Zeena and Shane Fontanilla both grew up on the island of Maui in Hawaii, but they didn’t meet one another until after college when they went on a blind date together. Now the couple are living the dream — their 360-square-foot tiny house is parked on a wide stretch of land on their native island, along with their young son, Maverick. The picture looks pretty perfect now, but it wasn’t an easy (or quick) road to this dream realized.
The couple, who works for a family residential construction company — Shane works in the field and Zeena works in the office — kickstarted the process in April 2015. This was after they were engaged and just eight months before their wedding date. “Binge-watching Tiny House Nation on HGTV helped us hone in our ideal design,” Zeena shares. “It took us two years to complete with only nights and weekends to work on the house.” This project was completed by Zeena, Shane, and Shane’s father. “My husband grew up in a family of builders so he always had the dream to build his own home,” Zeena begins. “I don’t think he imagined it to be this small, but I think this was the perfect size for our first build together. This project was the best premarital counseling we could’ve asked for. Prior to starting our project I knew many joint decisions would need to be made. ‘Many’ was an understatement, try one billion decisions needed to be made. Let’s just say our communication skills are top notch. One exercise that is extremely helpful in any miscommunication is choosing a number between 1-10 displaying how much this matter means to you. You quickly realize which person this matter means the most to, which diffuses the argument quite fast.”
Once the hard work was behind them and the couple moved in (now with 19-month-old son, Maverick), a whole new set of challenges presented themselves to the family. “Unlearning what ‘normal home life’ means was a challenge we faced in our first six months in the tiny house,” Zeena reveals. “My husband and I became off-grid dwellers in our mid- to late-twenties with no prior experience. We went from never questioning electricity use at night to thinking twice about turning on a switch. Even though we had our battery storage customized to our electrical output plus some, it felt scary to trust a system we didn’t quite understand.”
Setbacks and learning curves aside, they have gained a wealth of knowledge, and have much to be thankful for, including, “The financial freedom it’s given us in such an expensive state,” Zeena notes. “We spent $45,000 to build our home when ‘normal’ homes on Maui cost around $400,000+.” The home was built and then driven to and parked on less than .25 acres of pasture land, which the Fontanillas rent from a family friend.
What quickly connected the couple over that first blind date — their “mutual love for exploring the many ecosystems Maui has to offer” (“and the fact that we both LOVE Mexican food,” Zeena adds) — ended up becoming a full-circle theme for Zeena and Shane as they find themselves navigating life truly off the grid. Their shared devotion for their home, their family, and the beauty that surrounds them is so evident, it’s definitely not lost on others who set foot in their home.
“Many people have confirmed this when they’ve visited our home but I feel a wave of peace each time I walk through the door,” Zeena shares. “We are surrounded by pasture land with grazing animals and a cool breeze that comes off the mountains. The 13-foot ceilings you experience as you first walk into the house add to that peaceful, light, airy feeling.” Scroll down to see what it’s like to live tiny on the island of Maui. —Kelli
Photography by Stephanie Betsill
Image above: Zeena shares a favorite memory from her home, “Our first night sleeping in our home [was] Christmas Eve. This was before we had running water and electricity — three weeks prior to us actually moving in. We filled up our car with pillows and blankets to sleep on the only piece of furniture in the house, our pull-out couch. It was so exciting to camp out in our soon-to-be home that we worked so hard for.” And another story: “Our little 360-square-foot oasis [is] built on a 26-foot goose-neck trailer. The morning we planned to move the house [by driving it to this spot], we woke up before light out with the intention of getting the house on the road right at sunrise (because less cars on the road meant an easier move, right?!). Well it started raining at sunrise and didn’t let up till the late afternoon.”
Seagrass basket – Amazon
Washable bag – Uashmama
Couch – Hand-me-down with Amazon couch cover
Pillows and area rug – Target
Ottoman – TJMaxx
3-burner propane range – Dickinson marine
Banana leaf artwork – Carla Gangini
Waterless composting toilet – Separett