Up a steep driveway in Kīpahulu, past fruit trees and dense jungle, outcroppings of bamboo begin to appear, stitched into the mountainside. Dusky black stalks and tea-green shoots adorn the landscape at Whispering Winds, a 230-acre farm cooperative where Rich von Wellsheim has been growing bamboo for nearly two decades.
Bamboo has long been a structural building material in tropical regions such as Bali, the Philippines and Brazil, but it wasn’t allowed in the U.S. until 2007 when Hawaiʻi-based architect David Sands got a single species of bamboo grown in Vietnam approved by the International Code Council (ICC). The rigorous species- and site-specific approval process, which took Sands seven years, would have to be replicated (hopefully more expediently) if he were to grow the same bamboo in Hawaii.
Stronger than conventional plywood, bamboo is a highly regenerative resource; stalks grow back every four years after the first harvest. Whispering Winds grows a dozen species of timber bamboo, and von Wellsheim says some of them do as well in Kīpahulu as they do in their native China, with one variety of black bamboo reaching 10 inches wide and 100 feet high.
Whispering Winds would have to spend nearly $150,000 per species to get their bamboo approved by the ICC for structural, residential building—an investment that no Hawaii bamboo farmers have been willing to make. So, for now, von Wellsheim builds agricultural structures—“sheds.”
Every few years, Maui County develops a new affordable housing plan, and each time the plan states that the county will invest in local building materials to reduce reliance on imports and foster a more sustainable production supply that keeps construction capital in Hawaiʻi.
But on an island where land is finite and resources are scarce, extracting natural resources rarely seems to merit disturbing said land to extract said resources. Maui has one cement quarry and no softwood timber producers. Hemp and bamboo, both fast-growing, sustainable building materials, stand a slim chance of garnering per-acre profits that would repay investment as quickly as a real estate sale that precedes the construction of a luxury home built with 99% imported materials.
Hawaiʻi’s status as the most isolated populated place in the world, thousands of miles from its closest neighbors, nearly 2,400 miles from the U.S. Mainland and 4,000 miles from Japan, has its perks: remarkable biodiversity, clear seas and skies, and a distinctive way of life.
But with some of the most expensive real estate in the country and a dearth of salaries commensurate with mortgages, reliance on imports for nearly all building materials has become another one-way economic street that sets homeownership beyond reach for residents.
In 2021, due to pandemic-induced disruptions in the global supply chain and increased shipping prices, Hawaiʻi builders experienced sky-high material costs, long lead times, and outright unavailability in some instances.
Nationally, lumber prices increased by 90% from the previous year, while steel prices rose 67%, and gypsum, the material used to make drywall, went up 12%, according to Harvard’s 2021 Joint Study for Housing.
Maui County relies almost exclusively on imports for softwood lumber, the plywood made from conifers like pine and fir that is used to construct most homes in Maui Nui.
In May, the price of framing lumber hit a record $1,515 per thousand board feet, 250% higher than the previous spring, when lumber prices were roughly $350 per thousand board feet. In Hawaiʻi, a standard sheet of plywood cost builders nearly $100 in June, four times higher than before the pandemic.
The lumber market is now stabilizing, but price jumps at Home Depot and Lowe’s over the past year were a reminder that on Maui, there is no viable alternative to the Canadian and California lumber that arrives by barge—reliant on a well-functioning trans-Pacific supply chain that is largely out of Hawaiʻi’s control.
University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa historian John Rosa said that at the start of the pandemic Maui County’s reliance on imports might have had “catastrophic consequences had there not been enough planning to bring in pallets upon pallets of things, had air cargo space not been reserved weeks in advance.”
“On Maui,” he continued, “you could live your day-to-day life and not really remember that you’re on an island that can potentially be cut off from supplies of things that you need until a disruption like this happens.”
Sands, of Bamboo Living, said he spent nearly $500,000 bringing ICC approval of the Vietnamese bamboo to fruition. “We just kept working on it even though it was a 10-year labor of love,” he said of the time he spent supporting himself as an architect and working long hours to get bamboo building off the ground.
Maui County Council can write additional building codes in tandem with the ICC code, which they use for residential permitting. They just have to be willing to accept any added liability. In 2002, Hawaiian hale building was inducted into the Maui County building code, and the state followed Maui’s example. Kiawe, eucalyptus, and ōhi’a were among the half-dozen woods approved for framing the structure of the hale. The council could do the same for bamboo grown in Hawaiʻi.
Building with Southeast Asian bamboo lacks the hale’s cultural impetus for approval, but sustainability and inching toward self-sufficiency are motivation enough for entrepreneurs like von Wellsheim and Sands who believe bamboo could compete with conventional timber—with investment and government support.
“If you want to rent me land for a dollar an acre, like the timber companies on the Mainland are getting their land for—that would help me compete,” said von Wellsheim. “If you want to give me a labor force and subsidize transportation and everything else, like you do for the big companies—then yeah, I think bamboo grown on Maui could compete—if the economic analysis was fair.”
