A Tiny Home Offered This Hawai‘i Family a Fresh Start After Kīlauea Erupted

After lava from Kīlauea last year destroyed their Kapoho home of 18 years, John and Nancy Theismann decided to downsize.
Tiny home in Hilo
Nancy and John Theismann in Hawaiian Paradise Park on the Big Island. 


John’s a special education teacher at a public charter school, Nancy recently retired as a physical therapist, shortly before they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. They were among the last to evacuate their neighborhood, never quite believing the eruption would take their home. “We left at 1 o’clock in the morning when police came to our door and said ‘you’ve got to get out of here, the lava is coming,’” John says. “We lost our home, we lost our land, lost all of our belongings.” Nancy shakes her head, remembering: “There was a tsunami of lava.”


SEE ALSO: The Lava Dwellers, Big Island, Hawai‘i: These People Live on One of the Most Active Volcanoes on Earth


Both are now in their 60s. “At the time the lava came, we were completely debt-free and kind of on the home stretch ready to retire,” John says. Their home—a rustic 1960s plantation-style family gathering place near Kapoho Bay that swayed when it stormed—was gone.


Big Island Bamboo 220 square feet for 2


First, they stayed with family, a 20-minute drive to the garage of their son, daughter-in-law and grandkids’ home in Hawaiian Paradise Park. When the Theismanns received $34,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they considered options. They wanted to stay in Puna, even knowing the volcano may erupt again but didn’t want a brand-new mortgage. Their children offered a half-acre behind their house. So, John and Nancy went to Bamboo Living Hawai‘i co-founder and chief architect David Sands to help them design a tiny bamboo house. “We came up with the idea we could use the kids’ land for kind of an affordable/movable house,” John says, so they could move out of the way if lava looms again.


“Basically, for 34K, we got a shell of a house on a trailer, able to be lived in. Now we’re finishing up with catchment water and a really small-kine solar system,” John says. The structure went up in a day. The home is 220 square feet including the loft, reached by ladder. It is bamboo inside and out, with 11 windows inviting light in. They used a bump-out space over the wheel well to fit a California king bed. “We can look out and see the stars from the bed. It’s a special little house,” John says.


SEE ALSO: Small-Kine Homes: How 4 Local Families Make the Most of Little Spaces in Hawai‘i


The Theismanns say they’ve been touched by an outpouring of aloha. Local stores discounted building materials, their relatives with the St. Louis, Missouri, police department held a lū‘au fundraiser and sent the proceeds to them. And John’s school principal gave them long-term—and rent-free—use of a house in Kalapana. That house needed repairs, which they’ve been doing while they continue working on the bamboo house. Bamboo Living Hawai‘i has built about 400 bamboo homes since 1995, about 90 percent in Hawai‘i as well as projects in Vietnam and the South Pacific. Sands loves the sustainability, since bamboo is rapidly replaced by new growth. Since 2002, his company has owned a factory in Vietnam that builds the houses to order, then takes them apart to ship to the owners’ location, where they are reassembled.


Sands’ office is now in Pāhoa, where the kit homes provided an affordable option for the Theismanns and others nearby rebuilding after the destructive lava flow.


Sands says small houses could play a larger role in Hawai‘i’s tight housing market but not too many people choose them. He says some people see them as a whimsical childhood reminder of treehouses and forts built from sheets and couch cushions. “The tiny homes are really fun. They really bring out the kid in you,” Sands says.


Read more stories by Robbie Dingeman