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If, like me, you’ve driven down Kapaa Quarry Road in Kailua dozens of times without stopping, it probably hasn’t crossed your mind that the area could be home to a pocket of innovation in the fight for affordable housing in Hawaii.
But here I am, along with Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum, driving past the large landfill and veering onto Kapaa Quarry Place. We turn off into an unexpected complex of warehouses and stores nestled within the rolling hills. The small industrial-outpost feel of the complex, with the dusty rock quarry behind it, sets us up for a striking sense of disconnect when we arrive at a work site at the end of a parking lot.
Looking up from the car, we stare at a prototype of a small home with lush vegetation growing out the side of two of its external walls. It is perched on a base the size of a tool shed, but with deep and firm metal foundations. The overall look, enhanced by the mishmash of recycled wood around the base, is like an architect designed a giant tree house without the tree.
Treehuggers.com, a green design and lifestyle publication, colorfully described the structure it saw online as a “tiny house on a stick.” That’s a fair assessment — as long as you know it is a pretty wide stick.
The prototype is 16 feet by 16 feet, so that would make for a 256-square-foot home on a base about one-tenth that size. This means there is room to park a car beneath the structure on two sides.
So how might this green little home respond to the housing crisis and bring down the cost of living for some renters?
Much of the state’s middle-class and many low-income residents spend a disturbingly high percentage of their incomes on rent, leaving them economically vulnerable to life shocks — like a layoff or a health problem — that can decimate their finances. To improve the situation, the islands need more housing that residents could more comfortably afford.
The primary component in Hawaii’s nation-leading housing prices is the expensive land beneath our feet. So a home that uses less land is generally one that is less expensive.
“This space-saving doesn’t work in the Midwest where you have tons of land. If you have a real dense city and it is all built up, there’s not much application for this — other than maybe in parks or something like that,” says Nathan Toothman, the co-founder and CEO of Elevate, the company behind the prototype.
The ideal place for it may be one where land is costly, but it hasn’t all been overbuilt and filled in, and where people recognize the need for a lighter residential footprint. In other words, perfect locations for this vision may be in the islands, especially on Oahu, where every square foot “is so incredibly precious,” he notes.
That is why Toothman — who, like his wife, is an engineer — and their company have conceived of a structure that offers a livable amount of space while using less land than is habitual for homes in the islands.
On the ground level, the structure consists of the small indoor base area and the sheltered outdoor space around it where a car could park on either of two sides. The second floor is the size of a compact urban studio apartment. There is also a rooftop where a deck or solar panels can be placed.
The prototype isn’t revolutionary. After all, there are plenty of buildings with parking lots on the bottom floor, apartments on the intermediate levels and rooftops for hosting or sucking up the sun. The difference here is the scale. This is for an individual, a small family or perhaps roommates.
Would people want to live in it?
The striking thing about the second-floor room is how pleasant it feels. On a hot, muggy day, the breeze and a drip-irrigation system trickling onto the plants on the outside walls act as a sort of natural cooler that delivers pleasant moist air in through open windows.
The room, decorated simply with bamboo and drop cloth in vaguely Pacific islands-style, feels homey. A guitar and surfboard sit next to a large desk with four logs as legs. On one side is a single bed. For some single people in highly urban settings from New York to Paris to Tokyo, such a place surely conjures up visions of a romantic tree-house loft.
The simple setting and innovative structure stir the imagination with possibilities, and that is by design, but as Toothman explains, at its core it is just a standard wood frame; a 16-foot box. “Almost anybody could build that.”
The team at Elevate is still calculating how much it might sell such structures for — and that will depend on the model, the materials and how many it ends up building, but Toothman estimates it will cost $75,000 to $125,000 for structures the size of the prototype.
Options that will affect pricing include the size of the “living wall,” types of interior finishes and other materials, the number of solar panels and the amount of water catchment and purification needed. There is also the question of whether Elevate integrates more than one housing unit into a single structure, which is more applicable for the slightly larger models they intend to build.
The more structures Elevate builds, the more it expects to bring costs down. And if the company later expands beyond the islands — as it hopes to do — and if it is able to obtain less expensive supplies and labor, those prices will likely come down further.
The construction’s simplicity means it is easily replicable. It is built of steel, concrete and wood, like most other homes, so they are materials Hawaii is already comfortable with. Keeping the permitting process simple, or winning over enough policymakers to this housing model, might allow Elevate to succeed when some other companies have stalled out on the innovative housing front. (Toothman says the company has a building permit pending.)
The unique structural feature is that the steel beams must reach far deeper into the ground to stabilize it.
This sort of structure enjoys the benefits of more conventional pre-fab homes in that most of the work can be done before it is brought to the site, which lessens uncertainty around things like weather conditions during construction. Eric Levora, the owner of Anchor Systems Hawaii who has been the contractor and a collaborator on the Elevate prototype, said that one of these homes could be assembled on site in a little over a week.
Now that Elevate has its prototype, it is trying to figure out exactly what to do with it.
The company’s just-launched 30-day crowdfunding campaign aims to raise $56,580 to build momentum and propel the company’s efforts forward. “We’re trying to capture people’s imagination about limitless possibilities,” said Toothman, who wants people to consider how they would customize such a structure and make it their own. (See their video below.)
Elevate is mulling an array of other practical uses, including using the structures as drive-thru cafes or fast-food restaurants. They are also considering making them into temporary work site offices, permanent workplaces or even emergency housing that could be installed and taken down as needed. (You can see their list of possibilities here.) Toothman — who served as a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer, engineer and tactics instructor in Pearl Harbor — is well aware of the importance of personal space and the need to respond to crises.
He knows that the most significant use of such structures in the islands would involve making quality housing that is more affordable, and is particularly passionate about that. “This would be a huge possibility for the homeless,” he said, noting that it would offer them an elevated perspective on the streets they have lived on.
Perhaps most importantly, a sturdy, simple version could be produced to provide a built-in sense of security for people who have, in some cases, been scarred by instability and crime. For the model of the house with a stairwell or ladder locked in the base, “you would have to be like Spiderman,” to break in, he says.
Up on the second floor, as we admire the greenery around the windows, any such sense of vulnerability feels far off.
For whoever ends up moving into one of these homey, leafy tree houses, that’s a big part of the point.
Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red button with the pencil and share it through Connections, or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find Civil Beat’s entire ongoing Living Hawaii series here. And you can also continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.