Monday, June 22, 2015

Buying and building in Hawaii....I need your help!



I need your help. My Google-foo is weak in this....I need your thoughts.

For years, seriously...nearly 30 years now, I have been interested in building small living spaces. I love the sense of intimacy that I get from being in a room where I can touch at least two walls from where I sit. A large open room makes me feel exposed and emotionally cold. A small space feels warm, no matter the true temperature. I love boats.... hate stadiums.

Designing for small spaces, is about accommodating the individual. Primary needs are to be met with the greatest efficiency, and resources must be conserved. Everything is intent. It is difficult to be false in small design, flash is wasted. The McMansion aesthetic doesn't work. Small design is challenging because things need to be *right*, you know?

I need ideas for building small structures, homes really, but with some peculiar twists ( of course). What I have been working towards is design ideas that highlight the simple, clean, use of quality materials.....and a structure that is capable of being disassembled somewhere down the road. 1 year....20 years....400 years.....

The attraction that I have had for Japanese joinery is that many of the joints used have allowances made for being disassembled at some time in the future. If you go through the trouble of using a wonderful material, say the perfect piece of wood, you choose this for its qualities of strength and beauty. Along with this comes the acknowledgement that everything has its own life, and at some time that perfect wood will have become old and decayed. It will require replacement.

The study of Japanese joinery has exposed me to an incredible variety of ingenious ideas for attaching one piece of wood to another. In this, I see great potential.

Buying property, land, house, whatever, the situation here in Hawaii is a little bit peculiar. We are in the market for a house, but there are some unique and fundamental difficulties with how things get built on an island. My needs and desires are slightly out of the normal range, so here is what we have.

The situation:

  • Property in Hawaii is expensive.
  • Almost all of the construction is of house "kits". Kit houses use the cheapest, most economical and efficient material possible, but they also meet code requirements.
  • Buying an already built, building code approved house, gives assurance to the lending bank. Banks loan money for crappy kit houses= crappy houses become expensive.
  • The generic /poorly built/code approved structures are not what I want in my life. And they are expensive.
  • Some of the super cool places that I am interested in are VERY well built, but banks are loath to loan on unpermitted structures.


We can buy into what everyone is selling, take out yet another mortgage, and pay WAY too much money...and live in an environment that gives little joy. "We have everything that we want...except money!"

Just down the road from us is a 2 acre parcel with an attractive, contractor built home, for $270,000. The house looks just fine for what it is....just REALLY not what we are looking for.



We can ditch the idea of a re-sale price that just gets higher and higher as time goes. Buy cheap, build cheap, enjoy life. If down the road circumstances change, the house can come with us.

You can buy 3 acres of Hawaii, just down the road from where we are currently living, for $15,000.


Being in debt is like being a slave to your desires, often to fulfill perceived needs that might not truly be important to you. You need to ask yourself these questions, at least I do. What do you want in exchange for your life ?

Me.....I don't want much. What life I have, I want to enjoy, not be forever working to pay for something that I actually couldn't afford. I love our old cars, and we paid cash. Not as nice as what many others might drive, but we have no monthly payments and insurance is cheaper, too. Parking lot dings don't leave me feeling angry, it's a car for God's sake.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah.....

Living in a debt free home would be one of the greatest freedoms imaginable.

Way back in the day, houses were for family. You were born there, raised there, and probably died there. When the kids grew older, perhaps you added on to the house to make room, but the assumption was that you would always be living with family. Houses and land were passed down, generation after generation. Kids didn't immediately sign themselves into a lifetime of slavery, all so that they could live in their own house.

Obviously times have changed. My "ancestral" home back in Minnesota holds fond memories, but I sure as hell don't want to live there. This is sad, but this is our reality. Our house that we recently left, back on the Oregon coast.... Great house, spent 10 years of my life fixing occupied by someone else. It's a REALLY cute house! I don't want to live there either.

Where I do want to live.......Ah yes, that's in Hawaii. I want to build a very nice, very small home, but a home that can be moved, relocated. Unfortunate though it seems, many of us have become virtual nomads. We are currently renting, and though our landlords are totally awesome, we need to build for OUR future. I need to begin building our Hawaiian home.


Good god! Enough with the preaching!

Help me with some ideas. References, pictures, websites, me find some good ideas for building a solid, attractive structure that can be moved at some future time. Please, skip the trendy "Small houses" movement stuff. While cute, I'm not that interested in the "Mini-McMansion" movement.

