Building code ignores the obvious – at great expense

“I want to go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua Hawaii.” Do you dare go back to when a little grass shack was considered adequate housing? You might be fined if the shack does not fully comply with the international building code.

Many entities, both government and private enterprise, are struggling to recruit workers. There are many immigrants waiting at the border who would be happy to fill those jobs. We can’t bring them to Hawaii though due to the lack of housing. Housing if you can find it has become just too expensive. What is the government doing about it? Making it more expensive and more difficult to create or share.


New building codes add requirements that make no sense here. The international building code has become the standard. The house built to the international code will be adequate for even the most harsh climate, yet we have the world’s mildest climate. All of these additional requirements run up the price dramatically. Why in Hawaii where it never snows do we design roofs to support 5 feet of snow? Why in Hawaii where the temperature range is typically between 60° and 80°, hardly any house has a heating system and very few have air-conditioning, do we need R19 ceiling installation and dual pane E-glass? E-glass, the kind installed in Arizona for the scorching 135-degree heat. Dual pane is needed in Minnesota or Siberia for the minus 40 cold. How much energy will this save in a house that is neither heated nor air-conditioned? A house where the windows are usually open. The logic I was given is: In case someone in the future wants to air-condition.

Who decided that every house must be built on a slab, even on the 26% slopes of our mountainsides. This adds the cost of excavating a volume of hard rock approximately the same as the volume of the house. Then building a clerestory or two under the house to bring the first floor up to the practical level. Supposedly for safety, but we have many post and pier houses over 80 years old that have survived multiple Hawaii earthquakes.

Do we need Florida hurricane standards in Kona, which has never experienced a hurricane?

As with many proposals, one must ask who benefits? The oldest known building code was included in the code of Hammurabi, if a house collapsed and killed people, the builder was put to death, eye-for-eye. Modern building codes are not quite as draconic. However, we do have fines for people who own things that don’t meet the current code, even if there is no consequence to the occupants or neighbors. There are three legitimate reasons for a building code, one obviously is safety. We don’t want buildings that fall down during expectable conditions as we have seen recently in Turkey and Syria. The second reason is for taxation, the logic being if you can afford to build it, you can afford to pay taxes to maintain the services that you depend on. Energy conservation can be a legitimate issue.

Where does the extravagance come from? Building codes are derived from industry standards that are developed by insiders, that include manufacturers of electrical, and plumbing fixtures, lumber, flooring, windows, doors, and so forth. Their motivation is to sell more of their products. Architects and builders make more money if they build a more expensive house. They have very little motivation to produce the most economical house that is reasonably safe and convenient.

The sad part is that this results in a McMansion or nothing situation. If you can’t afford an air-conditioned 1340 square foot, 3-bedroom 2-bath, house with attached garage, live outdoors, but don’t get caught.

The little grass shack was adequate for the original island culture until haole missionaries decided that rigid walls, chimneys, metal roofs and glass windows were necessary, along with clothing. Can’t we have some sort of practical compromise adjusted for local conditions before someone decides all homes must be volcano and tsunami proof.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to . His seventh book is free at