Small-Kine Homes: How 4 Local Families Make the Most of Little Spaces in Hawai‘i
Over the past decade, small-space living seized the national spotlight with TV shows, books, blogs and businesses focused on the trend. Locally, making do with fewer square feet has long been a fact of life for Hawai‘i families: from high-end urban condos to refurbished cottages and even bamboo kit homes.
Electrician Gaura Johnson and student/blogger Gora Thiemann spent more than 8 months building their tiny dream home on the Windward Side.
They built the 440-square-foot house on a trailer base—8 feet long and 11 feet wide—at a cost of about $83,000. It measures 308 square feet downstairs, 132 square feet in the bedroom loft plus a back deck with their shower and laundry.
But the young couple, both in their 20s, explain that they were able to take on the project only because Johnson owns his own company—O‘ahu Electrical Services—and could do a lot of work himself. What he couldn’t do himself, colleagues helped with, often at cost or trade. “I work with a lot of really good general contractors, mostly specializing in modern builds,” he says.
Blame our high cost of living, especially housing, or the trend toward paring down your belongings—Marie Kondo style—to those that “spark joy” or any number of reasons, but smaller living spaces are catching on in the Islands among families of varying ages and stages.
New land-use laws on O‘ahu helped. From 2016 until March 15, 2019, the city issued 603 permits to allow construction of ADUs, short for accessory dwelling units, which are buildings up to 400 and 800 square feet added to existing lots.
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The Windward O‘ahu twenty-somethings tackled the project by flexing their schedule around building the house. Thiemann, who is originally from Germany, worked on the house when she wasn’t attending her university classes. To get the job done, she says the couple devoted many, many hours for months working on the stylish bungalow, which was featured in an episode of the HGTV show Tiny Paradise. They designed the layout together with smart lighting they control from their phones. The staircase to the bedroom loft is built of blocks that double as storage: “A ladder won’t work for us because of our dog,” Thiemann explains.
Johnson says he was able to build on the property through a work-trade agreement: He provides electrical work in exchange for use of the private land. The couple designed a surprisingly roomy kitchen with a tiny fridge, a high-ceilinged living room, an incinerating toilet and an outdoor shower shielded by a metal wall.
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Now, instead of spending thousands of dollars each month on rent, they’re able to save toward a bigger, more permanent house. In the meantime, both love the quiet beauty of living in the country though they admit the small space has challenges. “Living always in one room,” Johnson says, “if you want to watch TV and the other person wants to sleep, that becomes a little bit harder.” Thiemann adds, “You have to be extremely tidy with everything.”
For people thinking of downsizing, she advises, “trying to make sure you don’t keep buying things that don’t have a purpose.” Their kitchen has just two bowls and four glasses.
“You really start appreciating space,” Thiemann says.
Across the island, Nicky and John Yamamoto have made their home in a compact urban setting for eight years. The couple lives in a 1,000-square-foot Makiki apartment with their four children—ages 3, 5, 7 and 9.
John works long hours for his family company managing short-term property rentals. So, when they were house hunting in 2010, the couple set a priority to live close to his workplace. Nicky was a schoolteacher who’s now a stay-at-home mom.
They liked the 10th floor apartment immediately: “It was full of light, with a cross breeze and a good view of the ocean,” Nicky says. Constructed in 1967, their apartment has two bedrooms, two baths and a kitchen off the living room. The limited space encourages the family to simplify their lives, use bins to stay organized and eliminate clutter. Nicky says they give away what they outgrow. “I think that’s probably the key. How much stuff do we really need?”
The kids share a bedroom dominated by bunk beds, books and some toys. The parents have the other bedroom. When the children were babies, Nicky tucked a portable crib into the adjoining bathroom: “It’s a dark enclosed space; they were the best sleepers.”
Their living room doesn’t feel cramped. The high ceilings, lānai and ocean view give an airy vibe. Books line the shelves and furniture and a violin are pushed closer to the walls when not in use to open the area for room to play. They eat in shifts or sit in a circle on the floor.
The Yamamotos talk about moving to a bigger place but “we haven’t found anything that we like better and we have the best neighbors,” Nicky says. For children’s parties or barbecues, they head for the condo pool. “My kids love to swim. We don’t entertain in our house very much; we’ll order pizza and have a pool party.”
The money they save allows the family of six to go on at least two trips a year. “My husband and I really love to travel,” she says. Recently, they’ve gone to Disneyland, San Diego, New York City and Japan along with annual summer trips to visit relatives in Utah.
Other homebuyers in Hawai‘i go small to get into trendy neighborhoods. In Kaka‘ako, they’re opting for new, tiny, well-designed luxury units.
‘A‘ali‘i condo broke ground last year with a move-in date of 2021. A year later, 80 percent, or 600 of 751 units, had been sold, although a breakdown of residents versus out-of-state owners wasn’t available from developer Howard Hughes Corp. The smallest places at ‘A‘ali‘i are 277-square-foot studios at a starting cost of $500,000, moving up to one-bedroom condos starting at 430 square feet and $700,000; two-bedroom units start at 830 square feet selling for $1 million and up. We spent the morning in a 373-square-foot model studio that showcases Bosch appliances, space-saving features and modern interior design by Rottet Studio.Lauren Rottet’s clients have included hotels and Viking Cruise Lines, where she’s become quite adept at making the best use of each compact space. Rottet believes rooms can have a profound effect on people: “Personally, I’m extremely claustrophobic so I’m always trying to make a space look bigger than it actually really is and feel that there are no walls and no boundaries,” she says.
