Tips for Sustainable Building in Hawaii

Beautiful weather and stunning landscapes, a year-round growing season, and state incentives for renewable energy all make Hawaii a destination for sustainable living and building. In fact, the Aloha State has made it a goal to generate 100 % clean energy by 2045 – a date which is fast approaching. With much higher energy costs than the mainland United States, a return to the sustainable living values of ancient Hawaii with the help of modern technology makes simple economic sense. 

As mentioned in our previous post, the Big Island of Hawaii has incredible potential in this area. With plenty of space, and cheaper land prices compared to other islands, Hawaii Island offers value to buyers and builders who want to live a more intentional, energy independent, and environmentally friendly lifestyle. But where do you start?

From finding the perfect piece of land, to selecting building materials, renewable energy sources, and planning for growing your own food, there’s so much to consider. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the initial planning process and offer some tips on sustainable building in Hawaii, with a focus on Hawaii Island. 

Finding Land

This is arguably the most important step! Finding land that can support a sustainable lifestyle and the home you intend to build can be broken down into a few key factors. The blog Off-Grid World highlights a list of items to consider, including these major ones:

  • Water – a source of potable fresh water is crucial. In Hawaii, most people who are not connected to county water rely on rainwater catchment. 
  • Climate – how much rainfall does your area get? How much sunshine? Wind? These factors affect what renewable energy sources you’ll be able to utilize. On Hawaii Island for instance, the east side of the island gets much more rainfall than the west side and lends itself better to rainwater catchment. Elevation greatly affects the climate in Hawaii. The website City-data is a good resource to research locations. Consider the solar orientation of your property for passive solar and use of solar PV. Consider how breezes or trade winds move across the land, which can be used for passive cooling. 
  • Environment – consider tree cover, presence of rocks, overall topography, streams or other natural resources which could be assets or nuisances on your land. Consider the soil quality for growing your own food. 
  • Access – be sure that your land has an easement so you can access it! Having to negotiate with neighbors to create an easement is a headache. Be conscious of the fact that being further away from a County road means that you’re further from water and utility hookups.
  • Zoning, Building Codes, HOAs – be aware of what regulations affect the land before you buy. Zoning regulations and building codes can either hamper or support sustainable building in Hawaii. On the Big Island, a large percentage of land is zoned agricultural with the exception of the city of Hilo. Agricultural zoned land is ideal for building your own energy independent home and being able to live sustainably by growing your own food or even keeping animals like chickens, sheep, or goats.
  • Price and Value – is the land reasonably priced for the value you are getting? What utilities or road access does it offer? How does it compare to similar properties on the market? Is it practical? Depending on what comes with the land purchase, buying too big of a parcel or spending more on the land itself eats into your budget for the build. 

Navigating Permits 

Ahh, the red tape. Everyone’s least favorite part. When building a home, you can go two routes – an owner build where you get the permits, or through a general contractor who will secure the permits for you. If you go the owner-build route, you will still be required to have a licensed electrician and plumber install the wiring and pipes for you, and an architect must sign off on the build plans. The County of Hawaii website has more information on building and permitting. 

Building a home takes a village. It requires the services of various tradesmen, whether you end up hiring a contractor or not. Having good referrals to trustworthy and talented service providers can make all the difference in the process going smoothly. Make sure to check references and and ask to review examples of their work.

Sustainable Building Materials 

Timber frame home

This is the fun part – especially when it comes to sustainable building! This is also where costs can start to add up. The basic cost of building an average home in Hawaii is roughly $180-$250/square foot when using a contractor. It can be even higher if building a more elaborate home. If you do an owner build, it is possible to realize some savings. Building in Hawaii tends to be more expensive than the mainland United States, as most materials used for construction must be shipped in from off island. 

