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.
Tanya: Our old house sold before we knew how the property would be divided up, and we needed to build something for ourselves quickly. We knew we could do as many 10-by-12 sheds as we wanted, so we thought we’d do three and just take them apart and put them back together as needed. We figured we’d just make this really sweet, simple studio we could use temporarily and eventually turn into a guest room and a home office. So Chris just started build-ing it, and our architects decided they wanted to help us, so they got involved, and it was this total spontaneous collaborative effort that morphed into this building.
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: The layout is pretty simple: We started off by building three small pods, and it was just going to be these 10-by-12 rooms with interconnected decks in an L shape, but it turned out to be too much of a hassle to make connecting decks so we just enclosed the whole thing. We have the kitchen at one end of the L, and then the middle is a connecting glass hallway containing the dining room. The corner is our all-purpose closet/laundry room, and up above that is our master loft, and then there’s another connecting glass area that’s our living room, and that connects to the kids’ pod down at the end. The layout is a little funky, but it all flows together. It’s pretty small—only 600-plus square feet—but if you’re in the kitchen, with canvas walls and screens everywhere, you can’t see the kids in their room but you can hear them. For the most part it’s nice because we’re all together.
Tanya: The house is very nontraditional for Kauai. It’s funky but fun.
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.
Chris: Having a good plan is really important, too. It’s nice to want to do things on the fly and make it up as you go, but planning out certain things is hugely important. When I originally started building, my footings were a little small and we could see the building sinking on one side—it actually dropped down an inch or two. So we went back in and beefed up the footings, and they aren’t going anywhere now. It would have been nice to know ahead of time how big the footings needed to be. That was pretty key.
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.
Erika Heet has been working in publishing for more than 20 years, including years spent as a senior editor at Architectural Digest and Robb Report. She has written for Architectural Digest, Robb Report, Interiors, Bon Appétit, Sierra Magazine, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She recently wrote the foreword to New Tropical Classics: Hawaiian Homes by Shay Zak. She lives in a Topanga cabin with her artist husband and two children.