I am looking more for solid joinery, solid materials, yet used in a simple manner. For the first time in my life, I actually don't need to worry about the potential for freezing to death, come winter. Open-air, year round living is a reality here. What I am envisioning is essentially a platform on short piers, then a minimal post -and -beam structure atop that. Joinery is to be de-mountable. Panel infill would be the finished surface, so natural materials would be desirable and I would like to avoid the use of plywood (though the temptation is great).

I am imagining a minimal structure built with sliding panels, solid panels for winter ( it does get cold here and we will be using a wood stove this year!), screened panels for summer. Sliding panels would be wonderful, because even in winter, as soon as the rain stops and the sun comes gets warm. Each " panel" segment could similar to the sliding door of a cabinet, for instance. The panel could sit in a groove. To remove the panel, just lift, tilt and remove.

Beauty, strength, practical, and cheap.....I want it all. Any ideas?

I've looked, but not found much of interest. I have no doubt that many others share my desires, though our situations would be different. What has been done in the past, I wonder?



  1. I subscribe to the Tiny House Blog, but I haven't seen anything that would make sense for Hawaii there. There was something on, however, a Florida home. Here's the video:
    It's The Walker Guest House, Sanibel Island, Florida. It's designed by Paul Rudolph, architect, in 1952.

    Maybe you could make the outrigger parts from all those invasive guava trees that grow everywhere.

    How often do you come across old garage doors at your recycle place? I'm thinking of a source of cheap, but stiff and light panels. I've always been fascinated with wattle and dob construction. Weaving together the wattle parts would be easy from natural materials at hand, but the dob part I haven't figured out. Spray foam? ick.Hot lava? Yah, baby!

    I think you're on the right track. Don't go for the contractor-built home. Those are for suckers. You would never be happy with it. Virginia says it's too much to clean.

    How about cutting up a derelict boat for fiberglass panels? Your sawsall would love the workout. Can't you hear the siren song of the sawsall? State of Hawaii doesn't like boats unless they are cruise ships bringing in tourists and tourist $$$.

    This is super exciting! My mind is racing. You're just the guy to nail this. Then I'll write an article about it and make you famous.

    Love ya man,

    1. Brandon!

      The Walker is exactly the type of example that I am looking for, thank you so much! The aspects of this design that I find appealing....

      The rectilinear floor plan lends itself well to modular, prefab construction. If designed to a standard 8' width, multiple widths could be combined to give a wider structure.

      The tilt up awnings nearly double the amount of living area, and serve double duty come hurricane season (which is nearly here, oh boy!). Instead of having a large overhanging structure that is a severe liability in high winds, you get fold down storm shutters. Lockable security, too.

      Now....if we can only figure out a way to build something using these same concepts, but doesn't look like a 1950's modernist fantasy.....

      I've seen much that is similar, based on shipping container modules ( another trend that I won't greatly miss. God, I'm getting so fussy in my old age!)

      Seriously, this is just the type of assistance /collaboration that I am looking for! Keep it coming!

  2. Awesome! Honestly it sounds like you want a small open plan Japanese home, with plenty of fusuma, ie amado to keep you warm in the winter. How far off of the ground does the structure need to be raised?

    You are completely correct about unusual homes being difficult to finance. The home I built was not that unusual and the county wanted an engineers stamp on practically everything, as if steel reinforced concrete was somehow a novel building technique.

    If you are going to timber frame, it comes down to what kind of timber you can get, does it not? More and more I've been looking at roundwood building techniques. The Japanese pretty much have the market cornered on quality joinery for roundwood, though you local building inspector may be much more comfortable approving bolted connections. Ugh, who wants to spend that kind of money on stainless steel bolts? Here in Colorado a timer frame needs steel rod to pin the joints or it wont pass inspection. Of course, most of the joints have compressive loading that doesn't stress the pin, but what the hey, they want their engineered specs.

    Make very good friends with your building inspector, get certified to grade your own lumber, and get a good book that shows the numbers on stress/failure/loading tests for the joinery you want to use. Even with traditional homes in Japan being hit with typhoons for centuries, I wouldn't be surprised if you had to employ bolted connections at the ground sill and roof/wall boundaries.

    I'm jealous! You're going to come up with something truly great, and when you do, there will be plenty of friends to help you build it.

