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Dick Turpin

Pacific: Sea of Challenge

September 13, 1987|Dick Turpin

WAILEA, Maui — When you're basking in the splendor of this island, it's not easy to get serious about the world's homeless.

But developers, builders, lenders, architects and others concerned with the need for affordable housing throughout the western United States and the Pacific Rim nations met here for four days at the first Pacific Basin Development Conference to listen to development opportunities and attendant problems.

They heard speakers conversant with the area's development, financing, zoning, marketing and environmental issues discuss case studies of their respective projects and efforts throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Ocean nations. They also visited some posh, well-planned ocean-front and inland housing and condominium projects, as well as affordable housing tracts in Maui, seeing a cross section of available housing. They also heard about the constant need for more affordable housing for those whose work is related to tourism--hotel and restaurant employees, drivers, vendors and low-income families.

Amid the comfort of the Inter-Continental Hotel at Wailea, they heard of the unprecedented and innovative work of architect Bruce Etherington in Manila, transforming hovels of cardboard boxes into a subdivision of homes built of interlocking concrete blocks for 350 families.

Etherington, chairman of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, described his work with his system, LOK-BILD, using unskilled laborers who eventually occupy the units, becoming the first covered home ever for most slum dwellers.

Although his system has withstood earthquakes of 7.3 on the Richter scale and 150-m.p.h. winds, Hawaiian housing officials have been generally unenthused about his system, raising the old bromide, "does it meet code?"

But, dedicated to providing affordable housing for the poor of the world, he doesn't plan to submit his system to satisfy those building codes, but he declared it could be used anywhere in the world where there is need for housing of the poor.

Pointedly, he adds that his LOK-BILD system would easily have withstood Hurricane Iwa which struck and created havoc on the island of Kauai on Nov. 23, 1982.

His efforts are visible in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, working with local government agencies. All costs--from start to finish of one of his typical housing projects, all done with unskilled labor--come to $3.99 per square foot, he said. "Workers don't know which unit their families will be occupying, so they work just as hard on all phases of construction," from building the blocks to hanging doors.

The ultimate compliment, he said, came from one official who quipped, "These houses are too good for the poor!"

Just before Etherington left the conference to hurry back to his classes at the Honolulu campus, Bryan Hardwick, conference chairman, presented him with a plaque from the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, citing the architect for his continuing donation of time and expertise in the cause of housing.

Proceeds from the conference, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, will benefit the BIA's educational fund. The meeting attracted 80 persons, almost all from Southern California.

The recent advent of the Japanese real estate investors into the United States markets was discussed by Joseph M. Knott, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Kenneth Leventhal & Co., and Mavin Dodge, executive vice president and general manager of Japan-based Kumagai Gumi Co., sixth largest contracting firm in the world.

They described--and agreed--that Japanese investor representatives are tenacious but willing to negotiate almost endlessly. They pay cash usually, and are conservative but committed investors, they also agreed.

Knott said Japanese families save a great deal of their income (an estimated 20%), but because of inflation and high land costs in the cities, they must commute to work as much as two hours daily.

Having participated in 181 transactions with Japanese firms, Knott said, the Japanese buyer's utmost concern has been the American firm's track record. It's inevitable that the next wave of activity will include joint ventures with American firms, he added.

Dodge, who plans to leave Kumagai Gumi in January to pursue other goals, has handled major transactions throughout the western U.S. for the company, including projects in downtown Los Angeles, Burbank and North Hollywood.

A financial "ripple in the U.S.A. creates a tidal wave in Japan," Dodge said, citing the dollar-yen relationship of the two nations. He expects the pace of Japanese investment in the United States to continue for another five years.

He and Knott conceded that they have noticed and experienced some resentment and hostility during transactions between American and Japanese interests, particularly by American construction firms; real estate negotiators appear to be a little more "sophisticated," Dodge said.

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