and 350-square-foot spaces, respectively) that, according to Hill, have functionality way beyond their size.
“What I came to understand,” he says, “is that every cubic foot that you add to an apartment or to a house, you need to build it out of materials. And then you have to fill it with stuff, like furniture and possessions. And then every cubic foot has to be heated, and cooled, and lit, and insured, and repaired, and maintained. Every cubic foot comes with a lot. And as you start to get conscious about it, it leads you to be strategic about how much cubic feet you build.”
The average family home sprawls out to somewhere between 2,600 and 2,700 square feet of space. “It’s nuts,” he says. He decided to top the Maui home out to 1,000 square feet (though he found a sort of cheat code in a 330-square-foot lanai that can seat 20 for events, and a 1,330-square-foot garage that’s more or less distinct from the prototype home).
So multifunctionality becomes king. Beds fold up to reveal foldable tables and chairs, facilitating everything from work to dining to recreation. Large windows for light and high ceilings for circulation and acoustics give each room an expansive feel. Walls become lined with potential storage space to give even the worst hoarders a midway reprieve.
When it comes to water and power, “we’re literally getting it from the sky,” says Hill. That concept is certainly not new, but it’s strange to see it reconciled for a building that’s so adjacent to modern life. The solar panels, designed and installed by Sunflare, don’t look like your average photovoltaics propped up on the roof. “Typical solar panels always appear like this alien thing glommed on to your roof,” he says. “They just don’t look good.” Sunflare’s 10 kilowatt setup, he argues, is quite seamlessly fitted into the roof, and looks more or less like a flat fixture of the jet-black roof rather than an add-on component.
The house’s batteries, developed by Blue Planet Energy, are capable of holding 50 kWh collectively—more than enough to manage the house’s average daily power usage of 11 kWh, and well below the national average home’s 30 kWh. “When it comes to batteries, Tesla gets a lot of attention,” says Hill. “But these guys created an amazing system. They’re built for this, off-grid homes, specifically. Other batteries are often car batteries converted for residential building use”—not necessarily as safe or low maintenance as they should be for this purpose. Meanwhile, the house is flanked by 20,000-gallon and 5,000-gallon rainwater tanks that catch, filter, and supply the home with more than enough water (the average U.S. resident uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day).
There are quite a few other catchy design elements. The toilets, Separett compositing toilets, don’t flush—they drain your number one business straight to nature, and collect and dry out you number two business for future composting. There is no heating or cooling system for temperature control—the house relies on open corridors for cross-ventilation and various fans to keep its inhabitants nice and breezy. (It also helps that the north side of Maui rarely experiences extreme weather events.)
LifeEdited Maui cost almost $1 million to produce—a bit over-budget, and certainly more than the median price of a single family home on Maui, which is about $695,000. That’s already plenty more than the national median (just a tad under $200,000).
Moreover, this isn’t the type of home that will fit any family, in any part of the world. It’s closely specified for tropical climates with moderate weather, a healthy amount of sunlight and rainfall, and where space is not an essential factor.
For Hill, that’s OK. He doesn’t expect anyone to emulate the Maui home in its entirety—he’s just hoping it can act as a proof of concept for its constituent parts. A middle and upper class that can afford to live comfortably—be it in spacious rural areas, sprawling suburbs, or ultra-dense cities—can find ways to incorporate a few of these off-the-grid elements into their lives and reduce their impact on the environment. Moreover, Hill’s point is largely that it’s incumbent on higher-income families to precisely work toward mainstreaming these elements, if we’re serious about living green.
“Our buildings can make up to 50 percent or more of our carbon footprint,” says Hill. “The technology is here now—in particular in tropical environments. All of our houses should be off-grid, and we just need to get people to do it.”