Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Our Hawaiian




Back to work.


Renee had lots of stuff on her mind, but what do you do, where do you start when you are beginning with nothing?


Do what is fun!

How about a bench, to rest your weary self?



We've got the rocks.


We chose this place for its quiet location, but also just....the place, you know? There are trees, there is stone.



The idea is to see what is here, then allow that to guide us in what and how to build. Rather than bring in the heavy equipment to strip the ground bare, we want to keep our footprint human sized. Try not to buy, and to build in human time scale, if that makes sense.


Don't pour a foundation that will exist for an eternity, especially when the house itself is total junk within 20 years. I used to love cement, and reveled in the strength it gave to what was being built, but now I view it more as a crutch. A permanent, everlasting.....something, that will be difficult to reuse in any way. Dry laid stone can be repaired, then reused. Forever. Like reverse cement. Another nice bonus.....this lava rock is beautiful, perfectly shaped for easy stacking,'s kinda light, too.




So, on day #3 we dug more rock, and piled more REALLY beautiful soil.



This is better than anything that I've yet seen, anywhere, rich with silty loam, friable and full of good "dirt" smell. It will be interesting to test the pH. God knows we'll have plenty of biochar handy, if we need to buffer the soil in some way. Maybe I'll distill out the "Wood vinegar", see if there's anything to that miracle talk.


Also interesting is that we are finding some of it to be almost like clay. Is a Japanese mud infill wall to be in our future?



Ellie rescued a nest-fallen baby cardinal last week, and despite our fears, the little thing has managed to hang in there. He's looking at the camera, a little pissed off.



I've been on bird duty while Ellie is in school, as the guy needs to be fed every 15-30 minutes. He started out nearly bald, but now has most of his juvenile feathers set, and is taking short flights. Mostly though, he rides around on your finger, and you get a lot of this....






So it was REALLY hot. I'm not really a "sweat-er", and I've never lived anywhere like this. To perspire, just standing there doing nothing and still get's very novel still. It reminds me of a sauna, 'cept all the time. It makes clothing very unpleasant, but I have no intention of subjecting our new neighbors to that sight, lucky them.

So Renee and I are hot and tired from two days of pulling and digging, so Renee wants to do something else that's fun instead. Here's her bench, big enough for three.


I love the way she creates such flowing sculpture. And it's in the shade.



So what am I doing on this hot afternoon, while Renee is slaving away to make us a better life?


I'm sitting in the woods, drinking a beer (or three, haha). Sunlight brings thick vegetative growth, but once you break through the thicket close to the road? It opens up in there, a bit at least. The sun is less intense, it's quiet and cool. The moss is deep and lush, and the ground is a compound of broken lava and detritus. And Guava.





Lots of Guava. It's the thin whippy shoots that make navigating this environment challenging, as they will grow everywhichway trying to get to the sun. Some of the whips might be 1/4" thick, but 15' long and wound around the other growth.



A perfect tripping hazard and the Aluhe ferns are even worse. So. What can we build that uses thin sticks as a material? Wattle and daub comes to mind, woven screens and dividers, trellis material for climbing fruits and plants --The passion fruit are going crazy right now, and will cover everything in sight if you give them half a chance. Pole beans might tolerate this area, with its lower rainfall, we'll see.--.

Anyone have any ideas? Comment!



Just poisoning the invasive species seems like a wrong way of living, but that's an option, and evidently the only way that people have found of keeping the Guava in check. This stuff is seriously crazy, grows like mad and chokes out the other species. It's drops tasty fruit prolificly, filled with hard seeds that get eaten by people/pigs/pheasants and then passed through the GI tract. Planted and fertilized in one. Very efficient.


I would prefer to treat the guava as a resource, it's fruit would make an interesting homebrew, and the wood is very tough, dense and resilient. The down side to the lumber is that the high sugar content in the wood makes it attractive to both bugs and rot. That needs to be considered in designing for its use. Ground contact would be foolish, but properly dried and seasoned, it's good stuff. Stripping the bark immediately after cutting would reduce the bug concerns some, but even after being chewed up by beetle larvae it still retains much of its strength. Here at the tool shed, we've got a hand rail on the stairs that is barely 1" thick, but it's saved me from numerous potential falls. Good stuff. I'm eager to see what kind of charcoal it provides.



Because the trees here are rather thick, the guava has had to grow tall and straight to reach the top of the canopy. Many of these clumps are nicely developed. Here is just one of.....hundreds? I don't know yet, but there is never a shortage of Guava. Here is my size 10 shoe for scale.



The larger ones are a solid 4", but there are many larger ones as well. These are just where I happened to be sitting at the time.



The primary trees are the native Ohia, and the Guava are just filling in the gaps. My hand has a solid 9" span, so this old guy is maybe 12" diameter. 200 years old? These grow VERY slowly, but it's a guess.