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In the studios, a sofa and shelf by day pops down into a wall bed by night. “You don’t even have to move the sofa, you just pull the wall down and it covers your sofa and instantly you have your bed,” Rottet says. “Murphy beds are totally making a comeback.” A desk also folds up and a surprising amount of storage is tucked into the wall systems that include some cabinets 9 feet tall.
Rottet, who travels the world for design work, sees smaller homes as part of a movement to be more sustainable. “I would say it’s a definite trend in most urban environments,” she says. “People are starting to realize big is not better.”
For ‘A‘ali‘i, she included softer corners, strategically placed multifunction furniture and other designs that trick the eye. To extend the view, “we use mirrors, but we hide them,” Rottet says. “They’re on the perimeter wall. You see yourself in the ocean, and in the sky, and the mountain.”
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Local business entrepreneurs Brent and Kamuela Potter also know something about making the most of available space at home and at work. Nine years ago, they moved their family of four into a small-scale home on a double lot on the North Shore. The house is 800 square feet, built in 1962, and though it’s not officially “tiny,” it’s admittedly snug for the couple and their two children. The 2008 recession made them especially cautious about overreaching with their nascent business—now called Inspired Closets Hawai‘i—and young family (their son and daughter were ages 4 and 6). So they left a bigger, more traditional home to move into the Sunset Beach family property with its quieter country lifestyle. “It’s peaceful,” Kamuela says, “and it’s a long commute.”
As they were customizing their house, their children and their business were also both growing. “Everything was built-in to maximize space,” Kamuela says. “We built our own system. We built platform beds with storage underneath. Everything has a place.” And they streamlined. “Really focus on what you really need,” Brent says. “I’m the purger; I’m also the shopper.”
Open a wall cabinet where you might expect books or other household items and you find Brent’s wardrobe. “That’s what he lives in: 30 inches of clothes for hanging. He’s got three drawers for underwear and shorts and below that is the office files,” explains Kamuela. “Above the desk it looks like enclosed cabinets. It’s all his shoes. This guy’s got a collection of 28 pairs of shoes but you just wouldn’t know because that’s how we design.
“Tūtū has owned the property for many years, so you’ve got this shack that we live in that’s worth a lot,” because of its location, says Kamuela. “We travel and the business has done well so we’re happy.” They can afford to move to a larger home, but aren’t convinced they should. “We had the executive home. Even now, we’re thinking, we’re getting old and we’re tired of the drive. So, we’re looking at other homes but the kids are going to be gone. So why do we want a big house?” she says.
With a double income and no kids, John Cheng and Jared Stalder can count themselves in a sought-after demographic in the Hawai‘i real estate market. Yet, instead of investing in a slick high-rise or a sprawling home in the suburbs, the couple bought a Kaimukī house that’s less than 600 square feet.
Cheng, 39, is a civil servant for the Navy in Pearl City; his husband, Stalder, 44, works in the corporate offices of Hawaiian Airlines near the airport. Both love to travel and found relatively easy commutes when they moved to a rental apartment in Kaimukī several years ago.
They figured they were in for long-term apartment living if they wanted to remain in the popular, established neighborhood. Then they found a tiny vintage two-bedroom, one-bath cottage nearby for sale for $665,000 and were intrigued. Built in 1929, the cottage is just 592 square feet on a 2,200-square-foot lot. “I just had a really good feeling about it,” Cheng says. “It has pretty tall ceilings and it had been remodeled. It doesn’t feel tiny.”
They bought it two years ago, moved in and learned to be creative: For storage, high ceilings in the closets allow them to stack items. So does the crawl space under the house. The tranquil green paint and lack of large artwork help their space seem larger. They also learned to be flexible with arranging furniture for different functions. “We pull out a table for dining,” Stalder explains but it slides back to more of an end table when they’re not eating.
Realtor Scott MacGowan, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Hawai‘i Realty, sold Cheng and Stalder their compact cottage and says he’s seen an upswing in buyers ready to scale back when they find homes in a familiar neighborhood with a yard. Some have pets, some just don’t want to deal with a board or association about their paint colors or other custom choices. Others realize that they can afford the counters or cabinets they’ve always wanted because it’s less expensive to outfit a smaller space.
“We just love it,” Cheng says. “We never thought we could afford a single-family detached home. We were kind of struggling with whether we should buy a condo.” He adds, “we don’t have any kids so we don’t feel like we need to move to a bigger place.”
MacGowan, who moved to Hawai‘i 21 years ago, thinks part of the reason small spaces work in Hawai‘i is that most of us spend more time outside, or at least aren’t forced inside by steamy or frigid weather. “I think people are realizing that they don’t need a 6,000-square-foot home if they’re living here in Hawai‘i,” he says.
Smaller isn’t always cheaper. MacGowan points to another carefully restored 1920s-era one-bedroom cottage in Kaimukī—532 elegant square feet: “They added an outdoor shower area and a toilet, which I think is hilarious, but very tastefully and beautifully done.” He adds, “It’s listed for $1 million and probably worth it to someone.”