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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Grass-hut bill gains support

Hale for Maui

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — It's not easy to construct a traditional Hawaiian hut — and not just because of the specialized building techniques or materials that aren't readily available.

Try getting a building permit.

It can be next to impossible, says Francis Sinenci, a Native Hawaiian master builder from Hana who has learned to avoid hale projects in jurisdictions with rigid building codes heavily influenced by modern construction requirements.

In Maui County, for instance, it's a lot easier to obtain a permit for a Western dwelling than it is for an indigenous one, with all the extra hoops you're required to jump through, he says.

Those days may be coming to an end. A Maui County Council committee last week recommended approval of a bill in the latest step toward adoption of administrative rules that give Hawaiian grass huts the same legal standing as Western structures.

When the rules are finally adopted, they will be the first of their kind in the state and perhaps serve as a guide for local governments across the nation and the Pacific.

Sinenci is a member of a Maui County advisory committee that has been working on draft rules that will allow qualified builders to go through the same process to construct indigenous structures as they would for a Western dwelling.

Proposed rules allow construction of four different kinds of Hawaiian grass huts using materials mainly grown on the Islands. The dwellings would rely on wood posts and lashing techniques to hold the structure together, have a maximum dimension of 30 by 60 feet and be used for limited purposes, such as eating, meeting, retailing and storage. No plumbing or electrical infrastructure will be allowed.

The effort is a landmark one, according to state Sen. J. Kalani English, D-5th (Kahului, Upcountry Maui), who introduced the proposal four years ago while he was a member of the Maui County Council.

The Hana-raised, part-Hawaiian English recalled that at the time an increasing number of people were wanting to build grass houses, but county inspectors were turning them away, saying such structures could not meet building code requirements. For those who insisted, the road to approval required several extra and time-consuming steps, governed by an "alternative styles'' section of the code.

English was not happy.

"I found that offensive," he said. "This is Hawai'i. It is not an alternative style. It IS the style."

So, in an unprecedented move, he got the council to adopt a whole new chapter of the building code for indigenous architecture. An ordinance required the Department of Public Works and Waste Management to formalize the rules.

County codes administrator Ralph Nagamine said the task force has perhaps six more months of work to do, including scheduling a series of public hearings.

English said Maui's effort is being watched by more than a few government jurisdictions that are grappling with how to treat indigenous structures. He said he has gotten calls from officials as far away as American Samoa and New Mexico.

While the goal is to permit indigenous structures, a certain amount of compromise was necessary. For example, the proposed rules require fire sprinklers in huts built within 100 feet of any other structure.

"It's trying to fit a work of art and a traditional way of doing things into modern, Western-type building code rules," said architect Hans Riecke, a committee member. "The outcome is a compromise.''

Riecke, who attempted to get a building permit for a canoe hale in Lahaina two years ago but was ultimately unsuccessful, said the Hawaiians of old built their huts themselves and understood they weren't meant to be permanent. After all, he said, materials were abundant and lots of labor was available.

"Fire hazards were not considered,'' he said.

Other proposed compromises call for use of cement in rock footings for extra sturdiness and use of newer building materials when traditional materials are not available. For instance, pili grass for thatching is hard to find.

Proposed allowable building materials also include nylon cord for lashing material and some woods — such as ironwood, eucalyptus, strawberry guava and keawe — that did not exist before Capt. Cook arrived in 1778.

The committee is hoping to find some $25,000 to finance testing of various woods to determine their strength.

Nagamine said it should be made clear that these Hawaiian huts, with no plumbing and electrical sources, will be no substitute for single-family dwellings.

But Sinenci argues that people should be allowed to live in the hales.

"This is Hawai'i," he said. "Our people should be able to sleep in their hales. It's better than a tent."

English said he believes the rules will evolve over time and the day will come when the structures will be more functional.

"Tests have shown they are sturdy enough to survive storms that destroy Western-style buildings," he said. "The wind blows right through them."

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.