Mr Bamboo

“Did you see that coast guard helicopter cruising the surfline?” said Leimana as he carried his board up the beach. Henrik and Slump, who’d been in the water with him, were humbled. They’d started the surf session with Leimana but the Hawaiian waves had totally worn them both out. Then, after waiting more that two hours, they got really worried about their surf buddy. He was last seen heading out to the larger offshore break but had not been sighted for quite a while so they called rescue services. Being fifteen and twenty years younger than their septuagenerian surf mate they felt sure he must be in trouble. This might have been the case with most seventy five year old surfers but not with Leimana- he’s far from your average senior citizen.

1983 Limbox

He has always been a powerhouse of a man and has lived his whole life ‘on the edge’. He originally gained recognition for his ‘limbox’ craftwork transforming functional pieces of art from old wood he found on the islands. His signature pieces would open up in two steps to reveal secret compartments or drawers with detailed craftsmanship unrivaled by any wood working artist at the time and he won several awards.

Graham shovelling lava for sculptures

For many years he also made sculptures from red hot lava and was featured in a documentary made by a German film company. They recorded him on an active flow shovelling 2,000 degree molten rock into plaster molds of female faces. What they missed was the memorable day when he inadvertently trod on a deceptively thin lava crust and his foot went down into the river of magma. Miraculously his boot was destroyed but his foot was unscathed – apart from burns caused by the lava that came through his lace holes.

Ask any bamboo enthusiast in Hawaii and they will tell you that Leimana is legendary. He lives on a sprawling rainforest property downslope of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island which is home to the nonprofit foundation Bamboo Village Hawaii. Buildings include a huge, domed tent, which serves as a workshop, plus numerous cottages and out buildings all constructed with bamboo framing and sometimes bamboo walls or floors.

Around these organic structures the feathery tops of Guadua, Hirose, Latifloris, Indo blacks, and other species of select non invasive tropical clumping bamboo swish back and forth in the breeze.

County of Hawaii Recycle Center

Leimana has devoted his adult life to the education and building of bamboo structures. As an award winning, designer and bamboo expert he promotes the use of bamboo as an elegant and sustainable building resource uniquely suited to Hawai’i’s economic and environmental needs. “What we’re doing,” says Leimana, with his blue eyes flashing, “is trying to create natural buildings that are sustainable all the way back to the crop. We’re trying to come up with practical and applicable solutions —which we believe are location appropriate for lower Puna, since if lava comes these structures are easy to move.”

In order to fully focus on this vision Leimana stopped his previous artwork to provide what he believes Hawaii really needs. He’s since inspired hundreds of enthusiasts with his commitment and dedication “to improving the human community using the principles of permaculture and sustainability.” At his demonstration village, in Puna not far from Bellyacres, he’s planted huge amounts of construction bamboo and organised dozens of training workshops to empower people with bamboo related job skills and education about the environmentally friendly properties of tropical clumping bamboos.

His vision for people trying to develop homes that are appropriate for the region is to use bamboo specific to the area. He’s been trying to come up with practical and applicable solutions to meet the needs of Lower Puna where, if the inevitable lava flows approach, the structures will be easy to remove. To support this industry Leimana sees local bamboo production with localized treatment plants and on-site training facilities. His local goals are synergistic with global ones. Leimana believes that by collaborating with government officials, architects and other community leaders this development would bolster the Big Island’s economy by cultivating an agriculturally based alternative-building industry that embraces the original Hawaiian culture and also benefits the environment, thus providing a global model for human sustainability. 

One huge obstacle he has faced is that bamboo dwellings in Hawaii were not covered by building codes. Through his determination along with other inspired innovators code changes are happening but still have a long way to go. In 2002 Leimana received substantial recognition from county officials and related industry leaders with grants to build five bamboo structures for recycling centers around the island. My architect juggling friend Dean Johnston worked with him on this project and the development of other beautiful structures. We all believed that this infant industry would become an important force in shaping Hawai’i’s economic and aesthetic future but that has not happened yet. Fortunately, as a Robin Hood renegade, the lack of legal approval has not prevented Leimana from building some amazing bamboo structures around the island.

For centuries small, temporary structures and furniture built of bamboo have been common in developing nations. This is because bamboo is available in abundant quantities while conventional construction materials, such as steel, are not only expensive but also difficult to obtain. Bamboo has a short life span if not treated; its high starch content causes insects to devour it and it’s tensile strength has not been scientifically evaluated and quantified like commercial lumber and steel. These calculations form an essential part of engineering designs but are currently not available for local bamboo’s. Therefore several building codes must be modified before bamboo can legally be used to construct new homes in Hawaii.

Engineers at a company on the island of Maui have been testing different bamboo species to help establish the building codes but it’s terribly expensive and challenging. They have managed to get codes implemented for one specific type of bamboo imported from Vietnam but not for any locally grown varieties. With this limited new code Hawaii now permits kit homes to be imported from Asia and has become the first American state to allow bamboo construction but this does not satisfy Leimana’s goals.