There’s many excellent products on the ‘green building’ market currently. Sustainable building materials offer better long term value and ROI compared with conventional materials. We don’t have time to delve into them all, but want to highlight a few noteworthy ones:

  • Timber frame homes using sustainably managed forestry products. Check out Hamill Creek Timber Homes for examples of this ‘post and beam’ building style. Post and beam construction is one of the most structurally sound means of building which minimizes the use of smaller lumber (like 2×4’s) and drywall.
  • Flooring – bamboo, cork, rapid renewable building materials, and reclaimed or repurposed materials are some good options.
  • Roofing – corrugated metal roofs are ideal for rainwater collection and easy for solar PV attachment. Cool roofs help reflect sunlight and passively cool the home. Green roofs are another option. The company Green Magic Homes is taking the green roof idea to the next level by covering the entire house in sod and plants. 
  • Foundation – mixing concrete with fly ash is one method for making it more sustainable. Additionally, the ‘post and pier’ style of foundation instead of the traditional slab foundation can eliminate the need for concrete altogether and create storage space below one’s home. 
  • Interior – using no VOC paints and choosing wood or tile flooring over carpeting contribute to a healthier indoor living environment. 
  • Windows and lighting – solar tubes bring in more natural light at a fraction of the cost of a skylight or electrical fixtures and associated energy requirements to power them over time. Using windows where applicable offers passive lighting to come into the home wherever needed, reducing electrical costs for artificial lighting.

Renewable Energy Sources

Creating an energy independent home – one that generates all its own power needs – is the ultimate goal for sustainable building and living. Energy sources are generally a mix of active and passive. Here are a few energy sources that are best suited to the individual sustainable home builder:

  • PV Solar – In Hawaii, photovoltaic solar panels are being adopted by a rapidly growing number of homeowners living on and off the grid. Most areas in the state receive a large number of annual sunshine hours. The state of Hawaii offers a number of incentives, including a Renewable Energy Technologies Income Tax Credit. The average person’s solar PV system will pay for itself in approximately 5-6 years and has an average lifespan of 25-30 years. With the high cost of conventional electricity in Hawaii, that is a darn good ROI. The average cost of a solar PV system in Hawaii ranges from $ 20K range up to $40K, depending on whether a battery storage system is included. The average amount of KW hours needed by the typical household in Hawaii is approximately 20 KW/day.
  • Solar Thermal – or passive solar is most popularly used with solar hot water heaters. Passive solar can also be utilized in the design and orientation of the home, maximizing or minimizing natural light and warmth with strategically placed windows. Certain building materials like brick, stone, concrete, or rammed earth tires (used in Earthships) can be utilized that absorb sun’s heat during the day and slowly release it at night, helping to naturally climate control the home. 
  • Wind – “small wind” or distributed wind turbines designed for the individual homeowner are now on the market. If you have wind speeds of at least 6-8 mph, you may be able to harvest wind energy. There are some permitting restrictions/regulations associated with the use of wind power. For example, the distance required between the tower and structures on the property. Wind can be good for some situations, but overall doesn’t match the value and low maintenance that solar PV offers.

For more information on renewable energy in Hawaii, see the Hawaii state energy office’s website.

Growing Your Own Food 

You can grow most all of the food a typical household would need on a well managed parcel of about 1,000 – 2,000 sq. ft.  Hawaii’s year-round outdoor growing season, combined with cutting edge greenhouse, hydroponic, and aquaculture systems offer a variety of solutions. You can become self sufficient and potentially independent with some planning and hard work. 

Some main considerations for growing your own food in Hawaii include:

  • Soil – does your property have healthy and abundant top soil or will you need to buy it or create it? Certain areas on the Big Island of Hawaii have very shallow topsoil as a result of the volcanic history. 
  • Layout and design – Check out Kuwili Lani, lot maps for an example of how to maximize space utilization for agricultural and residential use on a 1-2 acre parcel of land.
  • Pest control – there are many environmentally friendly options for pest control. A few include neem oil, companion planting, permaculture techniques, and natural fertilizer solutions like fish emulsion. The Hawaii State Department of Agriculture has many resources on their website
  • Seasonal crops – planting a variety of different species and understanding the different seasons of certain crops will allow you to get a continuous harvest year-round in Hawaii’s tropical climate. For instance, in Hawaii we have “mango season”, “avocado season” and summertime is when pineapples go off – yum! 

We hope you’ve found this overview on sustainable building in Hawaii helpful. At Kuwili Lani, a major value we offer our community members is consulting and planning help for building your sustainable home. We work in partnership with a team of skilled, licensed contractors and sustainable building specialists on the Big Island. Our affiliate company is connected to a network of experienced, quality local tradesmen like builders, electricians, plumbers, landscape designers and architects. These professionals can serve as valuable resources for your home build, whether you decide to DIY or hire a contractor. 

Have more questions about building your sustainable home in Hawaii?

Contact us.