The Honolulu City Council is considering loosening some housing codes to allow empty commercial buildings to more easily be converted to housing units.

Real estate developers and construction unions are pushing Honolulu city officials to be allowed to build housing units without some windows, which they say will spur construction of affordable housing.

Bill 21, which would allow builders to substitute artificial lighting and ventilation for fresh air and sunshine, has unanimously passed its first reading before the Honolulu City Council and is awaiting further action by the city’s zoning committee.

The legislation was proposed by council member Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a former construction industry lobbyist, and has been endorsed by top officials of the city Department of Planning and Permitting.

This office building at 1132 Bishop is being remodeled into housing. It features some apartment units with bedrooms that have no windows. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The idea is being broached now as a means to encourage inexpensive adaptive reuse of office buildings, which typically have larger floor plates and fewer windows than residential construction. This is coming at a time that the growth in remote work is encouraging conversion of office space to residential uses.

But the law as written would also apply to new construction.

It’s a novel and experimental idea that has attracted controversy elsewhere.

Only a handful of windowless projects have been proposed on the mainland, primarily as dormitory space for college students at the University of Michigan, where the building now houses more than 600 graduate students. Another is still under consideration at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Critics have decried the Michigan building as a nightmarish monstrosity that left residents depressed and alienated from each other.

Housing experts on the mainland who reviewed the proposed legislation called the concept “a terrible idea,” “almost inhumane,” and “a disaster and a recipe for creating buildings that are unfit for human habitation.”

“Basically what they are saying is that you can build a windowless box,” said real estate strategist Bill Browning, a partner in Terrapin Bright Green, a green-building research and consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

But a raft of Honolulu builders consider fewer windows and perpetual air conditioning to be the path to the future for Honolulu.

Some city officials agree with them.

They argue that operable windows may simply be a matter of personal preference, and that some people, particularly those who don’t have much money, won’t mind forgoing them if that is what they can afford. Other people may not mind having fewer windows than are now considered standard, they say.

Executives at Avalon Development, Lowney Architecture, the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, the Building Industry Association, the General Contractors Association, the Pacific Resource Partnership, Douglas Emmett Management, Centre Urban Real Estate and the Hawaii Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust say builders need the flexibility to build in new and unconventional ways.

“Let’s give us a tool in the bucket of tools that allow for more housing options in the urban core,” said Christine Camp, president and chief executive officer of Avalon Development, testifying before the council in support of the measure

“We will bring housing units online at a more efficient rate and add to our housing inventory,” said Evan Oue, representing the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, a commercial real estate association.

“Light and air are not life safety issues,” wrote Janice Li, studio director for Hawaii for Lowney Architecture. “I recognize that we enjoy unparalleled temperate climate in Hawaii and buildings should be naturally ventilated as much as possible for human comfort and for long term sustainability to our environment. However, there is more than one way to design environmentally responsive buildings and alternative methods should be allowed to achieve the same goals.”

With demand for office space falling, developers are considering ways to convert some underutilized office buildings into residential towers. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

‘A Pretty Serious Safety Issue’

Supporters of the measure said that Honolulu’s housing code is archaic and could be replaced solely by the International Building Code, which does not contain the same requirements for natural light and air ventilation.

Housing experts who reviewed the proposed legislation said they thought it is highly problematic because access to strong natural light, which Hawaii has in abundance, is important for sleep, brain development and emotional stability. They also said that there is a long, gloomy history associated with windowless buildings.

“It is clear that people like windows in buildings, especially in homes, and if you don’t have windows, there is evidence that it is really disturbing to people,” said environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington. She said depriving people of light has a punitive effect similar to being imprisoned.

“They can survive but they don’t thrive,” she said.

Honolulu’s proposal is “a terrible idea,” said Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Why do we want to go back to the substandard conditions that laws and regulations moved away from? A civilized society does not relegate people to sleeping in rooms with no light and air from windows, even if there is artificial ventilation.”

Browning, who called the idea “a disaster and a recipe for creating buildings that are unfit for human habitation,” said he believed that eliminating windows would create “a pretty serious safety issue” during power failures or from fire.

He said the idea is likely being considered because people “are panicking about how to provide more housing,” which has left them “grasping at straws.”

In Honolulu, however, the measure has found vocal supporters, with about two dozen people, most of them from the real estate industry, testifying before the city’s zoning committee on April 5 saying they thought it was good idea.

Jiro Sumada, the newly appointed deputy director of the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, a civil engineer who previously worked at a construction management company, also spoke in support of the measure. He explained it to City Council members as a way to encourage office building conversions that “do not need to meet the desired light and natural ventilation that you would normally have for a residential unit.”

He said the city would want it to be limited to multi-family housing, such as apartments or condominiums, but not made an option for single-family homes or townhouses.

‘Urban One-Bedroom’

The building industry and planners say they need more flexibility in how they repurpose buildings and construct new ones. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Supporters of the measure said that Honolulu is already stepping down this path, saying that the city has already approved two projects that are deviating from the established norm of requiring each bedroom to have an operable window.

At the Residences at Bishop Place, approved by the city in November 2020, an existing 25-story office building at 1132 Bishop St. is being converted into what was called “an affordable and market-rate multifamily residential project” that would contain almost 500 housing units. The city allowed it to be built taller and denser with fewer parking spaces than ordinarily permitted and waived more than $18.2 million in city permits fees in hope that savings would be shared with residents.

