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Could Tiny Houses Have a Big Impact on Hawai‘i’s Future?

The tiny house trend is looking pretty tempting.


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Designs from Blue and Green Innovations.
Photo: Courtesy of Blue and Green Innovations

 

With Hawai‘i’s housing market so tight, one national trend is looking pretty tempting: tiny houses. You’ve probably seen these in upscale magazines such as Dwell: compact homes and apartments that make the most of just a couple hundred square feet. And, the new market for Accessory Dwelling Units may pump up demand for these little homes.

 

Sounds like the perfect premise for hopeful Hawai‘i homebuyers, right? We’re short on acreage, and we’re all about everything kawaii. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are several factors that make building tiny homes a challenge in the Islands, from permitting hassles, to mobile-home restrictions, to the downright astronomical price of land. 

 

PHOTO: COURTESY OF BLUE AND GREEN INNOVATIONS

 

Still, there are a few local companies that are promising to put you in the teeny house of your dreams. They haven’t built many (or, in some cases, any) units yet, but they’re already thinking big—or rather, small.

 

Tiny Pacific houses shrink style and substance into one small package.
Photo: Courtesy Tiny Pacific Homes 

Take Tiny Pacific Houses, the brainchild of Hawai‘i-born Brandon Hardin, who saw the trend gaining steam in the Pacific Northwest. Hardin imports his mobile microdwellings, which can fit either an on-the-go lifestyle or be established on a foundation, from a Mainland certified RV manufacturer. Step inside and the boxy space, which is the size of a small tour bus, packs quite a few surprises: a full bathroom, multiple rooms, lots of windows and an airy feel you wouldn’t expect in 300 square feet. “Anyone who walks into the tiny house says ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was this big,’” says Hardin. “You see the wheels start turning and going ‘OK, I could do this. I could live here.’” It doesn’t hurt that Tiny Pacific Houses offers all the bells and whistles of comfortable contemporary living, including high ceilings, lofted beds, luxe granite countertops and sleek raw wood shelving. 

 

On the other side of the island, Elevate Hawai‘i is quite a few steps away from selling units, but their diminutive design is all about sustainability, aesthetics and keeping a tiny footprint. There are no wheels in this two-story setup, which places the larger living area on the top floor, thus leaving outdoor space for parking at ground level. A living wall and lots of windows keep the square structure feeling breezy, inviting and appealing—perfect for warming up cramped, urban spaces.

 

Even vertical developers are looking at little options. Nohona Hale has been approved as the first micro project in Kaka‘ako. The Hawai‘i Community Development Authority OKed the development, which includes 105 low-income, 300-square-feet micro units featuring modern aesthetics. Airy cross-breezes and glass walls keep the spaces feeling open and roomy, with common areas playing a key role in the design.

 

It’s a lot of R&D for a movement that’s still struggling with introductory red tape. What might be a game changer for the movement: Honolulu City Council’s approval of Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs. Last year’s legislation created the potential for thousands of small-scale dwellings to be added to properties with already existing structures. Maybe, instead of Dwell-loving hipsters, Hawai‘i’s tiny-home boom will be fueled by people who already own a home and want to stick another, smaller unit at the back of their property. The tiny second house could add a stream of renter’s income, or even a cozy nest for family members—a market on which Hardin is focusing his O‘ahu efforts. “Ideally, I see this for the millennials around my age who want to move home and either can’t or don’t want to live with Mom and Dad anymore,” he says. “The ADU gives them the opportunity to move back, have their own space, have their own privacy.”

 

Blue and Green Innovations is also poised to capitalize on the potential ADU demand, with prefab kits available in a limited range of options. “Tiny homes are part of something we see fitting into the sustainability of Hawai‘i,” says owner Travis Wittmeyer. “ADU, for me, is opening the door for tiny homes.” The Honolulu-based company had its eye on the ADU bill long before it was passed and is finalizing a package that puts construction and permitting into one. The design challenge is upsizing the efficiency while keeping the dwelling small. How does that work? A smart use of modular storage fixtures, fold-out furniture, and sleeping and seating areas tucked into cozy nooks. Plus efficient, sustainable materials, which cut down on building time and cost and end up maximizing investments for future tiny-home landlords, Wittmeyer says. 

 

Many of these businesses are still in the first steps of development, wrestling with city and county regulations, scouting for investors and gauging demand. But each tiny door that opens suggests this small-kine alternative-housing movement could have a big impact on Hawai‘i’s future.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY NATALIE SCHACK

 

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