By JLF Sullivan
A year ago I decided to completely change my life. What surrounded me at the time was a constant cycle of bills and maintenance that had lost its charm. The things I loved about my community in the Florida Keys disappeared after Hurricane Irma ripped through it, and my family and I were ready for a change. We decided to sell everything we owned and move somewhere new. An opportunity arose for us in Hawaii, and now here we are a year later, and so pleased with our rapid-fire decision.
In the Keys, we were prohibited from going off-grid, and it always kept us trapped in a cycle of ever-growing bills for water and electricity. What we amassed from the sale of our house in the keys and our cars and businesses allowed for us to buy and plot of land and build an off-grid beach cottage that is mortgage free and mostly bill free. Luckily Hawaii is very progressive when it comes to sustainable living practices and encourages its residents to do so. I didn't always think that this is what I wanted though, let me tell you a funny little story.
I once loved a house. I saw it on Christmas many years ago and it was love at first sight. I had to have it, all 5 million dollars of it. I drove past it wherever I could, just to check on it. Outside the house were large white metal gates that had a sunset and a palm tree fashioned into the design. The gates were not really my style, but they didn't make the house any less magical. I hoped the universe would find some special way to make it just fall into my lap one day, believe me, stranger things have happened.
When Hawaii became our new destination, I realized with a heavy heart I would never live in that house, never drive beyond those sunset gates with the palm tree. Even so, I said my goodbyes and never looked back. When we arrived on island in June, it was a mad dash to find a new home. We weren't sure where we wanted to live, and so we spent a few weeks traveling the island trying out the many towns to see what could be a good fit for our family. Rentals at the time were hard to come by, so many others like us came as tourism remerged and travel restrictions from the pandemic were lifted. I also needed to find something that would accommodate 6 people, which turned out to be a real pain in the ass to find.
We were on our last day of a rental home and could not find another AirBnB or hotel room in our budget. I made one last search and was about to give up when there it was--the perfect house. It was HUGE, and beautiful, and in a great neighborhood, and within our budget. It was everything I thought we needed. When I arrived to check it out and make sure it was real, guess what greeted me? A large gate that had a sunset and palm tree design that was eerily similar to what I had wanted so badly in the Keys. Over the next few months, my family and I lived in this house and learned much from it. We learned exactly what we didn't need in our lives.
My new huge house was sprawling, had beautiful gardens, and was up against a private golf course. There was plenty of room for 4 kids to play and enough space in the house so I often couldn’t even hear them fighting with each other. It wasn’t long before the house decided to show me who was boss. Cleaning such a massive house was a 2-3 day operation, and soon I began to lose half my week just keeping up with it. Combine that with garden, lawn, and appliance maintenance, and my week soon swelled around taking care of a house that was swallowing me whole. We had all the modern conveniences, everything we needed to fit in and feel comfortable, yet still, we were not content. Plus, electricity and water are expensive here, really, really expensive. And a house this size required A LOT of both. This was not what I was looking for, even though at first I was so sure it was.
When I closed the gate with the palm tree and sunset at my rental home for the last time, I was eager to leave. In our random journeys around the island, I had one day gone down a road to find the most mesmerizing ancient fishing village along a salt and pepper beach of black lava rock and white coral. My partner and I both knew immediately this was the place we needed to be from that first visit. We later returned to our rental to find the first listed property for sale in that area was exactly what we needed and had permits already approved to begin building. Fast forward a few months--We now have a 600 square foot beach cottage by the ocean my husband had just finished building. We have no running water, nor are we hooked up to the local power lines. My kids have no tv, and up until recently, no wifi. And guess what? We couldn’t be happier. On a rocky cliffside, we found what we truly needed in a cottage that was ⅓ the size of the home we had left behind in the Keys.
The modern simplicity in the design of our home has allowed us to use reclaimed items to build with, which I find also lends a particular charm to the cottage design. The deck we are currently building is made from old tongue and groove roof paneling that has been reclaimed from an old resort built in the 1960s here on the Big Island. It was donated to an organization called Re-Use Hawaii, a non-profit that seeks to eliminate the waste that builds upon this distant island. Once installed we plan to strip, stain, and seal the salvaged wood and breathe some new life into it. Many older homes on the island remodel and often donate the large cast-iron sinks from the 1920s, another great find we will soon be installing. We have no end to the projects we want to create on our new property, and much fertile land to grow exotic plants and trees in our tropical environment. This is going to be a true homestead for us, and we are happy to share our developments as we trial and error our new lifestyle.
Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and do I get that now more than ever. Our first big project at the beach cottage was to set up our recycled solar panels and create a solar generator. Using two deep cycle batteries, a charge controller, and an invertor, we soon had enough energy to run an apartment-sized fridge, charge our phones and run a fan. On sunny days, I can even use the Pampered Chef air fryer my friend Crystal sent me when we first got on island (You tha best!!). Adapting to a low-energy lifestyle has been so good for us. I didn’t realize how much time we spent looking at screens or using microwaves until we couldn’t. And then it was eye-opening. I found from the lack of information overload my kids were less aggressive with each other, we all looked healthier, and have fewer headaches.
Adapting to a world of water catchments was a bit harder. Where we live, the entire community runs on water catchments since there is no county water hookup. Many of my neighbors pay upwards of $500 to have a 5 thousand gallon delivery of water to fill the catchments, others collect the rainwater from their roofs. I have found that rainwater is the superior water to use for cleaning. Our clothes, hair, and skin have never felt softer or looked better. For over a decade I lived in the Keys and had hard water that was very harsh on the skin and hair. I felt it aged the skin quickly and would not hydrate me no matter how much water I drank. The water here is the complete opposite and truly nourishes the inside and out. We are also lucky enough to live a short drive to a public water spigot that is tapped into a volcanic spring. Weekly we drive there to let the children run around on the adjoining Keiki playground while we fill our many 5-gallon glass carboys for our water dispenser at home.
In our beach cottage homestead, we have adopted the use of a gravity-fed solar shower, which uses the sun to warm the water. Our laundry is all done by hand, in two large round tubs overlooking the ocean. I could lie and tell you it's horrible, but it's not. I've never felt more pride in my possessions nor had my laundry smell cleaner. My children all help with their laundry and guess what, surprisingly they enjoy it too. My daughter said it was very calming and I totally agree. The biggest adjustment, and to be honest what I thought was going to be a deal-breaker for me, was the composting toilet. I was scared at first, but now I am converted. I non longer waste thousands of gallons of water and also have the added benefit of a richer compost mixture to grow our lush tropical gardens.
There are so many projects I am so excited to begin here on our beach cottage Hawaiian homestead, and I will be sharing them in the future to give advice to anyone who is inclined to get away from the rat race and try a similar lifestyle out. Soon I will be building raised beds from the nutrient-rich lava rock that surrounds me, as well as creating hydroponic systems for tomatoes and herbs, an outdoor pole barn kitchen, a children's playhouse from reclaimed materials, and also one of my favorite past-times, the interior design of my new home. I cannot wait to share it all with you as we embark on the next leg of our journey. Make sure to look for future posts detailing my latest project and updates. Welcome to my new, simple, sustainable, lovely little life on the Big Island of Hawaii.