CNN devoted an hour to one of the hero’s of off-grid living, Graham Hill. The TV Channel visited his place on the Hawaiian island of Maui’s north shore. (Our thanks to Claudia Rothschild for making the edited transcript)
“My vision is to try to create a fully off-grid, luxurious, sustainable way of living that doesn’t cost too much, and then try to get friends and maybe even make it a bed and breakfast and have people come through and understand how incredible it could be to live off grid,” said Hill.
“Off grid means you have a water catchment, there is enough rain that you can get all your water from the sky. Solar and wind are really good on Maui, so basically, make it entirely energy independent.
Because I design my life virtually, I am able to work from anywhere. So when it is freezing cold in New York, I am able to come here for two or three months and work from here. So it is a fantastic setup.
“I will get up and have some breakfast, meditate and start working at 7:00 or something in the morning, put in a really good day, very concentrated. No one is dropping by the office. No meetings that I have to go to. And towards the end of the day, I’ll go out and get on the water for an hour or two.
So I bought this little piece of land. I’m slowly thinking about what I can do with it. Most of the time, when humans come along and do something with the land, they make it worse for the plants, for the animals, and really for the humans overall. So I am trying to think of what sort of positive contribution I can make with this land.
My thought is there is this pre-existing structure over here that will make at the communal area. Its’ larger, big, great kitchen, the cooking and the lounge area, a little office, the bedroom. And spread out around the property, a few smaller Thoreau type cabinets with a great little bed, maybe a little desk.
There is a view of the ocean from a mile, mile and a half away, which is a pretty important part of it. A nice jungle feeling with tons of birds as you can hear but also really great view of the water. I love the water.
About a decade ago, I got the kite surfing bug in a very bad way. I would grow barnacles if I could. I come here and I just want to be in the water. The kite surfing, I go out and ride this kite and a strapless surf board. I go out over the waves, often jumping and turn around and come in and surf waves. Most of my life is about producing and making things, and this is just 100 percent play. You are out in the sun. There are turtles, the humpbacks, it’s the must phenomenal thing. You are out there with just wind and the water. It is absolutely brilliant.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Graham Hill is a designer who believes people would be a lot happier with less, fewer possessions, and especially smaller homes.
GRAHAM HILL, FOUNDER, LIFEEDITED.COM: The beautiful thing about architecture is it’s quite simple. If you can, live with less space, apply smart design and technology and you can create a way of life you can actually enjoy.
GUPTA: To prove his point, Hill created an Internet company called Life Entity. He crowd sourced the design of his 420 square foot apartment in Manhattan, offering $80,000 in cash and prizes.
HILL: See I’m not touching the walls, but it’s this small. I want them for a couple, work at home. I want it for a sit down for 10 or 12 people, have guests over in a civil manner.
GUPTA: He got 300 entries and some spectacular ideas. But Hill said the best part of living a pared-down life is more freedom.
HILL: You are going to save some money and reduce your footprint a little more time, a little more peace, a little more ease. Life is going to be a little bit better.
Editing is the skill of the century. No one wants a four hour movie. You want the hour and a half. You want to be able to pick the best parts. You want to focus on your life that way. So I’m not touching the walls. It is small. So let’s take a look around.
The big idea with this main space, transforms into five different rooms. So this is sort of basic living room. And then office is right here, so quiet and simple. We just made a drawer that pulls out like this. Then, you have a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse. And you are up.
So let’s take a couple of steps over here. It is really simple. You just pull these and there is some storage in here. Everything just stays like that. It is really super comfortable, solid bed. Not a huge kitchen. We try to make it really efficient.
GUPTA: I don’t see a stove.
HILL: In order to keep the counters clean, some of the times we have three induction burners. You pull out however many you need.
In terms of space, every cubic foot you have in this space is a cubic foot that you have to eventually design and build, but you have to fill it full of stuff and you have to heat it and light it and cool it and maintain it and clean it. You have to think about it. So there is all this, it is just a cubic foot, but it comes with all this other stuff attached to it. Not all of it is good.
Let’s pretend you are in New York City and you are going to have guests come.
GUPTA: You can have guests here?
HILL: Yes, absolutely.
GUPTA: This is the moving wall? Wow.
HILL: These are just a couple of bunk beds. They come out and there is this cool ladder thing that comes down acts as a support. So they are like green mattresses, super solid, really comfortable. And then for a little auditory and visual privacy, a curtain that comes out and it magnets to the end. It is a really cute little bedroom.