The general practice is to plow the land flat using a bulldozer, then trucking the debris to the solid waste station for mulching. Often the mulch eventually works it's way back to the land, to provide a barrier in gardens and landscaping. It's better than nothing, but seems awfully energy intensive. Boring, too. Who wants a flat chunk of land? A lawn, haha! Yeah, right.




Guava, tall and straight, 6" butt, 20' clear. There are hundreds of these right here, millions if you look around.


I'm getting some ideas. Pole barns don't get much easier than this. Mark Grable recently reminded me of a quick way to lash poles together, using a specific twisted wire wrap. I've got the poles and I've got the wire. I've got lots of salvaged steel roofing, too, perfect for throwing up a quick and dirty shelter, ugly though it is. The steel roof also allows you to capture the frequent rains. People hate this Guava and will pay you to remove it (if you poison or dig out the roots, no easy feat.). One of the adjacent properties is so thick with the stuff that you can barely see through it.


Help me find a use for this stuff! As a society, we need to shift our thoughts from buying, to making. Therein lies true wealth and prosperity. Knowledge too. Share what you know.


Don the "Shinglemaker" (one of my favorite blogs, his pictures are so beautiful, showing his strength and understanding of the simple materials that he uses in his craft. He pays attention.) recently wrote about how the work he does is not economically feasible as a business, you can't afford what his work will cost, he only does his best work for himself. Even though I have not 1/10th his skill, the work that I do is still beyond value. It's ironic that by consciously choosing a life of near poverty, we can learn and create such things that are not really available, at any price. I give away what I make, but you can't really buy it. That will probably change in the near future, but the idea remains.....what is our time/life worth?


The idea of true cost and pricing is difficult, as good, solid construction, simple and built to last for generations is expensive, particularly in terms of the skilled labor involved. Fewer people every day are knowledgeable about these things and we are so far over the curve, that the days of once common sense and practical knowledge are distant beyond sight. We are over the horizon. Don writes of a frame for a window, built solid, yet with knowledge and understanding of how practice and time flows. You can build a window frame that will fit one window only, then when the window breaks, as they all will in time or better windows are now used and the old ones are obsolete, or out of style, or....whatever, you're screwed. It probably doesn't matter, because the house will probably be ready for the landfill by now anyways.




You can build solid, but with the understanding that times change, and buildings change as well. Don admires the traditional Dutch practice of framing an overly large opening so that it can accommodate differing standards. A larger window? No problem. Cut the opening bigger. Rotten wood? Cut and replace. His example was specific to massive construction like brick or stone building, but the concept is one that should be kept firmly in mind. How will the building evolve? Even if it just evolves into the ground as a decayed ruin......that is good, too.



  1. You might like this video, if you haven't seen it before:

    Let's see this, we have a fence that is broken. It was broken in the first month of adopting our Australian cattle dog, she knocked down a metal fence with a post embedded in concrete. She’s so small, but so powerful. Bred for pushing cattle around.

    So, we have no idea how to fix the thing, besides tying it to a back-up post, the bottom is in concrete. That's the thing, it lasts long but how do people replace it without lots of machinery and time? And it’s pretty ugly, Brutalist architecture is a strong dislike of mine.

    That bench looks lovely, reminds me a lot of New York parks. Stoney Brook, in particular, the place was built by unemployed masons in the Great Depression...All the paths are local slate, the bridges are all local stone, stone benches, etc. Of course, the slate paths are still perfect, but the concrete retainers are eroded.

    It’s fun to think, in a couple hundred years, someone will perhaps stumble upon that bench. What will they think?

    1. It's funny you should mention that.....Renee was just thinking that same thing, what would someone think, finding that pile of rocks and thinking "Someone built that!". It's really is a strange thing to realize, but these simple, basic things, these primitive structures are more likely to last, than anything that is built in the normal "modern" way of construction. Ironic, as it only took her a couple of hours to build. She said that the stones just fit together like they wanted to be that way.

      I think that it's just so cool, to be partnered with a cool chick who loves stacking rock, haha! And she's smarter than me, too. That's even better.

  2. So beautiful, Jason. It's great to keep up on the explorations you guys are doing, and the thought you're putting into the work is impressive. Love to Renee and Ellie.

    1. Hi Anna!

      Thanks for checking in. Such a big change from Oregon, huh? Crazy.......

  3. Hi Jason- Hopefully you are not going to get three messages from me, as I had to try this three times. Love your blog. So happy for you guys and your opportunities. Love the bench and the bird. Will the bird go back to its mother? Or straight to independence, fingers crossed? Do you think it will remember you and return at times?