    1. Gabe!

      Not only does the state of Hawaii require engineer stamps for nearly everything, they also require all plumbing and electrical work to be performed by a licensed contractor. Even if the property owner has registered as a qualified owner/builder.


      The building department (one office for the entire island? Can that be correct?) is notorious for extremely long delays, unresponsive to questions, EXTREMELY particular in the format they receive their information, and just being plain difficult. They are protecting the public, working for the greater good, and their job is a difficult one. I expect that the sources of most of these complaints are reaping what they sow, the root of their own complaints, but still......

      The greater question I feel, is that of coming to terms with a different way of life that is possible here. Hawaii lets you live in a shed. The fine for building without code approval is like $10. On this side of the island, if you want to live under a tree in a plywood box, that's your business, not theirs.

      The issue is financing. There are a great many house here that were built without the building department stamp, houses that I would have no concerned about buying, but bank loans are extremely difficult to obtain for these homes. If you want to see an example....

      This looks like a house that I would've built! I love this place, and this is one of the better example of how people live and build here. But you need cash to buy it.

      More than this though, the idea of home is what I want to explore. The idea that the home is a asset, an investment that is expected to increase in value, and therefore protected/standardized/designed with the idea of a future buyer....... Been there. It works, but it is stressful to have so much of one's financial well-being dependant on any one thing. So of course you need insurance. For me it is beginning to feel almost as though this brings more fear into life, rather than offering security.

      This area has many examples of people that have invested their lives building dream homes that you can't buy. If you don't jump through the hoops, you might be at the mercy of a "white elephant" that can't be sold...... It is a vexing problem.

      What if we can come up with concept that allows the home to be moved anywhere in the world? Not something that could be sold for huge profit, but rather something that would lend itself to re-purposing and reuse..... Simple.....understated..... Practical.....

      Can we redesign the CONCEPT of home? Times are changing.

    2. The roundwood joinery......yes! I have been looking at a lot of pictures of Jay White Clouds work lately. I love his aesthetic!

  3. Hey! One of my favorite blogs for small houses is He just had a big rant about, in your terms, mini-mcmansions. He has some funky designs, and I'm hoping to pick up his book soon, or the new one he's coming out with.

    However...You want joinery, and beauty. Probably elegant beauty, not funky artwork...

    Maybe this house is more your style: The guy is a Canadian carpenter, sometimes a lil arrogant but entertaining to watch. I don't know how cheap it is, though...You could probably save a lot of money in the long run if you find a way to mill logs. I assume there's driftwood in Hawai'i?

    Of course, you could go native:

    I think I'm the opposite of you. In the winter, I'm ok for the most part being inside, but in spring/summer, I get almost claustrophobic in school and in the house... I hate small enclosed areas.

    1. Steven!

      One of the things that I really like and appreciate about the relaxshacks guy is he works hard to keep things in the real world. Use old lumber, reuse, build small, build cheap. That this philosophy often looks funky and artistic is what I love most! I have always envied those people who build less.....uptight and fussy (me totally!).

      My wife just came back from a trip to the mainland. One of the first things that she said to me was..."I want to buy a sawmill!", I shit you not. Wonderful, amazing woman. We could, there's one on Craigslist right now. A Lucas 8-30 swing blade for $5000, a steal. Sorta tempting isn't it?

      And living in small spaces can be perfect for the lover of outdoor-living, paradoxically. When I lived on my sailboat, I would get so shut in and claustrophobic feeling, it got me outside even more than usual. The key for people like us is that we need nice transition zones, areas that give partial shelter, but that are open to the surrounding environment. Awnings, porches. It is funny to me, but right now all three of us live in a 8'x 10' shed, with a 5' deep porch on the side. My wife, daughter, and most of our stuff live in the shed. I live on the porch.

      Seriously, it won't take much to improve our living environment, haha!

      Keep 'em coming! Let's figure something out! Nothing is new, somewhere out there someone had a great idea. Maybe we should be thinking more indigenous?

    2. Could you have found a more perfect woman! Give her a high five from me.

      I've only used a bandsaw mill with a little Honda engine. Those things are the bomb! You can wedge up the log and cut a long, tapered square, knock the corners off on the bandsaw mill, and you're 90 percent there on building a mast. That's how we did it building the Lady Washington.

      With hurricane season on the way buy the sawmill now so you can pick up windfalls to mill up.



Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.

Thanks, Jason