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Off-grid Hawaii dream: couple builds budget home & thriving food forest

Matt Holton and Cristina Pineda were living on Maui where the average home price is a million dollars when they heard about lots on the Big Island selling for about 20K. They bought an acre for 22K, and with no building experience, soon began to build their own home.

Near the rim of the Kīlauea volcano caldera, their rainforest community of Fern Forest remains affordable thanks to its lava zone 3 rating (1-5% of zone 3 has been covered since 1800). With no option for city water, everyone collects rainwater here and many homes are unpermitted and uninsured. “Here is a little place where people kind of let be and no one gives you much trouble for what you’re doing,” explains Matt.

After digging out a driveway and lining it in gravel, the couple moved an RV onto their property and began to build. They got some help from neighbors and Matt’s architect brother, but mostly they used books and the Internet to build themselves a seismically-safe and hurricane-resistant home.

They use limited solar (mostly just for charging their electric car and heating shower water) and rely instead on a bit of propane for their outdoor kitchen. They have a tiny fan, but mainly depend on the trade winds to blow through their home for cross ventilation. Instead of heating (it can drop as low at the 50s fahrenheit), they rely on warm jackets and down comforters.

They don’t bother with a refrigerator since a garden in a rainforest produces food with very little labor. They have at least 30 varieties of fruit trees and a diversity of vegetables like Samoan spinach (a bush) and lemongrass (great for rice). “It’s like a gardening paradise,” explains Matt about the lack of irrigation needed, “You just have to trim.”

“You kind of embrace living in the forest,” explains Matt who grew up on Maui. “You sleep deeper here, maybe it’s the pace of life as well as just being surrounded by all the trees, there’s a comfort as well as a simplicity and beauty to it that we like.” Cristina, who grew up in New Mexico, adds, “This is the dream that I never had.”