GUPTA: I am quite struck we are still in the same place. You really feel cordoned off. You said you wanted to make this possible to eat for 10 or 12 people. Right now, looking at this apartment, I have no idea how that’s going to work.
HILL: Yes. You just pull this out.
GUPTA: Is it expensive to live this way?
HILL: Yes. If it is exactly the same space, this is going to be more expensive for sure. But what the comparison should be, this is 420 but it has the functionality of easily, 600, 700. In fact, this is an absolute bargain.
I love things and I love having great things. But I don’t want too many. I don’t want to be overwhelmed. I am not saying don’t have stuff. I’m saying just be conscious about the stuff you choose to bring into your life, and choose less but better.
CAROLINE PARTAMIAN, CHEF FOR HIRE: Graham Hill invites about 10 people over for his dinner parties and hires me to cook dinner to prove you can entertain in a space very comfortable. We are going to start off with tomato lentil soup with parmesan cheese shaved on the top, and then we’ll finish off with a chocolate and cheese wrapped dough. ANDREW RASIEJ, PERSONAL DEMOCRACY MEDIA: I hope it actually works, that he fulfilled his dream of having as little impact on the world as possible.
MARGARET LYDECKER, FOUNDER, GREEN DRINKS NYC: Owning a big house means cleaning a big house. You feel like you are a prisoner of this huge house you love and you can show off. But the reality is you end up being a cleaning lady.
BEN SCHEIM, SVP GLOBAL PARTNERSHIPS, SOCIAL MEDIA WEEK: What blew me away was the fact that the entire wall comes out and these two drop- down buckets. I was like, holy crap, all of Japan needs to talk to Graham.
HILL: The beautiful thing about the architecture, it’s quite simple. And so if you can live with less space, apply smart design and technology, you can create a way of life you will actually enjoy.
GUPTA: Being a kid that grew up in Canada, what kind of kid were you? Did you like open space?
HILL: Absolutely. I grew up on the side of a mountain. My dad found these old log cabins in Ontario, numbered them so he could remember how they went back together, put them on a truck, shipped them back. He put the well up the hill so we had gravity feed. We would have kerosene lanterns and the wood stoves. In the ’70s and ’80s in Quebec, the power would go off and we would be fine. We would have hot and cold running water and showers. We didn’t miss a beat.
I’m really big these days on taking the risk, spending the money, taking the time to build out physical models that people can experience and understand and ideally copy, just make it easy for people to take that step and show people this is how it can be done.
So New York is very social and very busy. Here, I pretty much have nothing going on. It is very simple. It is my anti-New York. I will work six or seven days a week. I tend to get a fair amount done. I just have a lovely, lovely time. And it is great. My New York friends think I am a slacker, and everyone in Maui thinks I’m a workaholic.
GUPTA: Still to come, how living small can lead to lots of innovation, and the CEO of zapos.com is listening.
HILL: I’m not saying everyone should live in 420 square feet. I’m saying if you are going to save money and reduce your footprint, a little more time and life is going to be better.
GUPTA: Is this something that is catching on?
HILL: Yes. I think so. We see a bunch of stuff happening in San Francisco, Boston, New York City. There are definitely developments around the world starting. So I think it is a way to be cost effective and responsible with housing available in the cities.
The world is urbanizing. A million-and-a-half people a week are moving to cities. It is great from a green perspective and an innovation perspective. They show it really bumps up innovation.
Small is sexy. We want space efficiency, things that are designed for how they are used the vast majority of the time, no that rare event. Why have a six-burner stove when you rarely use three?
TONY HSIEH, CEO, ZAPPOS.COM: When I was talking to him about life editing, I thought it was a really interesting concept. My name is Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, and also helping oversee a downtown project. Graham came and spoke with our employees and talked about how maybe you don’t need all that space. Maybe there is ways to enjoy life that isn’t just about having a bigger house. That’s a lot of Graham Hill’s philosophy, which is really in line of what we are trying to do. Folks are putting their energy into people rather than building big houses.
Research has shown that if you could get high residential density, then a lot of innovation will happen, because people will just gather at the local coffee shop around the street or in restaurants and share ideas. There are two ways to do that. One is to spend a lot of money on building high-rises, and another is to convince people to live in smaller spaces.
HILL: So how can you live little? You have to cut the extraneous out of our lives and we’ve got to learn to stem in-flow. We need to think before we buy. Ask ourselves, is that really going to make me happier, truly?