Even though all of the locally grown treated bamboo he uses has now been structurally evaluated for strength and resistance to insect and fungal attack according to the highest standards, they have not yet been approved for inclusion in the uniform building code. He’s been hoping this will occur soon, one species at a time, but it involves a very high cost and financial support has not been found. Consequently, he can only legally offer “portable” structures that will last for decades, but don’t require regular building permits.

Leimana’s care for the environment goes way beyond his love for bamboo. In 2012 he might have been the first person on the island to report what he believed was an unusual number of Ohia trees dying off. The reply from J. B. Friday Phd., the Extension Forester at the College of Tropical Agriculture completely renounced his claim. He said, “There are many, many reasons ohia die, and although you folks in Puna think something new is going around, I am not convinced. I do agree that Ohia in Puna tend to be stressed and the factors include our ongoing drought, the very rocky shallow soils, vog, invasive species, injuries from bulldozers, pathogens, root rot and diseases which are common in stressed trees.”

I immediately got a call from Leimana and I told him that I’d observed the same problem at Bellyacres and along the Red Road so I wrote to Professor Friday saying, “Please come and take a serious look and talk with land owners. We will tell you the facts about the recent die off and our informed concerns. I have asked Hawaiians and they are not aware of cyclical die offs like the one we are experiencing…………and it is getting worse. Having removed over sixty dead Ohia’s in the last five years on my land l have not witnessed any leaf rust and believe the problem is in the roots. Since this is affecting old and young trees in a variety of locations we can confidently eliminate shallow soil, invasive species (strawberry guava) and drought. It could be the long term affects of vog but if this is the case we would see more die off down wind, we are located up wind. You could determine if this is the case. Having observed my rainforest daily for 25 years l can verify that this die off is new and if it continues at this rate it will be catastrophic on a huge scale.”

The Professor replied to Leimana saying, “People have spent decades researching Ohia health and there is no simple answer.  One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to laymen.” Leimana was understandably offended by this statement replying, “By now too many wounds are in the faces of us living here. I have been in the forests of upper and lower Puna seeing the same thing everywhere. Please believe me. I am not exaggerating when I say that our last remaining low land native Ohia forests are in deep trouble unless they develop some kind of defense and I would hope that your department would jump on this immediately. At the present rate of die off I would estimate that the forests would be completely wiped out within 20 years.”

Ohia skeletons killed by Rapid Ohia Death in lower Puna

Several of us had visits from Forestry Service staff and showed them diseased trees on our properties but they were stumped and just tried to dismiss the issue. But then more calls started coming in from across Puna, all reporting the same problem: the ohias were dying, fast. It wasn’t until later in 2013, when Flint Hughes and another ecologist checked on a previously resplendent patch of forest, now containing a large number of dead trees, that the severity of the matter became apparent to the ‘experts’.

Leimana was correct: Ohia trees cover more than one million acres statewide and Ohia is widely considered the most important forest tree in Hawaii and is essential for protecting our forest watersheds. It took way too long but eventually it became self evident that combating the disease required the involvement of the highest levels of government and non-government agencies. By 2020 On Hawaiʻi Island, hundreds of thousands of Ohia had died from the Rapid Ohia Death which had killed trees in all districts of Hawaiʻi Island and spread to Ohia trees across the state. If the experts had only listened to Leimana earlier!

This was 2016- it’s now spread to all the islands !

Leimana’s dream remains to help germinate a regenerative industry on the Big Island to save trees and help the Earth accommodate humans by planting bamboo for constructing our shelter needs rather than removing valuable trees. Sharing his twenty two years of bamboo experiences in farming and processing, and building experimental designs of all kinds of shelters is how he contributes to finding solutions to our sustainability problems. Several years ago he invented and developed a high strength industrial joinery system that makes bamboo construction economically more viable for builders in the U.S.

His projects are as endless as his energy. He lives with his wife Janette and two sons and together they’ve just completed a two story cabin made with bamboo lath and plaster walls, and bamboo supported floors incorporating “aircrete” with a roof supported by prefabricated bamboo trusses. He’s completed a bathhouse with a fabricated tension tarp roof, bamboo framing and bamboo splits lath and cement plaster walls. He’s also harvesting bamboo for projects and preserving them using his own pressure system, and bucket respiration with borate solution.

Leimana’s exploration of ways to build with bamboo continues on a daily basis. He recently built a small simple cottage, as an example of tropical independent living, applying old and new techniques with fun creative details. The roof of polycarbonate covers a 16’x24′ two interior rooms and two 8’x30′ exterior eves providing outdoor coverage and a location for solar panels. The floor is enclosed by 12″ diameter logs with the interior space filled with aggregate surfaced with concrete.

My fondest memories of Leimana are camping with him on our annual trips to Makalawaena beach and sailing with him on ‘Summer Breeze’ the boat we shared. As a vocal advocate of harmonious living with people and the planet, Leimana Pelton walks gently on this earth adding positively to our quality of life,  he is very much a giver, a good samaritan and a renegade whom I admire greatly.

Leimana, his wife and boys.

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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Mr Bamboo

  1. Awesome tribute to an absolute genius mind and skilled hands multifaceted artist craftsman. Leimana helped spark my passion for Bamboo and I spent time in his home pulling apart his complex wooden boxes, among other things.
    Wishing this Master well
    On his health journey. Aloha

    Liked by 1 person

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