Tuesday, September 30, 2008


In Hilo, Hawaii, some people stayed up all weekend watching the never ending media coverage of the Wall Street bailout package. Those living on military retirement or other government pensions in Hilo don’t seem worried but people depending on self managed IRA retirements are becoming extremely upset as they watch their portfolio values endlessly drop.

Since Bush's declaraion of a global economic disaster last week, gasoline prices in Hilo have dropped and the cost of fruits and vegetables at Hilo’s farmer’s market have gone down. At Hilo’s fish market there is a surge in the supply high grade tuna, salmon and there seems to be a lot more fish.

The interest rates paid on CDs at the local banks in Hawaii have gone up and there has been no run on the banks here in Hilo. Unlike the people on the mainland impacted by their Washington Mutual credit cards no longer being accepted, in Hilo the economy is mostly cash based.

In the last three months tourism has dropped sharply across Hawaii. Figures being published for hotel occupancy rates across the State show drops of 26% to 40%. On the Big Island tourism brought in $11 billion last year so if this downturn continues it will mean $2.8 billion to $4.4 billion less income to Hawaii County or $19,000 to $30,000 per resident. A drop of this magnitude will result in dramatic changes to the local economy.

What is unclear is what the changes will be. We know of some changes already, such as less power consumption on the island. In a discussion with local electric company employees this past weekend they said power consumption is down due to less tourists using AC in their hotel rooms. The Hawaii tourism board supports hundreds of projects and groups to entertain tourists and we suspect the funding for these will be reduced.

As hotel and tourist related jobs disappear perhaps agriculture will again gain importance on the Big Island and employ those that will be laid off by this downturn in tourism. We’ve said before that the tourism business on the Big Island profits mainland hotel and power companies more than the local economy. Perhaps we are overly optimistic, but we think that as the people of Hawaii reinvent the local economy, even if the resulting economy is smaller, it could be more beneficial and offer a higher quality of life to the people that live here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


On US maps, North America is in the center of the world and Hawaii is shown as a small inset. Living in Hawaii, has put Hawaii in the center of our world and the Pacific Ocean in the center of our map.

The cover of a Japanese High school geography book depicts a map of the world from the Japanese perspective. The map centers on Japan and the Pacific Ocean and shows Hawaii as an equal to the continents of Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and America.
This map got us wondering about the physical size of Hawaii and why the Japanese would see it as so important.

Here are different ways of viewing Hawaii:

Hawaiian Surface Area

The land area (above water) of all the Hawaiian Islands put together is 6400 square miles (16,576 square km) making it the 47th US State in size. If the water within the Hawaiian Islands is included in the calculation, then Hawaii is the 43rd largest US State in size, larger than Massachusetts but smaller than Maryland. If you include the entire Hawaiian Ridge, which consists of the islands of Hawaii and the US Marine reserve that extends northwest to the Kure Atoll, then Hawaii consists of 140,000 square miles (362,598 square km) and would be the 4th largest US State behind California, but ahead of Montana.

Hawaiian Geological Formations

Hawaii is a part of a bigger entity known as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamo
unt chain which includes the Hawaiian Ridge and the Emperor Seamounts, a vast underwater mountain range containing over 80 identifiable volcanoes. It stretches over 3600 miles (5793.6 km) from the Aleutian Trench in the far northwest Pacific Ocean to the youngest volcano in the chain, Lo’ihi seamount which lies about 22 miles (35.4 km) from the Island of Hawaii.

Hawaii consists of a huge mountain range that spans the northern Pacific Ocean with 8 small islands representing the visible portion of the mountains. The Mejii seamount portion of the Emperor mountain range is the oldest in the range with an estimated age of 83 million years and here on the Big Island, at the other side of the chain, formation is still happening from the continuous lava flows.

Hawaii consists of the tallest and most massive mountains in the world. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on Earth measured from base to summit with a total height of 33,475 feet (10,203 meters). The base of Mauna Kea on the floor of the Pacific Ocean is 19,678.5 feet (5,998 meters) below sea level and its summit is 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) above sea level. Mauna Loa, only 115 feet (35 meters) lower than Mauna Kea, is the most massive mountain on Earth spanning an area of 2,035 square miles (5,271 km2) with a volume of 19,000 cubic miles (80,000 cubic kilometers).

Hawaiian Global Weather Impact

Though ancient glaciers
no longer cover Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, snow still covers them in the winter. And despite Hawaii looking like tiny specks of land within a vast ocean, it impacts the ocean currents and wind patterns over much of the northern Pacific Ocean. The trade winds blow from the NE t
o the SW, from the Americas toward Asia, but the mountains on Hawaii create a wind block that splits the trade winds creating a zone of weak winds on the leeward side of the islands. This “wind wake” caused by Hawaii extends 1860 miles (3,000 km), the longest identified wind wake on earth. The unique ”wind wake” is considered the cause of an eastward “counter current” that brings warm water 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from the Asian coast to Hawaii. This warm water causes changes in the wind, weather, and marine life extending the Hawaii effect far into the western Pacific regions. In addition, current volcanic activity in Hawaii is affecting the ocean temperature and global weather.

