Keen On Green

Taking the lead from U.S. Mainland firms, local contractors and designers join the green building movement

June, 2003

Everything old is new at the American Institute of Architects’ Honolulu offices in the 100-year-old Stangenwald Building on Merchant Street. Literally. The 4,000-square-foot space just emerged from a renovation in February 2003. To the casual observer, it looks spanking new. But look closer. The drywall is made from recycled ash, not potentially toxic gypsum. Old meeting tables have been refinished and retopped with shiny, new surfaces. Carpets are made out of recycled materials.

Where something old wouldn’t do, the architectural firm Ferraro & Choi put something green. The wood used for shelving is high-density plywood bonded with environmentally sound glues, which don’t emit toxic fumes. To illuminate the space, Ferraro and Choi turned to day lighting, a time-honored usage of louvers to admit sunlight at specific angles, virtually eliminating the need to use overhead fixtures.

The project cost: $80,000. “That’s not much more than it would have cost to do it with all new materials,” says Kurt Katada, the associate who designed the renovation.

The American Institute of Architects’ project is symptomatic of a gathering momentum in Hawaii to “build green.” That’s a catchphrase for designs, construction methods and materials aimed at saving energy, recycling products and protecting the environment. The Build Green movement has gone mainstream in the past decade. It once was the province of boutique architects and scientists constructing outposts in extremely hot or cold regions.

From 1990 to 2001, there were 18,887 homes built to local green-building guidelines. In 2002, that number increased 70 percent, to more than 32,000 homes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Green-building is natural for Hawaii. Shipping costs on heavy construction materials are prohibitive, encouraging methods that use less to do more. Ditto for the increasingly expensive oil used to power most of Hawaii’s electrical plants. Hawaii’s clean, healthy environment is a key draw for the tourism industry. And the comparatively warm temperatures of the Islands and high-energy costs make efficient cooling and heating of homes and buildings essential.

There is also the problem of choked landfills and dump-usage fees. “The tipping fees have gotten so high, you pretty much have to recycle,” says Joseph Ferraro, a partner at the eponymous firm. According to Kenneth Choate, an executive vice president at homebuilder Haseko Construction, each dumpster costs $500 at the landfill. So eliminating one dumpster run per week saves more than $25,000 annually.

Ironically, Hawaii’s green buildings have lagged behind the U.S. mainland. Now the Islands are catching up. Builders have begun to see them as environmentally friendly and economically sound. “Right now, there is a real convergence of large-scale interest,” says Steven Meder, a green-building expert and University of Hawaii professor of architecture.

At the nuts and bolts level, that has meant subtle shifts in Hawaii building projects. Choate uses custom-ordered, steel-floor joists in the homes built by Haseko. “Big, wooden floor joists that are more than 10 feet long need to come from old-growth forests,” he says. “You can make the steel ones from an old Volkswagen.”

Benefits of Going Green


  • Hawaiian Dredging - Saved more than $31,000 in disposal costs, recycled nearly 104 tons of material, produced $2,500 in revenue
  • Island Demo - Diverted 700 tons of demolition debris from the landfills, and was able to reuse 100 tons of that material reused
  • Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii - Donated 40 tons of furniture valued at $118,000 to local homeless shelters for reuse, saved nearly $80,000 in disposal costs
  • Gentry Homes - Reduced waste disposal costs from $589 to $280 per single family home, saving approximately $64,000/year
  • Baseyard Hawaii - Since January 2002, this government-funded facility for used construction and demolition materials has diverted 880 tons from Oahu landfills

*Source: Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism

What this means is: less waste to take to the dump; fewer termites; and less environmental damage from termite-extinguishing chemicals. Haseko also uses the newest roof-building methods, which rely on shorter pieces of lumber that can be harvested from newer growth forests.

Around town, too, more commercial projects call for green specifications. The new high school building at the venerable Iolani School, designed by architectural firm Group 70, will use the same daylighting mechanisms as the AIA offices. The Iolani building will also employ innovative “light shelves,” which capture the sun’s rays on the structure’s exterior and reflect onto classroom ceilings. Arch rival Punahou is also using many green building techniques in its Case Middle School project.

Much of the green-building push has also come from government. “There has been some legislation passed at the state level that demands state facilities become more energy-efficient,” Meder says. To its credit, the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism has served as a clearinghouse for green building information and a catalyst for the movement. And Hawaii’s two large construction associations, the Building Industry Association and the General Contractors Association, have also responded with an increasing number of government-led educational programs to teach about green building methods and materials.

That’s not to say that most existing buildings in Hawaii are green. The small contractors that have a large share of the homebuilding and remodeling market often don’t have the time or resources to think green. Still, the green wave is picking up steam.

Take, for example, the green-building expo at the Hawaii Parade of Homes. “Last year at the Parade of Homes, the majority of builders participated in the build green self-certification program,” Choate says. “That’s a pretty good sign that green building is here to stay.”

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