It features some units with an unusual configuration that the developer, Douglas Emmett Apartments, calls an “urban one-bedroom.” According to the developer’s website, these units have a window in the living room but a completely enclosed bedroom that consists of a closet, two blank walls and an opaque sliding glass door that permits entry of some of the light from the living room. These one-bedroom units rent for $2,500 a month; one bedrooms with more windows rent for $3,000.

A second similar project was approved by the city in February with some $3 million in permit-fee exemptions. It is a 66-unit affordable senior housing complex at Fort Street Mall being developed by Catholic Charities Housing Development. It is located on a small and narrow lot, with the services all configured on one wall. These would ordinarily be studio units, but the city allowed the builder an exemption from natural light and ventilation requirements to build the same kind of bedroom as the Bishop Place project, with the bed located in a walled alcove with a sliding glass door.

In an email, developer Christine Camp said that the exemption was needed so that the units could be described as “large studios,” not one bedrooms.

In testimony to the City Council, Camp was among the developers asking for the city to make this kind of design standard for the city and not an exception. She said that she did not expect all such developments to have no windows, but “where they need to be.”

At the zoning committee hearing, only one person spoke in opposition to the idea. Michael Silva, a mechanical engineer who was formerly chief of the city’s building division, testified that he was strongly opposed to the proposal to allow artificial light and ventilation to supplant natural light and air.

“All mechanical ventilation systems will fail … It’s just a matter of when.”

Michael Silva, Mechanical Engineer

“Our unique situation in the middle of the Pacific with our unique climate gives us the privilege of using natural ventilation,” Silva told the council. “All mechanical ventilation systems will fail. They all will at some time or another. It’s just a matter of when.”

He added that Hawaii’s remote location means that when breakdowns occur, “repairs can sometimes take days or even weeks,” he said. “That means no outside air for the duration of the repair. This creates an unhealthy and potentially life-threatening situation for those who may have respiratory illnesses or respiratory concerns.”

Silva also noted that developers should be able to install operable windows as a result of the savings of millions of dollars in exemptions they receive from the city when they build affordable housing.

He said he believed that buildings that require electricity 24 hours a day will be more costly to maintain for both residents and property owners than buildings that use natural ventilation. He said that makes little sense at a time the state is trying to reduce its energy dependence, not increase it.

“I understand the need for more housing but this bill benefits the developers and builders at the sacrifice of people who occupy these buildings and at the cost of taxpayer money,” he concluded.

Council member Esther Kiaaina said she was surprised to realize that the bill as written would apply to new construction not just office building conversions.

She also wondered aloud about elderly people living in office building conversions of the kind being proposed, without access to natural light.

“They will be for kupuna,” she said. “I want them to have a window.”

She suggested the bill be modified to include only building conversions and not new construction. She asked Silva whether he thought all bedrooms should have an operable window, and he said yes.

She said she might vote for the measure but she wanted the scope narrowed to include only office-building conversions.  Later she said she had decided she would vote no.

Council member Matt Weyer said he would vote yes with reservations, asking for more time to think about the measure and seek revisions.

Honolulu City Council Vice Chair Esther Kiaaina with left, Calvin Say during floor session held at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council members Calvin Say, left, and Esther Kiaaina, right, both expressed concerns about the proposals in Bill 21. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

‘Losing That Human Nature’

Council member Calvin Say, who chairs the zoning committee, is a strong supporter of increasing the island’s housing stock but questioned the measure.

“Would you be willing to live in a unit like that?” he asked the people gathered for the hearing. “I just feel with these types of projects coming up we’re losing that human nature, that humanistic side.”

Say, who is 71, wondered aloud whether this was a generational divide about what young people would find acceptable but older people would not.

“Maybe I’m too old for this job, meaning I like my windows, I like my screen doors, but the complexion of Hawaii and how it is changing, I’m trying to figure it out … you folks are the future,” he said.

Tam pointed to the 25,000-unit housing shortfall that politicians have pledged to remedy, and asked his fellow council members to move the legislation forward.

Say decided to postpone committee action until a later date.

“My primary hesitation is whether this is best for the future of our housing developments, and whether this may lead to less than desirable living conditions for our low income and/or kupuna residents,” Say said in an email. “From the public testimony, it does appear that developers and organizations focused on providing more housing are in support of allowing for the flexibility in design, but we did have a mechanical engineer testify in person strongly opposing the bill, citing the potential negative effects and dangers of removing the natural light and ventilation requirements from the Housing Code.”

Say said he postponed the bill to do more research into whether this is the best way forward for the city.

“The City recognizes that affordable housing is desperately needed, however I’d like to ensure that we do it in a prudent way,” he said in the email.

In an interview, Tam acknowledged that while many people may have an “immediate gut reaction” that causes them to reflexively oppose the concept, the reality is that the issue is complicated.

“The notion that we will end up with Harry Potter living in a closet under the stairs is not the case here,” he said, adding that he did not expect many developers would pursue this course and that there would not be “a rush of windowless boxes.”

But he said that dropping a window requirement would allow people to have a bedroom who wouldn’t have one otherwise, and that, in any case, it is essential to pursue unconventional thinking to find new solutions.

“At the end of the day we are in a housing crisis, and the question is what can we do,” he said. “We may not need Bill 21. I’m willing to put ideas out there and see what happens instead of (waiting) for grand solutions to appear out of the air … It’s worth having these discussions.”

Dawn Apuna, director of the DPP, said in a statement that city officials are considering the implications of the measure, weighing ways to build more multifamily housing “while preventing undesirable and unlivable conditions, particularly for low-income residents.”

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