LIHUE — Tiny homes tucked into backyards of existing houses could be the answer to Hawaii’s housing crisis.
And as Kauai’s flooding and the volcanic activity on Hawaii Island are adding more people to an already difficult statewide housing situation, one University of Hawaii student is looking at invasive albizia trees to help.
“What I’m focusing on specifically is housing and education centers, any type of small-scale timber structures,” said Joseph Valentini, a UH school of architecture grad and the director of the newly formed Hawaii Wood Utilization Team.
He thinks building these kinds of structures using local resources from the Kokee Forest and other places statewide could provide a sustainable source of materials for a robust local manufacturing market and enhance housing opportunities in Hawaii.
In addition to the abundant supply of albizia, Hawaii has millions of board feet of harvestable wood from other tree species, Valentini said, and those species haven’t taken a spotlight in the market. That’s because of the lack of local, large-scale processing facilities and the high cost of shipping lumber out-of-state.
“If we can begin to utilize our excess timber resources for housing, it’ll be a win-win for our communities and our forest,” he said.
For his dissertation project, Valentini created a prototype Accessory Dwelling Unit at the UH campus out of albizia.
That building is a bare-bones structure with a dome-like appearance and is about 400 square-feet in size and was crafted with the help of local building and milling companies.
He said he was encouraged that the process was done “relatively quickly and easily,
“We’re already looking at scaling them up (local manufacturing and milling methods),” Valentini said. “If we’re going to build more of these, they’ll (manufacturing and mill companies) need a larger workforce.”
The idea kicked off with the Hawaii legislature’s passage of a new law in 2015 allowing homeowners to add an additional dwelling unit on properties at least 3,500 square-feet in size.
Homeowners with lots between 3,500 and 4,999 square feet can build up to a 400-square foot ADU and lots 5,000 square feet or larger can have up to an 800-square-foot unit.
“Three years ago, the Hawaii State Legislature passed a bill to incentivize scalable and affordable housing alternatives,” said David Smith, administrator with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
He continued: “Existing market research showed that on Oahu alone there is the possibility of nearly 1,400 accessory dwelling units to help address our housing crisis.”
As soon as the model on the UH campus was completed, Valentini secured a Forest Service Wood Innovations grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design and build another prototype ADU, with plans to build an 800-square-foot education center on Kauai.
The whole scope of the multi-part project is being overseen by the Hawaii Wood Utilization Team.
“The first project will be the 400-square-foot unit, half the size of the education center we have planned for Kauai,” Valentini said. “We’ll use that as a template and scale it up to the education center.”
The education center will be an 800-foot structure built on the Mana Plain. It’s in the second round of funding planned for the project. The first, 400-square-foot ADU is being funded through a part one of the $250,000 USDA grant.
This is the first time Hawaii has been awarded one of these grants and is one of 34 nationwide projects funded from 119 proposals.
Albizia is just one of several types of wood targeted for the Kauai education center and for the new ADU prototype project. Other woods include eucalyptus and pine.
“We want to promote green jobs and building with timber is right in that category,” Valentini said. “What we want to do is link this chain, so if we’re increasing demand, we’re requiring more supply and incentivizing this.”
The sustainability team at Kauai Community College has been taking a look at the topic as well, Valentini acknowledged, and he hopes to partner with people who are already working on similar projects.
“I know they’ve built several types of tiny house structures and we can make these types of structures using local resources,” Valentini said.
Kauai led the way in the state’s 9.6 percent decline in the number of homeless individuals in 2017.
The island’s population dipped 37 percent, according to the 2017 Point in Time homeless count, but that was before flooding and volcanic activity destroyed homes and sent some residents searching for housing while their residences are repaired.