Developing Your Hawaii Homestead from the Ground Up



Congratulations!  You’ve crossed that first hurdle.  You now have your little slice of paradise.  But what now? Where do you start? Well that’s where this post comes in.  I have developed half a dozen homesteads in Hawai’i and have learned that knowing a few important things can help dramatically along the way, especially the names and numbers of reliable installers help to make your homesteading dreams come true.  Let’s dive on in.

Designing Your space

One of THE most important steps to building your dream home, but many times often overlooked.  Designing your home and property BEFORE doing any work can save you so many headaches down the line.

The benefits of bootstrapping and living on the land as you build is that you have plenty of time to observe your site. Notice where the sun rises and falls.  How the rain comes in. Where the best views are and so on. Also think about your home in relation to the rest of the property. Can I locate my veggie garden and chickens close to the house?  Where would the trees go? Try designing your landscape in zones, with zone 1 being an area that you are really active in, to zone 5 where you leave alone to nature.

As you observe your site, play with it on paper.  Get detailed with the design of your home and the design of your landscape. Don’t worry about making it perfect.  There are always changes that can be made as you develop. I know that there have been many times that I had to rebuild a window because it was in the wrong spot or wished that the chicken coop was closer and easier to access.

If you are interested in learning more about designing your home in your landscape, I encourage you to discover the design science of Permaculture, it will change your world.

Permits

The subject everybody loves talking about, permits.  How do I get them? What kind do I need?

Hawaiʻi operates off the same building codes as the rest of America, so if you are building it, it probably needs a permit.  Having a contractor build your home can make this process go pretty smoothly because most contractors have negotiated the permit process many times before.  But weʻre not professional contractors, are we?

The best route to take is that of an owner/builder.  Submit your plans (stamped by a licensed Hawaiʻi architect) and apply for your permit.  Or buy a kit from one of the many local building companies. Eight months later and $5k to $10k later, you should have your permit in hand ready to go.  You can view the building code and permit process hereOpens in a new tab..

As an owner builder, you can do most of the work yourself, as long as you follow code.  However, when it comes to electricity and plumbing, thatʻs when you need to call in a licensed professional.

Are there ways around the permitting process?  Of course there are. But that risk is up to you to take.  Without a permit you may be ordered to remove the unpermitted portions of on your property or bring them up to code.  This mainly happens only when someone reports you, so make nice with the neighbors, or have a REALLY private property where no one can see what you are doing.  That said, I see tons of unpermitted structures all over Hawaiʻi Island. Another downfall when it comes to building without a permit is if there ever comes a time that you want to sell.  Your property value will be much less because perspective buyers will have to come up with an all cash payment as banks will not finance properties like this.

If you already have a permitted dwelling and can prove your property is function as an agriculture business, you can legally build farm worker structures on your property without a permit.  This is good news for those of us who want to start a farm in Hawaiʻi.

Whichever path you choose, just make sure it is right for you.


Clearing Land

D9 Dozer, land clearer

If you are lucky, youʻve found yourself a beautiful piece of property with a nice open field from where you can build your home.  The most eco-friendly option would be to forgo any heavy machinery and build a home that works with your site and topography. You would still have to consider access, which may involve a bulldozer to cut a road and loads of base rock or red cinder to make it a bit more compacted.

Hawaiʻi is pretty young, geologically speaking, so you may find yourself with a property with nothing but rock where soil should be and a pretty thick forest growing out of that rock..  In this instance, many prefer to clear with a D9 Dozer. It really does the best job clearing the site and ripping up the rock so plants can get more of a foothold. If you do this option I would advise leaving some native area untouched on your property for instant privacy, native habitat, and beauty, especially if you have Ohia trees because they are being threatened.  A fully ripped lot is a little sad looking too. I highly suggest Alani BulldozingOpens in a new tab. for the job. Going rate is $10k an acre.

Another way to clear would be to rent a small excavator to clear the vegetation, leaving the natural contours of the landscape better intact than a D9 dozer would do. If your really hardy, clearing the lot by hand could also work, but a good machete, hedge trimmer, chainsaw and loppers would be your best friend.  The drawbacks are that lots cleared in this manner would be much more difficult to maintain the grass. You would most likely have to use a weed whacker whereas if you cleared with a D9 you could get away with a mower.

Once your lot is cleared, it is customary to lay down 1.5” red cinder as your base material and ¾” black cinder where you want to have grass and other landscape plantings.  Most folks in the Puna district order their material either from Puna RockOpens in a new tab. or SanfordʻsOpens in a new tab.. A quarter acre could be covered with cinder by two 32 yard trucks at roughly $800. Be sure to have the truck driver to spread it as they dump, it makes the finally spreading go much smoother.  