    1. Hi Joan!

      Ellie tried to reunite the bird with the rest of its family but it looks like they've moved on, now that the chicks have fledged. We might have a new family member here. It's a little scary, with the 7 (!!!) cats we've got hanging around. And it's probably illegal, being a songbird and all.

  4. Hi Jason, I wanted you to explain how you taught the bird to fly! Cool stone bench. I'm curious about the back rest. It looks more like a stone couch that a simple bench. I've been challenged to build things out of dry laid stone that have vertical elements that are strong enough to put pressure on. So I'm wondering about how the back of the backrest is designed. I think you should build a stone oven next! I looks like you have enough firewood to keep it running for a while.

    1. Hey Greg!

      The bird just kinda knows what to do, thank god. It's all too easy to imagine Ellie running around with the bird perched on her head, wings/arms outstretched. The bird has had a couple of crash landings, but it's doing very well, despite our clumsy human ways.

      The bench actually has quite a but more depth than is apparent in the pics, giving it a bit more rigidity to the backrest. Renee also says that a few of the primary stones were already in place, so that anchors things somewhat as well. Mostly though, the idea was just to take a break from digging, and we wanted a place to sit down, haha. It kind of took on a life of its own.

      The stone oven is on the list, no doubt there. There is a guy here who uses molded cement to make all sorts of things, pizza ovens among them. He cuts the dome roof of the oven from lava stone though, and they look quite nice. $3,000 or some such madness. Renee is so jazzed about working with the lava rock, that I'm planning on forging her some mason's tools, try to get her interested in some more sophisticated shaping work. We're going to need some good foundation stones soon.

  5. Jason,

    I don't know how I stumbled upon your blog but it really struck a cord. What an adventure!

    You might see if your library can get Lloyd Khan's Shelter and Shelter II books.
    They won't contain a lot of construction detail but there might be some design ideas and inspiration.

    Also, I recently viewed this video about a woman who built an unpermitted tiny tree house in Hawaii. While the house design is probably not of interest, there might be something to glean in terms of the supporting systems. In addition, you might contact her for insights with regard to building unpermitted structures in Hawaii.

    If I were building something in that climate and within your constraints, I would have as much covered outdoor living space as possible. Something like a wrap-around porch. I say that with the assumption that non-enclosed space does not count in the permit/non permit square footage evaluation.

    I have not read through all of your archives so forgive me if any of the above has already been mentioned.

    I look forward to following your story.


    1. Hi Jeff!

      I'm with you 100% on the porch emphasis! And it does sound like the property tax assessors value enclosed vs. open areas at a different rate. Unless you are of the "air conditioning, electricity on all the time, sit inside watching TV" sort of person, you are going to be outside anyway, so here porches are the primary living area. You hear this again and again, even from people with very nice homes, that they spend nearly all of their time on the porch. What do you do with the rest of that $300,000 house, besides pay an annual $3,000 tax bill? Yikes!

      This Puna district (basically the entire SE corner of Hawaii) is interesting in many ways, but one of my favorite things is the authorities response to the realities of "poor" people. On the mainland if you are flagged for living in "substandard" conditions, you are at risk of getting substantial fines and having your home torn down, or at the least, your get a cease and desist order until rectified kind of thing. Here you get an annual $10 fine, a tacit acknowledgement that someone might want or need to live in a shack. This speaks to reality and seems reasonable, something sorely lacking in much of our world.

      The only significant deterent to going the traditional code approved structure route is in resale value, as banks are understably loath to loan on unapproved structures. We are well aware of this, because in our search for properties it was invariably the owner built, funky style homes that we loved, but they were almost universally built unpermitted. We decided to go into this "eyes wide open", paid cash for the land, and are specifically NOT going to build according to code, at least in many ways. We know that this will essentially eliminate the possibility of realizing any gain on a future sale of the property, but by accepting this we have cut free from the chains of consumption and profit. We can use salvage materials, build whimsical structures, or just built for practicality in this climate. We can experiment, and we can have fun, because the stress of "Who will buy this POS when we move?!" has been eliminated. Hopefully, this will become a place of refuge for our extended family and friends, far into the future and well after we are gone.

      To that end, we need to be mindful of how our building decisions will impact future generations, and this is a real world concept of "sustainability", not that foolish hippy crap. At the core, an overall design parameter is:

      How will the structure age, assuming that it has been vacant for 10 years? Everything deteriorates, so give it some thought.....HOW will the roof leak? HOW will the posts rot, and will there be access for the repair work? Ideally, our grandchildren could show up, sweep up the place and move right in.

      How much system involvement will be required ie: Does the utility company give you regular bills to pay, or do you provide your own services?

      What is the annual tax burden? You don't want to saddle your heirs with a financial millstone requiring $x,xxx be paid every year.

