A family discovers the joys of DIY design—and muddy feet—in their home made up of distinct pods that blends harmoniously with its surroundings in the rainy mountains of Kauai.
Tanya and Chris Gamby—a psychologist and web developer/portable outdoor movie theater owner, respectively—have called Hawaii home for most of their lives. After a detour to Los Angeles, where their children, Jackson, now nine, and Zeke, seven, were born, they came back. They were perfectly content with their old plantation house in the town of Lihue, on Kauai, when they accompanied Chris’s sister on her own property search in the island’s lush mountains. When they came across a 20-acre parcel that backed up to verdant, rainy valleys and stunning views, Tanya was immediately smitten. “When I saw the land, I thought, ‘I’d sell my soul to live here,’” says Tanya, who luckily only had to sell her existing house to do so. They bought the property as an extended family, and then the Gambys, with $80,000, limited construction experience, and guidance from local architects Ben Sullivan and Tony Hatto (who are also designing them a larger house on the site), built a temporary hangout made from three 10-by-12-foot modules and dubbed it Ag Shed Villa.
Originally we were going to put in a green roof and living walls—we had wanted to do that on our bigger house, too. So we started with a design and quickly discovered that there were some issues with living walls and mold in Hawaii, and then we found out that even though there’s all this research on Hawaii being a great place for green roofs, we couldn’t get home insurance here if we put them in. We have everything in place, so as soon as that changes we will put them in, but unfortunately we can’t do it yet.
As it became a real building, our architects engineered it for us so that it would actually meet the codes. It was sort of a back and forth with the architects—we had the shape of the building and the design laid out, and they picked some of the materials, like the cement boards for the walls and the polycarbonate roofing, which was something they always wanted to try. The bathroom walls and the shower are made out of polycarbonate, which is beautiful in certain areas and in some it’s actually really hot, so the downside is we’ve created almost a greenhouse effect in places. But in the rainy season it’s incredibly beautiful. The other thing is, it’s loud. There have been times when it really starts to rain up here, and we can’t hear each other at all.
Chris: We had to make it up as we went, so some things don’t work perfectly, but overall I think it turned out pretty well. There was a lot of experimental stuff that we tried because we knew we’d eventually build a bigger house and we thought this was a good testing ground.
Tanya: Doing both the Ag Shed Villa and the “real” house, we found that it’s scary to experiment on a real house. It’s very expensive. It’s fun to experiment on something small, because your investment is not as big. If you mess it up or the siding’s wrong on 100 square feet, it’s a lot easier to fix. It was the first time we could say, “Yeah, try that, let’s see what happens.” We definitely changed some of our bigger house stuff based on the Ag Shed, like incorporating the boulders that are all over the land—we’ll repeat that. We actually unearthed one the size of a minivan that we’re going to use in the bigger house.
We had some good unexpected surprises. Initially, we were going to put glass doors everywhere but we had to get out of our previous house before the new one was finished, so we just put canvas up on one wall—it’s so temperate here that it worked fine until we decided we needed a real wall. Chris put up a half-canvas, half-polycarbonate wall temporarily, and I ended up loving it. It looks really cool, it keeps the rain out, it’s solid, it can flip up if we want it to, and I don’t see us ever changing it. A glass door would have been predictable and followed the pattern of the house, but this worked so much better.
Tanya: The whole idea for the structure was that this would be a really fun place for the kids for a few years. Chris made a pallet treehouse just outside their bedroom, and we added a slide right out of their bedroom window that leads to it. They’re out there all the time; they use all of that stuff constantly. But timeouts aren’t very effective; you go into their room and they’re gone.
Chris: The kids also like to run into the house and lock the door to the slide behind them—they take turns locking each other out for fun. So it does get a fair amount of use. Tanya: The photographers were saying we reminded them of the Swiss Family Robinson. The day they were here, the kids took three showers, and they were still running around all muddy. And that’s exactly how I wanted them to grow up.