When Joey Valenti built his dome-shaped tiny house on University Avenue a year ago, it was designed in part to rebut skeptics who said albizia wood was too light and weak to use as a building material.
Valenti proved the skeptics wrong with his celebrated, striking structure. He also raised another, bigger question: Why couldn’t Hawaii harvest and process albizia as a building material?
The answers highlight many of the problems associated with growing the manufacturing sector in Hawaii.
Even with an abundant raw material like albizia – an invasive species that needs to be removed – growing a manufacturing sector in Hawaii can be daunting. Shipping costs, labor, the need for capital investments, a relatively small and uncertain local demand: all of these pose obstacles to starting something new.
“That building itself is a myth-buster,” said Matthew Lynch, director of sustainability initiatives for the University of Hawaii. “It shows you can build with albizia and build beautifully.”
But can it be the basis for an industry?
“What we’re finding is the word ‘industry’ is tough here,” Valenti said. “It can be done. It’s just at what scale and what market does it work for?”
“The supply chain exists,” said Lynch. “But it’s not robust yet.”
To be sure, there’s no shortage of trees, says Philipp LaHaela Walter, who works on forestry policy issues for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Albizias grow fast, creating a canopy that prevents the growth of native species. They are a fire hazard. And they have a nasty reputation for blowing down in high winds.
Albizias are such a menace that a group called the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, also known as the Albizia Assassins, has set out to eradicate the trees on Hawaii Island. The organization claims to have killed approximately 12,000 trees in 2017 alone.
There’s no argument that removing albizia is a good thing, said Walter, state resource and survey forester for DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
The challenge is creating a regular supply of trees needed to support an industry. Many of the trees are in remote areas, far from access roads, Walter said. And many that happen to be near roads also are sometimes near structures, which create technical challenges when arborists go to cut them down.
“Since it’s pretty scattered across the state, this is an issue,” Walter said. “You cannot supply a constant flow of the resource.”
And, Walter said, there’s another problem: a relative shortage of wood mills needed to process the trees into planks.
In the continental U.S., there are mills that can process a tree every 30 seconds, Walter said.
Wood grown in Hawaii can’t compete with that, he said.
Plus, there’s the added cost of shipping from Hawaii.
“That’s just a level of automation and efficiency that our local operations just can’t compete with,” Walter said.
What Hawaii does have, Walter said, is a collection of smaller operations that can fill a niche market for high-end wood.
Plenty Of Supplies; Small Market
Waimanalo Wood is a case in point. The small sawmill and lumberyard was a co-sponsor of Valenti’s Albizia Project. And Waimanalo Wood’s co-owner, Miles Luedtke, said albizia presents a major opportunity for operations like his.
On a recent morning, the mill was buzzing with activity. Customers were perusing the big planks of tropical woods — monkeypod, koa, lychee and the like – that Waimanalo Wood specializes in selling.
And in the back of the hangar-like space, Cortney Gusick, founder of Pahiki Caskets, was sanding a piece made out of monkeypod that was destined for Dodo Mortuary in Hilo.
Luedtke calls his operation a “tropical micro mill.”
It’s essentially a vertically integrated exotic wood seller that makes a business out of processing logs that otherwise would be destined for the wood chipper. Many are trees that need to be removed after falling on people’s property.
A big proponent of albizia, Luedtke recalls the naysayers who questioned Valenti’s project.
“We got a lot of derisive comments: You can’t sell that. It’s trash. It’s weak,” Luedtke recalls. “Then Joey built a house out of it.”
Luedtke’s goal is to create a market for albizia.
Gusick makes most of her caskets from the wood, and Luedtke has been experimenting with crafting furniture from albizia.
But creating demand is tough, even with the cool structure in Manoa. And until there’s clear demand for the product, there’s unlikely to be an investor who will step up to create a large processing facility, Walter says.
Luedtke has a vision of small independent operators harvesting trees and processing them into rough cut planks on portable mini-mills. The environment could benefit, and so could local economies, he said.
The idea, he says, is for “Hawaiians in rural communities to be the stewards and beneficiaries of this natural resource.”
Another idea: to create a cooperative or association of smaller mills to process the trees from rough cut green planks to the more refined dried lumber used as building material.
“That totally makes sense,” Walter said. “But nobody’s really taking the lead on that, and I don’t have the capacity to take the lead.”
Costs Are Unclear
The cost of building with albizia also isn’t clear. Valenti said that in terms of strength and durability, albizia can be processed to be as strong as Douglas fir, a standard material in the construction industry.
But Valenti said he is still working to calculate the cost of building with albizia versus wood imported from outside of the islands. Many of his project’s sponsors donated work, so figuring out all of the processing costs is tricky.
“Really the way I think about it is we can evolve business and enterprise. We can create a new species of business.” — Matthew Lynch, director of sustainability initiatives, University of Hawaii
“If we had built this with Doug fir from Home Depot, would it have been cheaper? Probably,” he said, standing inside the hulking dome of his structure on the University of Hawaii campus in Manoa. “But you’re competing with a huge lumber industry on the mainland.”
By contrast, his trees came from the back of Manoa Valley, where they had been cut down and piled up to rot.
And that’s the point, says Lynch.
A former banker, Lynch is looking at the economics of albizia and the positive side effects of using its lumber as a building material. Getting rid of a nuisance has inherent value, Lynch said.
And there’s additional value in clearing forests to make space for more valuable native trees like koa, which also help protect the watershed, he said.
A question is how to quantify and make money off these positive side effects, to turn what economists refer to as positive externalities into a form of capital that can serve as the basis for a new business model, Lynch said.
“Really the way I think about it is we can evolve business and enterprise,” he said. “We can create a new species of business.”
It might seem like heady stuff for an architecture student who merely set out to build a cool house out of discarded trees. But Valenti sees a quickening movement.
“I feel like we’re approaching that tipping point,” he said. “I think we’re close.”