It would also be a good idea to site your water tank and prepare the base for the tank at this time.  Island catchment would be your go to tank installer in Puna. You can probably estimate $1 per gallon installed.  If you are thinking of installing a septic, now would be a good time to get that project done as well. If the septic is at all located in an area that would make deliveries difficult, then maybe installing it after the major portions of construction are done would be better. Peter does a great job for an affordable price when it comes to septic needs.  Can run anywhere from $2000 to $7000.

Fantastic!  Lot is cleared. We are almost ready to build.  In the meantime, check you design. Can you get any trees you want in the ground now to give them a head start while you build?  Youʻll be so happy to get your trees in before you build. They grow so fast here that by the time you build your house, your trees will have a nice head start.  Just make sure they wonʻt get in the way of anything though.

Getting power

Alternative Solar Energy, Off grid

To tie into to the grid or not tie into the grid?  That is the question. When dealing with raw land, if you plan on tying into the grid, you will have to pay a fee that runs anywhere from $3k on up depending on how far your home is from the pole.  You will also need a building permit in order to get a temporary pole on your property. Once that power comes in you can expect to be looking at one of the highest electricity bills in the country.  So you either better get good at conserving power, or you might want to think about an alternative.

Instead of paying the electric company, how about BEING the electric company.  When we first built our home over 15 years ago, we purchased a small solar system with 4 deep cycle batteries, a 1500watt inverter, a charge controller and four 200 watt panels.  It was able to work lights, computer and an off grid Sundanzer Fridge, all for close to $5k. Prices are about the same or a little bit higher, simply because the technology is 10xʻs better.  We have since upgraded our batteries and added on a few more solar panels, but the bones of the system remains the same. Over the past 15 years, we have probably put $9k into our solar system and have paid $0 to any electric company.  I would have to say it pays for itself, you just need the upfront cash. May I recommend SolarmanOpens in a new tab. for your off grid solar needs. Most solar companies in Hawaiʻi focus on grid tie systems, but Solarman is THE installer for off grid situations.

Wind can also work in certain situations.  If your property is located on a windy site, small scale wind generators can be a great option.  However, I would say they should be considered as a back up or only if solar could not be implemented because when you have moving parts, machines tend to fail quicker.  Wind Generator=lots of moving parts. Solar Systems=zero moving parts.

As a backup, whether grid tied or not, I would recommend a Honda EU 2200i Generator.  Power supplied by the electric company goes out pretty regularly out here. It’s nice to have a little back up handy.  If youʻre off grid, you may have to kick in a little extra juice to top off your batteries on a cloudy day. I use mine to power my tools.  I built my whole house using this generator. I have had mine for over 10 years. I maintain it regularly and it still works great!!

Water systems

Water tanks

The great thing about Homesteading in Hawaiʻi is the ample rainfall (if you live in a wet part of the island).  Water catchment should definitely be part of your homesteading quiver. In the rural parts of Hawaiʻi Island, water catchment is the norm.  But even if you had the chance to get hooked up to county water, you should seriously consider installing your own catchment instead. Once again you would have to pay to hook up to county water and why do that when water rains freely from the sky?

Most folks use a water tank made from a combo of corrugated metal, liner and a cover.  You can also find fully enclosed plastic tanks or fabricate a ferrocement tank. The first option is the cheapest per gallon.  At my home, where we receive 120” of rain a year, we only have a 3k tank to fulfill the water needs of 5 people. A lot of folks run out of water in their 10k gallon water tanks during extended dry periods, but we have never gone down below half.  We were raised in CA, where conservation was drilled into us from a very young age. But still, I feel like we use a lot of water. I just donʻt get how someone can make their 10k gallon tank go dry. Island Catchment Opens in a new tab.would be a great company for your water catchment needs.

If you are looking to turn that rainwater into drinking water, you would first want to have your roof made out of painted corrugated metal.  It really is the cleanest surface. You would then run it through two coarse filters and then thru a uv filter system which kills all the micro pathogens and makes your water drinkable.  The unfortunate part is that these systems take power, so unless you have enough, you may have to add more capacity to your energy system. Another option I have seen used is the Berkey Water filter.  These require a little more active filtration on your part, theyʻre more like a Brita water filter than a whole house water filter such as a uv filter. Get yours from the Berkey Guy.Opens in a new tab.

Types of homes to build in Hawai’i

Homebuilding today is going thru so many innovations.  It is an exciting time! No longer is the stick frame house the only house being built these days.  There is so much experimentation going on. With the right property, know how, time and money, you can build something amazing.