Hawaiian Culture

Hawaii is the only US State not on the continent of North America and it has a different cultural history than the Americas. It is the only US State with its own language, a non-European language that is used widely in the State and its schools, businesses, and government. The language and culture are perpetuated through dance and ceremony and a way of life that is uniquely Hawaiian. Hawaii is the only State with a historic local monarchy and an official royal palace.

To those living on the American continent, these may seem quaint differences, but in the Polynesian and Asian cultures, these things are considered to be of great significance. From an Asian perspective, America is a far distance from Hawaii and people living in Hawaii are not considered to be Americans. The Japanese word for Americans is “Amerikajin”, but those that live in Hawaii, regardless of their race or nationality, are “Hawaiijin”.

The massive area, ancient and active geology, remote location, climatic impact, and culture make Hawaii feel more like a continent than a set of small islands. As newcomers we are just beginning to understand how the world views Hawaii and the people that live here and we have come to discover that it is a view far different than the mainland US.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


House kits are a popular way to build houses in Hawaii as they solve many of the construction issues unique to Hawaii.

One of the problems when building a house in Hawaii is that key structural components and hardware shipped in from the mainland are hard to replace if they get broken or were missing from the primary shipping container. We met an owner builder who had a house kit shipped from Seattle in a Matson box. He calculated that it would save him $8000 over a kit bought in Hawaii. During construction, a key roof truss was damaged. The house construction was delayed 6 weeks while a replacement component was trucked from a lumber mill in Seattle, put into a container (all by itself), then shipped to Hawaii. That was not his only problem. When it was time to put the roof on, it turns out that the specialized nails were not included in the kit and were not available locally. He had to have them air freighted over from the mainland. He was really sorry he did not buy a kit locally. Hawaii house kits resolve the problem of long delays for parts from the mainland by having the parts and replacement parts stored locally. Broken or defective parts can be replaced quickly from local stocks.

Another challenge of building in Hawaii is getting skilled construction workers. Construction companies here can’t get labor from neighboring states (or countries) as they do on the mainland for residential construction projects. Highly skilled construction people are in short supply, as Hawaii is one of the favorite places for heads of major companies and wealthy movie producers from around the world to build vacation getaways. Whenever we find someone new to town with construction skills, it is not long before they are working full time on some multimillion dollar home project, making much more money than we could pay. Though many of the house kits require significant skills to construct, the crews on the island have built them many times before so they go up quickly without many unexpected problems or shortages of critical materials.

Security is a serious issue when building a house in Hawaii as theft of construction materials is very common. There is even a term for houses built with stolen materials; it is called a “found house” meaning “I found a little of it here and a little of it there”. This is a particularly difficult challenge if the house is being built in a remote area. Our building project in Ocean View ended when we were advised by several builders that before they would consider making an offer to build, a plan for the security of the materials would have to be worked out. Several ideas were proposed to resolve the issue. One idea was to get a trailer or camper so we could live there for the duration of construction. Another suggestion was to first build an Ohana, a small one bedroom house at the front of the property so it would be available for someone to live there to provide the needed security for the house when we were not there and to provide a place for us or workers to live during the construction. Kits help alleviate the security costs by reducing the construction time requiring less time and expense on providing security.

Reducing the construction time can also save you the cost of alternative housing during construction and the cost of gas if the crew is commuting from another area. Local contractors have a very high level of skill in building the popular house kit models and they can offer valuable ideas about how to configure a model to best meet your needs. For example, the model could be built with higher interior walls (9 foot ceilings instead of 8 foot ceilings) to get more air flow, the master bathroom could be expanded into the space of one of the bedrooms, and decking for the porch could be upgraded . The county building permits process, which can take a while, may go faster with a well known kit model since the county has seen and approved the same blueprints repeatedly. Some people with building skills build the kits themselves. A family from Alaska built an HPM kit house in about 90 days, during their normal winter stay away from Alaska. It is an exceptionally well built house even though they were not professionals in construction.

Locally designed house kits are often architected for Hawaii and its special climate and insect issues. The houses usually have long overhangs, large lanais, and good air flow.

Though we received a permit for an HPM house kit, the security issue convinced us that the time was not right for us to build. Building in a remote area of Hawaii means you have to be ready to spend the majority of your time there or have another person that is willing to be there. Though we feel the draw of being on acreage in Hawaii, we’ve lived on a remote on acreage in Texas in the past and after six months found ourselves constantly driving to town for food, friendships and entertainment. We are looking at areas to build in the Hilo area so someday we can have the best of living in Hilo and our own place. So far, renting is working out really well and keeping us from considering a move.

If you decide to build, then finding a great contractor is critical. Our advice is to find the company you’re going to use for your construction loan. They have contractors that they have worked with in the past and are usually happy to recommend the good ones. A construction loan requires regular inspections before each milestone payment is made which gives loan companies a great view of the better builders. Asking several mortgage companies for their contractor recommendations for a given area and project provides a way to find out who is highly thought of by lenders. We have worked with Tim Delozier at Amera Mortgage on building loans. We have found Tim and his staff very helpful and supportive through our challenges of building versus buying or in our case not-building in Hawaii .