The United States government has spent billions of dollars subsidizing logging and building logging roads on federal land. The first major tax break for the timber industry was enacted by Congress in 1943. In 1985 the Washington Post reported the timber industry “boasted rugged independence from the government,” while being “on the federal dole to the tune of several billion dollars a year in forgiven taxes, according to the Treasury Department.”
Environmental think tank Center for Sustainable Economy found that subsidization of logging on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands was divesting nearly $2 billion in tax dollars per year from 2013 to 2018—when the Trump administration signed an executive order meant to increase logging in national forests, despite environmentalists’ concerns.
Though Whispering Winds has received grants, there are no significant concessions for aspiring timber farmers in Hawaiʻi—no assistance with land acquisition, road building, harvest mechanization, and no tax breaks. “We’re expected to compete in a market that we don’t get any benefit from,” said von Wellsheim. “From a supply chain point of view, it’s not set up for me.”
There is wood with building potential in Hawaiʻi—from the robust kiawe being bulldozed to make way for luxury homes in Makena to the variegated eucalyptus—chipped and exported from Hawaiʻi Island, the invasive albizia decomposing in place, and the bamboo relegated to shed building, to the koa earmarked for luxury use.
The beauty of Maui Nui is deep-set in its volcanic ridges—the grooves of rivers, jungled cliffs, and steep waterfalls. But this striking geography is inhospitable to much of the agriculture we depend upon, including timber stands.
Even on the dry, dusty plains of South and Central Maui, some of the only arable space suitable for large-scale silviculture, the land is too expensive to invest in a crop that requires 20 years of growth and irrigation before its first harvest. The exotic fruits Mahi Pono has propagated in Central Maui, which will be harvestable sooner and will produce a vastly more frequent yield, will be—in part—luxury exports. Never mind Maui’s 85% reliance on imported food.
One alternative crop with build potential that could be farmed in Central Maui, if irrigation were sustained, is hemp. Kelly King, Maui County Council’s climate and environment chair, says that farming hemp on Maui to produce the building material hempcrete is “totally viable.”
King, who started the island’s first industrial hemp farm with her husband, Robert, in 2019, said she and Robert determined that within a year they could grow enough hemp on one acre to build a 3,000-square-foot house. The Kings have only processed their hemp to make CBD extracts, which is more lucrative than hempcrete, but the councilwoman said she hopes to produce the sustainable building material in the future, once farmers’ concerns over cross-pollination with species grown for their high CBD content are addressed.
“Because you can grow it here and actually make the hempcrete building material here, you could bypass all that shipping, so it is such a potential for sustainability,” she said. “Maybe that’s something that we [Maui County] need to look at, and the state needs to look at.”
Producing hempcrete requires a singular industrial machine, a decorticator, which can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $2 million depending on output. The decorticator is used to process the hemp stalks, extracting fiber that is mixed with lime plaster to create a concrete-like substance that is breathable, durable, and resistant to termites, mildew, water, and fire.
In 2016, Maui architect George Rixey built a 6,000-square-foot luxury hempcrete home in Kihei. He said the build was approximately 10% more expensive than it would have been using conventional materials, and that increase included ordering the materials from Canada since hempcrete was not being made in the U.S. in 2016.
Rixey said he and his clients would “absolutely” want to use more local materials if they were readily available and affordable. “Everyone would use them, why wouldn’t you? That would be great—but there just aren’t any,” he said. “Then again, if there were [local] resources being used, we’d have to be careful about using too much if they’re not renewable.”
With resources like timber that can be replanted after each harvest, the inherently extractive nature of the industry would likely be met with opposition on Maui, where even selective logging has not been practiced for decades. Lance DeSilva, who heads Maui’s DLNR Forestry division, said that residents often get upset when his team removes a single tree from the forest. “Imagine how people would react to a logging road going through Haiku, with loud trucks strapped with cut logs passing through a neighborhood,” he said.
DLNR downs trees for forest management purposes, thinning when necessary to make space for light and undergrowth and removing dead trees that pose a fire hazard or are at risk of falling on a trail. When such trees are felled, woodworkers can get a salvage permit, often planing the best pieces for cabinets or wood sculpting and chipping the smaller, less usable pieces for mulch or sawdust.
DeSilva said on Maui only a handful of these permits are issued each year because cause for removal is uncommon. Consequently, one of the only downsides to the health of Maui’s forests is the fact that there is very little wood to harvest. In Maui Nui forest reserves, even most invasive trees are under control, according to Silva.
Statewide, the removal of invasives could supply substantially more timber. Albizia, an invasive fire-prone tree, covers around 5% of land in Hawaiʻi, according to Joey Valenti, the director of Hawaiʻi’s Wood Utilization Team, a group of experts working to expand wood production markets in the state. There is incentive to remove albizia beyond its competition with native species. In recent years the brittle-branched tree has accounted for around 90% of calls involving fallen trees, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation.
On the east side of Hawaiʻi Island, where the tree had spread widely across 43,000 acres, a division of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee (BIISC) nicknamed the Albizia Assassins purportedly felled more than 12,000 albizia trees in 2017. Valenti said the wood from the vast majority of those 12,000 trees could have been used for building but likely were not. BIISC confirmed that the trees were left to rot or chipped and given to residents for mulch.
