Building proposal triggers concern


Stephens Media

Alternative building materials, such as structural bamboo, rammed earth and straw bales, have found a place in the international building code and the building codes of Hawaii and many other states.

But they won't be found in the version of the Hawaii County Building Code currently under consideration by the County Council, which could finalize the code as early as Friday. The council is scheduled then to consider Draft 6 of Bill 270, which has been under consideration in one form or another since September 2010.

The removal of the section on alternative materials and methods concerns Ken Long, a retired fire protection engineer from San Francisco, who says he has 40 years experience reading building codes as a fire official and before that, an insurance industry evaluator.

Long and other Puna residents held a 21/2-hour meeting last week with Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and Ka'u Councilwoman Brittany Smart, explaining the problems with the code and hoping the alternative materials and methods section could be added back before the code is finalized.

"I am encouraged they are thinking about it," said Long, who said he's also been in touch with Department of Public Works staff.

Long said the alternative materials not only provide energy-efficient solutions, but also make use of recycled and locally produced construction materials, cutting construction costs, reducing waste — such as old tires — and possibly creating new jobs.

Smart said Tuesday the section of the building code may have been removed because the council passed a sustainable habitat resolution late last year asking the DPW to set standards for nontraditional construction for rural buildings. An ordinance codifying those standards is also in the works.

It is possible DPW thought the issue would be addressed there instead of in the building code itself, she said. DPW Director Warren Lee didn't return a telephone message for clarification Tuesday.

But James Weatherford, a Puna resident and board member of the Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance, said his group's work is very narrowly focused on owner-builders who own land in agricultural-zoned areas. The building code would address structures for everyone else, he said.

"That would be a perverted consequence that we would not want to see," Weatherford said of the removal of the alternative materials and method section from the building code. "What we're doing is an optional alternative to, not a replacement for, the building code for when you get way out in the jungle."

Long said recent conversations with DPW staff give him hope the section will be put back into the code before it's finalized.

But Smart said the current version of the code does provide for an appeals process that can be used for alternative materials and methods. By not spelling out specific alternative materials and methods, the code could open more options for builders, she said.

"Does this allow for little bit more creativity and flexibility?" she said. "We could be limiting their creativity. We could be doing more harm than good."

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at