Thursday, August 21, 2008


The perfect house for Seattle or Cape Cod does not make a good home in Hilo, Hawaii. We have noticed that people build their dream house for the climate they just came from often resulting in a house not suitable for Hilo’s climate.

Hours before the hottest part of the day, when we are still cool from the tropical breeze blowing through our house, we hear the roar of ACʼs being fired up across the street struggling to pump heat out of their mainland style houses. Their windows without covering and thick insulation create a solar oven. Running AC is extremely expensive in Hilo as electricity is 4 to 10 times more per KWH than on the mainland.

During the rainy season, buckets of water pour out of the sky for long periods of time filling Hilo’s deep drainage ditches to the brim and turning streets into rivers. We’ve watched newer houses built with garages and gardens set below street level instantly fill with water creating the perfect environment for mold and mildew.

We are pesky visitors to the bugs’ domain here in Hawaii. You can’t keep them out, you can only make it harder for them to get in and unfriendly for them to stay. We notice Hawaii-style bug proofing is missing from a lot of mainland type houses.

Hilo has a 12 month growing season and grass and plants grow and shed leaves at a science fiction pace. Lawns and gardens require mowing and weeding several times a week. Acreage properties can turn into jungles if they are not constantly worked. We’ve heard stories of owners getting lost on their acreage in Puna due to overgrown foliage hiding their landmarks.

We’ve been studying the Hilo style house over the past 9 months and here are 10 attributes we believe can help make living in a Hilo home paradise:

(1) Long over-hanging roofs.

Long overhanging roofs prohibit the sun from shining directly in the windows keeping the house significantly cooler. The overhangs allow the windows and doors to remain open during driving rain which also keeps the house cooler and the air fresher.

If the house is multiple stories, overhangs are needed for each level to provide the same protection from the sun. Structural engineers say that long overhangs are the best design for high winds because they add stability to the structure by taking some of the load off the walls and putting it onto the roof. The length of overhang we are talking about is 5 feet or more.

(2) Designed for wind cooling and energy efficiency.

In the summer months the trade winds blow over 90% of the time. A house located so that it gets unobstructed access to the wind does not require AC. It can be raised up on poles or geographically situated so that it is not blocked from the trade winds by hills or other structures. The house needs to be designed so that wind can blow end to end through the house, preferably in all directions. The windows should open fully and have good screens and security latches so they can be left open all day and night.

Solar water heaters make a lot of sense in Hawaii, along with anything to minimize usage of electricity or propane. We have a water heater that we keep shut off most of the time and we use solar lights as night lights. Mainland style houses are designed for cheap energy which is not available in Hawaii.

(3) Foundation Perimeter.

Houses in Hilo last longer with an outside perimeter around the foundation that is gravel or lava. This keeps vegetation from growing up against the house and maximizes airflow under the house.

Any damage or bug invasions are easy to spot. Maintenance of the perimeter requires constant patrol and herbicide.

(4) Bug barriers on the house poles.

Pole and pier house construction needs metal bug barriers between every concrete footing and wooden pole to keep bugs from crawling up the poles to get into the house.

Bugs can also be kept out by using screens over windows, doors and roof openings to keep out birds and bugs. The screens have to be maintained as birds and bugs will slowly work their way through them.

Let the geckos inside though, as they eat a tremendous amount of bugs. We’ve even seen them make a dent in a termite swarm.

(5) Crawl space under the house.

Having a crawl space under the house creates airflow which deters bugs and dampness. You can check on the state of the foundation and put down pesticide if bugs show up.. Roaches and mosquitoes like damp enclosed spaces, rather than breezy crawl spaces.

Post and pier construction is very common in Hawaii because of these benefits.

(6) Termite control.

Unlike a cedar home in a forest of white pine, termites in Hilo will eat any wood if there is nothing else to eat, including cedar and redwood.

They will also eat books, wooden furniture, and concrete foundations if they are hungry enough. Most people recommend that houses be tented every 5 to 6 years to slow them down. Using treated wood helps slow them down as well.

But, it really isn’t a question of if your house will be eaten by bugs but how long you can keep it standing through bug proofing, insecticide, and replacing parts of walls and floors.

(7) Yard control.

The Hilo yard size should be proportional to your passion for mowing, trimming, and weeding. Labor is expensive and hard to find in Hawaii; it is not like the mainland where you can get five bids to cut your lawn or trim the trees. A lot of locals have lava front yards to deal with their yard maintenance.

Lack of maintenance of a yard can cause a lot of problems like having loud coqui frogs move in, plugging drainage ditches, and creating places with standing water.

Tropical fruit trees and lawns require a lot of work all year long and in this climate it is very intense work. It is always summer with no growing season slow down.

(8) Flood and dampness control.

Hilo homes have to plan for flooding. The house should be up high, with drainage around the foundation of the house. Any standing water has to be drained so as to not attract mosquitoes, frogs or other nuisances. Gutters need to deal with large amounts of water and put the water far from the house into an area that drains away from the property.

Without AC, mold and mildew patrol is a constant requirement. We check our walls and behind paintings. We use dampness absorbing packets in closets and work to keep mold at bay in bathrooms. Airflow helps minimize the problem. If we didn’t have large windows in the bathrooms, it would be a challenge to keep the dampness there under control.

(9) Metal roofs.

Metal roofs abound on Hilo houses. They reflect the heat, readily deal with rain, are bug proof, are fire proof, and can handle the rapid changes in temperature during the day.

Though they rust, they can be reconditioned or replaced. We are surprised at the number of mainlanders that build mainland houses with wood roofs.

(10) Great Neighbors.

Neighbors can be the highlight or low point of Hilo living. We spend more time outside, the windows are always open, and the walls are thin. We are lucky we didn’t move next to a neighbor with 5 dogs leashed outside our bedroom window, but we see houses down the street dealing with that very problem. We are blessed with wonderful neighbors that are generous and eager to keep watch over each other in a county with few police and lax enforcement.

We are above a favorite drifting site (drifting is when a car speeds down a street quickly swerving to get the car to slide and spin around in circles making loud screeching sounds similar to a car crash), which wakes us up at 2AM on many a weekend night. Like barking dogs, locals and police look the other way.


Anonymous said...

Wow, really enjoyed this article. I now spend six months of the year in Hawaii working on our directory, so housing is our next issue.

Thais said...

Dear Fellow Bay Area Boomer,

You are providing an enormous resource in your well-researched blog! I was surprised more folks hadn't been leaving comments until I tried to leave this one... (the setting up of an account to do so, didn't seem to easily post it). Anyway, I'm sure you are being read by many, many people. Thank you very much for the numerous hours you've put into it this year. I print, punch and keep your blog pages in a binder!

What would you say to doing some research about new home construction on the BI? ...General contractor selection and pricing given the current housing crisis... and, related services: catchment, solar, cesspool, finished carpentry etc. I've had some land for quite a while and am now thinking of building on it.

I hope to say, "Aloha" to you soon at the Farmers' Market. I've been looking for your (diminishing) "Dog Days of Summer" backside!

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I was researching why most of the houses here in Hilo were built using post and beam rather than regular foundations, now I know.

P.S. I submitted your post to a blog carnival for you.

Anonymous said...

as someone who started coming to hilo in 1988 and purchased a home in 2005 i am amazed by the people that do not have pier and post construction, do not have louvered windows for air flow and that do not have metal roofs. it rains a lot here and is humid and your house needs to be built taking that into account. hilo is not dry like kona.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out the need for a specialized foundation in Hilo.

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