      And......we want to have fun! This is a start.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Jason,

    Thanks for the thorough response.

    Yes, in addition to the mortgage issue the woman in the above referenced video also mentioned that insurance companies will not write policies for unpermitted homes. From what you have said, I doubt that is a concern.

    I very much like your philosophical approach. I loathe the idea of a home having substantial financial value. Even when one owns such a home without debt, there is still the bondage of needing to maintain it in a fashion (materials, design, space, appliances, etc) so that it retains the value to future prospective buyers…buyers who largely value things one such as yourself will not need or want. As you say, eliminating this from the equation is quite liberating.

    Water is a great paradox. I like to say, “Water is life. Water is the enemy.” We can’t live without water yet it is probably the number one cause of damage to structures in one way or another (unless one lives in the desert). Given your annual rainfall, designing for water is doubly important.

    The lava rock is apparently quite abundant and light weight. Do you see folks using it for the structure of buildings? If one had lava walls up to the level of a full porch, and the porch was then protecting the exterior walls on the main level from the elements, then perhaps guava timbers could be used for those protected exterior walls in some form? The porch supporting pillars could be guava and designed so that they could be easily replaced when they inevitably rot…or build the pillars with lava. Just some thoughts with regard to the materials that appear to be abundant and near free.

    Looking back through your archives, I can see that you are quite creative and have a good aesthetic eye, so I am looking forward to seeing how you integrate your various goals into a home.


    1. Yes, the insurance issue is another powerful force of bondage (great term, BTW, thanks!). My neighbors will possibly see their mortgage mandated flood insurance rising some 1,000%~3,000% of it's current level, due to reclassification of flood plain risk assements. $300 => maybe as high as $10,000! It feels like this might be a forewarned mitigation effort by the insurance companies, something that us doomsayers were yapping about in the 1980's. Back then we called it "global warming", and sea-levels were predicted to rise substantially.........yeah.

      Sigh. I've been reading old Gary Snyder lately and it's not helping my global optimism. We haven't done much good, to offset the huge amounts of bad.

      As far as lava goes, tradionally it was used to build a platform that would elevate the main house about 2', keeping the feet dry. Posts (Ohia, often) were placed, then packed tightly 'round with stone, but the structure itself was timber, sticks, and woven palm front walls with thatched roofs. All of this was bound together be supremely masterful binding and lashing, another subject that I can easily see myself falling into, haha.

      The concern is the seismic activity of this island. Building code mandates a full concrete/rebar interior armature for all stone construction, essentially turning the stone into a veneer. That's a good thing for most people, certainly. I'm all for high safety standards for buildings, but I sometimes wonder if we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater? As everywhere else, beautiful old wooden public buildings are being replaced with hugely expensive (also rather ugly and indistinct) new concrete behemoths, as funds become available. Could instead, a troop of relatively skilled carpenters be employed to continually maintain the existing buildings? It's an idea that I love, but it doesn't satisfy the need for "safety".

      How "safe" can we truly be? I also don't want the school to fall down on my kids head, you know? The school she attends is an 80 year old, single story wooden building. I doubt that it would be able to meet current seismic standards, but I would rather that she can enjoy going to a school that might creak and groan, yet has open windows. The floor shows termite damage in the floors, and I think about how wonderful I would've found that, when I was a kid. I was a weird kid, though.

      Sorry for the silly rambling talk, but these are fun questions. Thank you for your involvement!

  7. I missed when you put out this post! Your land is really beautiful, it must feel like you were transported to a different planet some times. How about sinking the guava poles in fresh water for a year to wash out the sap? Also, the wire wrapping technique for pole building, perfect material for a post on "joinery exercise", haha. Seriously though, I'm interested, there's tons of beetle kill lodgepole pine up here that is pole size, and I need a shed to dry all the lumber I'm cutting.

    1. Ooooooooo! That's a great idea Gabe, I didn't think to wash out the sap! Very nice.

      The wire wrap is very simple. Quick, cheap, and doesn't ruin any materials, so you can throw up a quick roof to protect the work, then tear it down when you are done with it. There are some tiny details that are important to getting the wire as tight as possible, so I need to practice up. The original article was in "Fine Woodworking" back in the 80's, then was reprinted in one of their compilation books, but I can't remember which one. I *think* that I'm remembering the wrap correctly, and I'll write it up Pronto. PROMISE!

      As far as Hawaii's not a different planet, but it sure ain't the USA. This is truly a different country, and I love it. People are still crazy here, but not in the stupid/scary/dangerous way that they are on the mainland. Much of what I love here is more particular to this corner of the island, it's not like this everywhere in Hawaii. The Puna district is a good place. I don't think I'd like Honolulu. Heck, I don't even like Kona, despite its beautiful weather.


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