Traditional Homes
Unfortunately, if you are looking for a loan or hope to sell one day, a traditional stick frame home is all that can be built these days legally.  The cheapest option is to purchase a kit option from the local hardware stores, such as Argus, HPM or Honsador. Going the owner/builder route is a great way to save money, but with this option you can hire contractors to do it for you as well.

Yurts

Yurts of Hawaii

Yurts are popping up everywhere these days.  Traditionally from Mongolia, yurts are catching on as a very affordable option for housing.  They are made from heavy duty vinyl and canvas, sometimes making them prone to algae growth if not well maintained.  I have seen many creative uses for yurts and they should definitely not be cast off as some fad idea. These are great viable options that also are within a gray area in the permitting process.  This option can run anywhere from $10k – $30k or more, depending on how big you go. You can go to YurtsOpens in a new tab. of Hawai’iOpens in a new tab. for all your Yurt needs.

Shipping Containers

Shipping container homes

With Hawaiʻi being an Island, Shipping containers have become an increasingly common option.  With some handy metal cutting tools and welding skills, you can transform a shipping container into a beautiful home.  One caveat is that the metal tends to heat up if left in the sun, so make sure you site a container with ample shade to keep the tropical temps down.  Containers start at $4k, converting them into a home is up to you.

Tiny Homes

Tiny homes are a craze that is sweeping the nation during these nomadic times with skyrocketing rents.  While I have seen some tiny homes, traditional small homes that can fit on a towable trailer, tiny homes have not been catching as much here in Hawaiʻi as they have on the mainland.  Maybe it’s because we are on an island. If this style a building intrigues you, visit www.tinyhomes.comOpens in a new tab. to learn more.

Aircrete

Aircrete

A recent development that seems very promising is the use of aircrete to build homes here in Hawaiʻi.  Aircrete is made by inject air and another solution to make it both lighter and stronger than traditional concrete.  Have you ever been to a mini golf course with fake dinosaurs and giant windmills? Aircrete is very similar to that style of building.  It can be molded and formed into whatever the imagination can create. This option is a very affordable option for building a home in Hawaiʻi that can also be resistant to many of the reasons why homes decay in the first place. Contact DomeGaiaOpens in a new tab. to learn more.

Bamboo Homes

Bamboo Homes Hawaii

This is one of my favorite building methods.  Utilizing a local resource, bamboo has great promise to be the building material of the future.  It is commonly used in many parts of southeast Asia and Columbia. If only the United States could adopt this method of construction, the network of knowledgeable builders could grow.  As for now it is know as a difficult material to work with. Most homes constructed from bamboo in Hawaiʻi are imported by a company called Bamboo LivingOpens in a new tab.. These homes can be permitted.

Cordwood/stone

Cordwood Construction

Cordwood and stone can be another great option for building construction in Hawaiʻi.  Both are plentiful and very resistant to decay. Cordwood is the technique of taking essentially firewood and stacking it in a bricklike pattern with concrete mortar in between.  Paired with a stone foundation and/or wall section, you can have the makings of a solid home that would have the elegance and charm of a home from yesteryear. This can be a very affordable option if you do most of the foraging for materials yourself.  It is also possible to have this style of home permitted if you use the cordwood/stone as an infill but use wood framing as the main support of the structure.

Traditional Hawaiian Hale

Traditional Hawaiian Home

Not in use much today, but this could still be a very good option for those more hardy souls.  By utilizing wood poles, lashing and local grasses or palm fronds, you can make a beautiful traditional home for very little money.  The only problem is that these homes are more open to the elements, they do not lock up, and they can breakdown quickly. These homes can most likely get past the permitting process.

Cob & Strawbale
I threw these building methods on here because when I first moved to Hawai’i I had this romantic dream that I was going to build a home out of cob and strawbales.  Two problems, there isn’t much clay soil and strawbales are imported, making them REALLY expensive. So much for that idea. However, earthbag construction can work in areas with soil, so it is still possible to build with earth.  I’m guessing the plaster would have to be made of a concrete though since clay is scarce, at least on Hawai’i Island, maybe the older islands have more clay.

It’s Time to Build

There you have it.  Developing your homestead from the ground up. Having a design, permits (or no Permits), energy, waste and water figured out, and the style of home you wish to build, you are well on your way to building your dream off grid homestead in Hawai’i.

If you have a chance, please leave us a comment below to let us know where we may have missed something, or to add valuable insights of your own.  We can all learn a lot from each other. A Hui Hou!!!

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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