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Little Grass Huts Get Big

Structures gain respect and legal standing. 'Everyone thinks it's cool to have a Hawaiian house in Hawaii,' one builder says.

October 26, 2003|Matt Sedensky | Associated Press Writer

HANA, Hawaii — The simple grass hut isn't so simple anymore.

The thatched Hawaiian hut known as the hale can require tens of thousands of dollars, a months-long wait and a builder with special certification.

Still, the structure is experiencing a rebirth in Hawaii. Local building codes for the huts have been eased and demand is growing. A new class of specially trained hale builders -- billed as the first such group in the world -- recently graduated, eager to dot such indigenous housing across the islands.

"People don't want to come here to see skyscrapers," said Frank Sinenci, a master hale builder who shares the skill through his Maui Community College program. "Everyone thinks it's cool to have a Hawaiian house in Hawaii."

Sinenci, 61, a former Air Force maintenance chief, has devoted the last decade to building the huts that have provided an image of Hawaii to millions.

It hasn't been easy. For years, getting the permits to build a Hawaiian hale (pronounced HAH-lay) meant surviving a vote by county officials after presenting a detailed proposal. But last year, Maui County Council passed a bill giving indigenous structures the same legal standing as Western dwellings.

"It does something that I think Hawaiians have been asking for some time," said state Sen. J. Kalani English, who worked on the bill as a council member. "It creates an equal footing for them. It's saying that we're not outside of the code."

Sinenci says an ancient builder could face death for improperly constructing a hale. Now, rules are eased but still strict, with only certified hale builders who have taken the Maui Community College class allowed to construct the huts on the island.

Sinenci taught 10 students through September, when they faced their final exam in a "Trading Spaces" meets "Amazing Race" feat. Besides a written test, the group had 48 hours to work together and construct a hale. The group camped out for the weekend, finished the hale on time and graduated.

"It was definitely difficult to get it done within the time frame," said graduate Chuck Boerner, 58. "But it was one of the more rewarding things I've done in my life."

The task of constructing a hale actually begins weeks before the building commences.

Trees suitable for the frame -- usually ironwood -- must be harvested, stripped and dried, then treated in saltwater to guard against termites. As many as hundreds of thousands of ti leaves, pili grass or fan palms must be gathered for thatching 10 to 12 inches deep. And when the supplies are in place, without using nails or screws, builders carefully erect the hut, held together by synthetic lashings, durable material typically used in place of the traditional braided coconut husk known as sennit.

The result is a structure that Sinenci contends is far more sturdy than Western buildings.

Eight years ago, while finishing a hale in Hana on Maui's east coast, Sinenci decided to test his hut's strength and spent the night there during a windstorm.

The next morning, he said, the weeks-old roof had blown off a school. His hale, on the other hand, hadn't lost a single ti leaf.

Hales, with their precise specifications and often breathtaking surroundings, evoke a simple elegance. But not everyone greets them with the same respect. Sinenci recounts a time when a visitor saw a hale he was building.

"He said, 'Wow, this is the Third World,' " Sinenci said. "No. This is the First World. This is the real Hawaii."

Hales can take many different forms -- from simple shelters similar to lean-tos to intricate open-air structures almost resembling an A-frame home, with wood poles lining the perimeter and a steep thatched roof.

They can take up to three months to finish and generally cost $45 to $75 per square foot -- upwards of $100,000 for the most intricate models.

Sinenci gets calls from many in Hawaii and elsewhere seeking to add one to their property.

"Right now, there's a lot of people that want one as a status symbol," he said. "I don't care if you got the money. There's got to be a good reason why you want one."

The new county regulations bar plumbing and electrical wiring from structures built of grass and leaves, meaning they are only suitable as an addition to a property with a regular house.

English, whose family has a hale, hopes that they will again spread across the islands, becoming home to hula schools, charter schools, even public housing units.

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