GUPTA: Somebody says, I like what graham is saying, I want to live that simpler, less better life. What are some things they could do?
HILL: Digitizing as much as possible and go through your stuff, including your clothes, realizing, OK, I have been carrying around this shirt for three years. I have worn it zero times. It is time for me to get rid of it. That can be applied to everything in your life. It is your tools, your hobbies.
So we want to do things like a product library. It will allow you to get access to things that don’t make sense for you to own. A big stockpot, a cooler, a tent, tools, a ladder, all sorts of things it would be nice to access but you don’t use very often. They may be sort of expensive and they take up space.
Or a spare bedroom, instead of having your own spare bedroom you use 20 percent of the time. You have a rack of them, book them out on line. They are professionally cleaned. You are going to save yourself a bunch of space and a bunch of money. If you plan ahead, you can have a number of your friends or family come at the same time.
Big building, small units, lots of sharing, lots of community. It will end up being very green, really smart financially and I think a way of life people will really appreciate, a way of life that will make them happier.
HILL: We have a finite planet that is based on infinite growth. Those two just do not fit together. The environmental issue is real. We have to learn how to live with lessor footprints. About a decade or so ago, I started to read science and nature. I just realized we are in a lot of trouble. We could live in much cleaner ways. This is just about crying to keep our species around. So that really drives me.
Some friends of mine, David De Rothschild, he basically puts together incredible adventures around an environmental topic. He built this boat, a 60-foot catamaran, made of recycled plastic.
This is David sitting on the plastiki. The project started about three-and-a-half years ago after reading a report of the accumulation of trash in our oceans.
The idea behind the plastiki was to get people to rethink our relationship with plastic. It doesn’t have to be as bad as it currently is. The problem with plastic is most of it is single-use. Most of it is not recycled back into the system. It ends up in our oceans and all over the planet.
I am Graham Hill, founder of treehugger.com. I am here on the plastiki, a 60-foot catamaran made of 12,500 water bottles, sailing from San Francisco to Sydney.
GUPTA: How many people are on the boat?
HILL: Six to seven in a very small igloo-ey type thing on top. Some sweaty dude gets out of the bunk and you climb in. This three-hour watch is 24 hours a day. You don’t get a lot of sleep. It makes you a little delirious. I am having a really great time. It is still a long way to Sydney.
DAVID DE ROTHSCHILD, EXPEDITION LEADER: It was a crazy dream that started four years ago. With the help of teamwork and realizing that we could all kind of solve this problem together, we created something that I think is really special, and hopefully it will go on for many, many years to inspire people to think shorter about how they dispose of their everyday items and it will tread more lightly on the planet.
HILL: I want to work on things that help improve the world. That’s really big for me. I think we have such a beautiful planet and incredible animals. I just think there is a better way to live on the planet. So that definitely has driven my last number of projects. I’m really interested in the environment and seeing what I can do to help.
So a big part of our footprint, close to 50 percent is related to buildings. And the beautiful thing about buildings is we have the technology we can actually do something about it. There are ways that you can build that allow you to really reduce your footprint.
The nice thing about living an edited life is that, essentially, it will give you time. Really, life is about time. Life is about experience. Life is about connecting with people, friends and family. That’s the stuff that you want.
We sort of built these large separate castles for ourselves and really alienating ourselves. I think people actually want to — deep down, they actually want to know their neighbors and feel like they are a part of a community and that life is — more and more, people are realizing that happiness is about experience and not stuff. So I want to build buildings that really help support that, allow you to know your neighbors and care about your community.
GUPTA: As long as you have been doing this now, have you found there is any type of person or group of people who could not live like this?
HILL: There are definitely people who are just not going to be open or just not going to give this the time of day and not going to go there. And, yes, because they are not open, they sort of won’t do this. But that’s OK. I’m just trying to say, listen, as a society, we have triple amount of space than we did 50 years ago, a $22 billion personal storage industry, huge environmental footprints, a lot more debt, and we are not any happier. Something seems a little bit off there.
There are a lot of people who are asking themselves, how do I participate in a world of 6 billion people and make it sustainable. How do I find the right balance between stuff and my life? So if we can use a place like this to inspire people to be less op pew lent with their choices and to be more efficient with their choices, then maybe they won’t be building these mega-mansions.
GUPTA: So if I said, you have this spot. Give me a tour around. We are going to trade you into a 2,500 square foot apartment tomorrow, that’s yours. What would you do?
HILL: Split it into five.
HILL: That would be the perfect answer.
Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site
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