In 2017, Valenti and his team at the University of Hawaiʻi engineered albizia wood, long overlooked as a building material because of its brittleness, to compete with the strength of standard lumber like Douglas fir. Dubbed “The Albizia Project,” Valenti built a 400-square-foot albizia structure inspired by Pacific Island architecture as living proof that the wood could be used to construct a viable home in the tropics.
With a grant from the U.S. Forest service, Valenti is now examining the potential use of plantation trees, stands of eucalyptus and southern pine, planted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that have gone decades without management. Hawai‘i has over 75,000 acres of timber plantations in need of management according to the DLNR. A 1999 inventory of non-native timber resources noted that there were over 34 million board feet of timber trees, mostly eucalyptus and southern pine in the Molokai Forest Reserve.
De Silva, who has been with Maui County DLNR for 20 years, said that to his knowledge, none of that wood had been used. Valenti would like to see these plantations and forest reserves logged selectively and replanted with natives like koa and ʻōhiʻa that could be used for hardwood timber in the future in a cycle of sustainable harvesting and replanting.
Hawai’i residents’ deep-seated aversion to felling native trees, rightfully engendered by the bulldozing of tens of thousands of acres of koa and ʻōhiʻa forests in the ‘50s and ‘60s, may be worth reevaluating if their use were to incentivize native reforestation. Growing the market for native wood would lower the risk of investing in the transformation of unmanaged plantation stands to managed native forest.
Aside from the natural pros of having more native forest, from healthy watersheds and lower fire risk to the conservation of a culturally significant treasure trove of biodiversity, higher use of local woods means a tighter economic loop. Forestation leads to jobs, from the planting, management, and harvesting, to the millwork and processing of the woods that would render them usable as floors, cabinets, trim, and furniture. Valenti says this benefit to the local economy is missing from analyses of the expense gap between industrial lumber imports and wood produced in-state. “If we can show the full circle of what can be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of it, I think there is incentive for the state to help offset those expenses.”
In Hawaiʻi, the size of sawmills and dry kilns (chambers used to remove moisture from wood) are, according to Valenti, “the biggest bottlenecks for wood production in Hawaiʻi. Investment from the state to help scale up some of that infrastructure would definitely help build the market,” he said. With a bigger market and increased production comes lower cost, so that a middle-class Hawaiʻi family might be able to build koa floors rather than use snap-in flooring from Home Depot—plastic laminate made to imitate non-native mahogany or bamboo.
Forest researcher and University of Hawaiʻi professor J.B. Friday is impassioned as he talks about the ʻōhiʻa floors in his Hawaiʻi Island home. Despite his desire to see more building with local woods, Friday said the price difference has to be minimized before it becomes appealing to the average resident. “I have an ʻōhiʻa floor, I drink Kona coffee—I’ll spend the extra dollar on these things because I appreciate them,” he said. Would I buy Hawai’i sugar as opposed to sugar from the Mainland? No. Any Hawai’i agricultural product, including timber forestry, is tough if you can just substitute something from somewhere else that is more affordable or readily available.”
It is a dilemma that has undercut production efforts in Hawai’i for decades. Land becomes more and more valuable, ousting low-margin agriculture to make room for luxury homes. Though Maui has seen a resurgence in small farms in recent years, more substantial agricultural production is often geared toward high-margin exports. Building materials are no exception.
Robert McClintock, owner of Pinnacle Millworks in Kahului, said that Hawaiian (Acacia) koa is generally three times the price of similar imported Acacia species. The DLNR inventory for Hawaiʻi-grown woods prices koa at $22 per board foot, nearly seven times more expensive than other woods ranging from $1.50 to $5 per board foot, effectively ruling out the use of koa in any non-luxury builds.
Friday said that while softwood production remains “a difficult one to crack,” the hardwood market could feasibly be reworked to outfit more Maui homes with locally grown wood like koa, eucalyptus, and ʻōhiʻa. Hawaiʻi imported over 10 million board feet of hardwood lumber in 2003, according to The Hawaiʻi Agricultural Research Center.
A quarter of the wood at Bello’s Millwork, one of the largest mills on Oahu, is now albizia according to Valenti, who partnered with the mill in 2018. “I think that speaks volumes for what they’re seeing as potential for local products,” he said.
Recently, a developer contacted Valenti about using albizia for the shoe racks in an affordable housing project on Oahu. “It’s a small item but the scale of 500 units is promising,” Valenti said. “If we can start with that and draw some attention to it, then maybe for their next project they’ll use albizia for all of their millwork and doors.”
Friday and Valenti say they don’t see Hawaii-produced materials taking the place of soft lumber from the Mainland but that hardwoods and other alternative building materials could sustain a small industry for the State.
“It would be great if 5% of the timber on Maui were locally grown bamboo,” said von Wellsheim. Luckily by his estimate, out-structures, “sheds,” make up more than 5% of timber used on Maui, so von Wellsheim might not have to wait for the County or a $150,000 ICC approval to meet his goal.