Here are some House Kit links for Hawaii

Multi-facetted home kits are made in Oregon from cedar and shipped over in crates. We have been out to see these models in Puna and were very impressed with how they look and the people that we met that sell them. The house plans look even better to us after living here10 months because they are very open and airy. They are a round design which is easy to add a large porch.

Trojan Lumber in Hilo has added many new house model designs. Their Polynesian Series King model prices look very competitive. We have not met anyone who has built one of these so we are not sure how easy they are to build.

Kavana homes are very popular on the island because they will give you a price to build the house on your lot and you don’t have to have a contractor. We have seen these being built on many lots and the company has a model home near Hilo airport. But we have not met any one who has built one or had one built. The price looks very attractive but they are not our favorite designs because they look very “mainland”. The roof lines are short without large shaded porches and the windows are small. But the kits have price and convenience appeal.

HPM Hawaii house designs have been our favorite as they have a lot of Hawaii friendly designs and the price for materials is very reasonable. HPM keeps all the kit parts in stock; we haven’t heard of anyone having supply issues with their kits. The Lahula model is our favorite design as it has a great porch and an airy interior. We have seen these house plans finished, met people who have built them, and watched them being built. So far all reviews have been very good. Many contractors have extensive experience building this model which can speed up the project significantly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


It seemed like an easy task; we would take a year to concentrate on getting fit. All we had to do was work out every day, eat the healthiest foods available, and restrict our calories to encourage weight loss.

When we started, I assumed that I would be at my ideal weight and totally fit within four months. I could have easily done it in that time when I was 40. But it is going much slower. The pounds are peeling off at rate of more like 2 pounds a month than my expected loss of 2 pounds a week. Though I am doing much easier work outs than I did in my early 40’s, I feel more worn out by them. For the first months I was so exhausted I couldn’t do much else during the day. I am much more sore from work outs than I ever remember being. (My internet research says exhaustion and pain are the primary reasons that most people in their 50s give up on their workouts before getting into shape.)

My first workouts this year, which mostly consisted of walking, met with severe pain from bunions on my feet. This inherited malady results in terrible foot pain and swelling from walking or standing too much at one time. My foot pain lead us to our daily routine of lap swimming and water aerobics. (Studies show that water aerobics is one of the best ways to get into shape and burn calories without impacting your joints or getting injuries.) Water aerobics is giving me a great upper body, abdominal, and leg workout all at the same time.

And not only that, one of the other people in the class is a retired mechanic, a brilliant mechanic. He has answered dozens of questions I have had for years about engines and carburetors.

We are in our own world as we talk about cars and motors and solar energy which makes the time pass quickly so that I hardly notice the work out. I have learned so much about engines and solar energy! We can work out even in the rain and being in the pool for an hour in the morning somehow keeps us cooler on the hot days.

After six months of concerted effort, we are seeing progress. Our goal is to not be overweight (BMI of 25 or less) and have healthy waist sizes (based on Drs Roizen and Oz waist size measurements in their book “You on a Diet”). We weigh in and measure our waist size weekly. Our weight and waists are very slowly, but steadily, shrinking.

Some of the progress I notice indirectly. For example, our lawn is on a fairly steep hill and mowing wore me out so much that I had to break it into 4 sections and mow them each on different days. Now I can mow it easily in 2 sections (maybe not that easily). A couple of weeks ago, we went to Kona and snorkeled at our favorite spot at Kahalu’u Beach park. After 30 minutes I am usually so tired that I am out of breath and have to sit on the beach a while to rest before going to the car. Last month we snorkeled for over an hour and we were not out of breath or tired after getting out. These are small victories that keep us motivated to continue as the year progresses.

I ask myself, “Is it worth it?” Half way through the year, my answer is, “More than I could have ever guessed”. During my 40’s extra pounds crept on and every year I felt heavier and less energy. My previous strategies for getting off the pounds no longer worked. These days it seems like everyone is over weight including young people. Now, as the pounds come off and my muscles get bigger, I notice that I am getting better service and more attention from people then before. It seems to be rare and more notable to be fit at 51 than fit at 40.

It suddenly feels really important as well. (I have read on the internet that the more muscle you have on your body the healthier that it makes your heart and that it enables older people to live longer without assistance.)

It is different getting fit and losing weight in Hawaii than it was back on the mainland. On the mainland it felt like I was just losing fat off my body and adding muscle, I would get thinner and stronger. In Hawaii it feels like the sun and diet of fresh fish and fruit is creating a new body, not just changing the body I have. When I look down at my tan legs, the skin looks and feels different, as does the skin on my arms and face.

The only thing I can think of is that it is the weather. Hilo weather is hot and yet not so hot that you have to sit in an air conditioned room. The lawn needs to be mowed 12 months of the year; the trees continually produce fruit; it is always growing season; the days never get shorter; it is always warm enough to swim and snorkel and take walks and long afternoon naps. It feels like my body is anew from a life of perpetually perfect summer days and eating fresh food without hydrogenated oils, dyes, hormones, and preservatives.