The Sustainable Dream

We are an island thousands of miles from anywhere with limited land and resources. Almost all of the things we rely on come from afar—and that includes building materials, for home and commercial purposes....

Can Maui produce its own building materials?

We are an island thousands of miles from anywhere with limited land and resources. Almost all of the things we rely on come from afar—and that includes building materials, for home and commercial purposes. But is there another way?

Bamboo homes can be extremely aesthetically pleasing. Courtesy

In an interview with MauiTimes, Hawai‘i U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz pumped the brakes on the notion of a completely self-sufficient Maui.

“The idea that we’re going to manufacture our own electronics or substantially replace the building materials that currently come from elsewhere is maybe not a fool’s errand but not a good use of our collective political will,” he said. “We should focus on energy and food and recognize that in a global economy, there are some things that are going to keep showing up via a shipping container.”

He isn’t necessarily wrong. Yet there are local solutions that could, at least on a small scale, offer an alternative. Here are two.


It’s strong. It grows and can be harvested quickly. It has a unique aesthetic appeal. And it thrives on Maui.

Bamboo was approved as a building material in the United States in 2007, mostly through the efforts of Maui architect David Sands. But it’s yet to take a firm or widespread hold in the islands. It remains a boutique product.

Bamboo grows quickly and is a strong building material. Photo courtesy Pexels Emre Orkun

There are downsides. Bamboo is vulnerable to insects and fungus and should be treated. It can shrink over time. 

Generally, though, it’s a building material with a lot of opportunity for growth (pun intended).


Hemp is the industrial form of Cannabis sativa. It won’t get you high, but it has a number of other applications. Making paper. Making rope. Making clothing. And, making hempcrete.

A mixture of hemp fibers and a lime-based binder, hempcrete is formed into blocks, can be used as insulation, and weighs eight times less than concrete. However, as with bamboo, the material has yet to catch on widely.

Hempcrete is a combination of hemp fibers and a lime-based binder. Courtesy GHS Industries


Naturally, there are hurdles to scaling up any local building products. Maui County is often slow to issue permits and adapt to new ideas. Agricultural land is limited, and much of it is in the hands of Mahi Pono.

Then there are cost considerations. We may lament the lack of locally made building materials among myriad other items. But the fact remains, as Sen. Schatz said, it’s simply more cost-effective to ship many things in. And, in a place where the cost of living is sky-high, people have to make ends meet.

As University of Hawaiʻi professor J.B. Friday told MauiTimes last year in a feature about sustainable building materials, “I have an ʻōhiʻa floor, I drink Kona coffee—I’ll spend the extra dollar on these things because I appreciate them. Would I buy Hawaiʻi sugar as opposed to sugar from the Mainland? No. Any Hawaiʻi agricultural product, including timber forestry, is tough if you can just substitute something from somewhere else that is more affordable or readily available.”

In the end, the answer is probably a balance. Many of the materials needed for building homes can’t be created here, much as we may wish they could be.

But there’s promise and potential in these sustainable options. 

Jacob Shafer

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