Homestead Builder

“We shape our buildings: Thereafter, they shape us.” -Winston Churchill

“If you build it, they will come.”  –Field of Dreams.

Bellyacres kitchen 1990

The first structure I ever built, in August 1988 was the shell of a very rustic community kitchen on the assumption that it would serve us until we built something permanent. I located it tucked away under several massive dying trees. The construction was extremely crude, using small ohia trees for posts and beams and a recycled tin roof. The only help I had was from my cousin Bill visiting from England. Neither of us had any carpentry skills, I used a chainsaw for all the cuts and we bent nail after nail attempting to hammer them into the tropical hardwood, the fifth hardest in the world! 

I built the framework standing in place because I hadn’t yet learned that walls could be constructed more easily on the ground and then raised. It didn’t really matter because Bill and I struggled to hold up two posts, let alone lift a whole wall. I also had no knowledge of the roof pitch required for water to drain effectively but by sheer luck, my roof design avoided leaks. Any architect or building inspector would have laughed at my roof rafters using 2”x4” lumber with a 4’ span. While it looked like something Robinson Crusoe would build I was proud of my pioneering accomplishment.

My crude jungle construction has defied all government zoning and building code logic. It has survived earthquakes, tropical storms, and a hurricane while serving many hundreds of people: as a warm dry shelter to congregate, eat food, play music, have potlucks, and hold meetings. Construction was completed by my partners and over time a commercial Wolf range stove, a stainless triple sink, two propane gas fridges, and then two commercial-size electric fridges were added. It has an amazing library full of eclectic books and fading photographic memorabilia—with individual members’ pigeon holes hiding rusting flashlights and grungy toothbrushes from bygone eras. Thirty five years later it’s still used daily as our community kitchen and remains a testimony to simple homestead building.

Bellyacres is located within the Kehena-Keauohana-Keokea Homesteads land division. Homesteading is the traditional Hawaiian development model for the rural population. They built homes and outbuildings on their land wherever and however they chose. They typically accommodated an extended family of fluctuating size, with pigs, chickens, maybe a few hunting dogs and a fishing canoe. In remote rural areas like ours, homesteaders lacked most of the government support systems and were expected to be self-reliant, independent, and largely self-determined. Hawaiians, and other ethnic groups that later become their neighbors, took great pride in being free from government interference and regulation, and preferred being left alone.     

The illegal occupation of the Kingdom of Hawaii has changed everything. The State government now imposes U.S. building codes and zoning regulations through local planning and building departments. They redesignated Homestead land divisions as rural agricultural zones and limited each lot to two houses, whatever their size. In 1987 when we purchased Bellyacres; rural lower Puna was considered ‘the Wild West’ where government rules like building codes, food safety codes, zoning regulations, and other restrictions were seldom ever enforced so people built what they wanted. 

Example of a Seaview Homestead circa 1992

Bellyacres and surrounding properties had been inhabited for generations by Hawaiian families, but many of them moved out when the 1955 lava flow destroyed their homes, covered their land, or cut off their access roads. For the next 40 years, the majority of the new residents moving onto these barren lands were modern-style homesteaders, often using renewable energy options—including solar electricity and wind power—and sometimes planting and growing food crops and raising livestock. 

These new rural homesteaders invariably lived first in a tent, sometimes a garage or a storage shack, and then eventually started building a house. Homesteaders’ homes were lived in but under construction for generations because rooms got added as new children were born or grandparents moved in. All homestead structures were built with whatever materials were affordable and upgrades only occurred when they had money to buy more materials or found some to recycle. From our very humble beginnings at Bellyacres with an abundance of ideals but very little capital we adopted this homestead model.

 I wish I had been more jungle savvy back in those early days; my naïve eco idealism led me to obsess about minimizing tree removals. I carried it to the extreme with my next building project in early 1991 which was to build accommodation so my new girlfriend and her two darling daughters could live at Bellyacres. First, I carefully removed the invasive strawberry guava trees from under some ohia trees and created a 24’ x 16’ cave-like clearing in which I started erecting what was affectionately known as the Hobbit House. Perhaps my best and biggest mistakes were made with this project, which was good because I was able to avoid them later when building again.

The context of this construction played an important role in many of the decisions that I made so I need to give myself a bit of a break. Initially, my access to the house site was via a walking trail through the jungle about thirty yards from where I could drive my truck. First, I set the floor of the house on tiny 8”x 8”x 6” concrete blocks because they were much easier to transport than the standard monster 110-lb foundation blocks. This put my floor just six inches above the jungle floor where bugs and critters loved to hide and feed and breed and take excursions into any dry, warm places above. 

Secondly, I chose to leave several large trees that not only encroached right up to the edge of my floor plan, but—in three instances—were actually inside the house. This added noticeably to the ‘hobbit house’ theme but, as I unfortunately learned later, it was a serious hazard to healthy living. The movement of the trees in the wind not only made it impossible to avoid rain entering my house down the trunk of the trees, it also provided a route for jungle creepy crawlies to invade by day or night. That was a crazy idea!

Thirdly, I discovered that while screen walls work quite well in open places where breezes and sunlight restrict mold and mildew growth, in the dark damp areas under tree cover these unhealthy tropical scourges thrive and multiply easily. I was forever cleaning black yuck and muck from all my screens and from most of the flat surfaces inside my house. It was really not fun and not the healthy organic lifestyle I wanted to be living. Eventually I had to cut back trees and retrofit the house with framed walls and windows.

Once again due to the location and frugal resources available, I constructed the original house using just a chainsaw for all wood cuts. This added greatly to the  Hobbit House shape and character but brought some serious raised eyebrows, frowns, and head scratching when my building inspector father from the UK visited years later.  

Curiosity was also raised when, shortly after I completed the project, an appraiser from the county of Hawai’i real property tax office stopped by doing a rare update of their data. She was a very pleasant lady whose authority was displayed by the large identity tag she wore prominently with her flashy clipboard. When she asked in a perplexed manner during the inspection how I would describe the materials I used for my pony wall, I had to truthfully answer, “Oh, those are some recycled hollow doors I salvaged from the dump.” I’m not sure what she wrote on her report but I know there was no category in the building code for recycled anything at that time. 

Creating an off grid home involves much more than a warm, dry place to sleep. Utilities like water, power and waste disposal also have to be included. In addition to construction I had to learn how to collect rainwater, store it in a tank and then plumb and pump it into the sink and shower. Solar electricity was in it’s early stages and so I had to piece meal together panels, charge controllers, investors and batteries and practise the art of conserving our limited power. Analogue T.V.’s and desk top computers were not an option. For a toilet I had to dig a hole into the lava rock and build a privy on top and we all had to learn how to use it hygienically.

 By 1996 the humble Hobbit House had shown me there is something extremely primal and profound in building your own home but now I wanted something better. Despite running a successful nonprofit educational organisation for nearly ten years, my income had never been stable enough to qualify me for a mortgage and anyway, as an undocumented citizen, I always lacked the required tax returns. All my wife and I could muster was $40k in savings and family loans, so that is what I had to work with. 

My friend, Dean, an architectural student convinced me that I could build something with this little amount of money using the pile of recycled materials I had gathered and my resourceful nature. My main criteria was a 15′ high space where four jugglers could pass clubs! He designed an 1,800-square foot house and I got Val, a local draftsperson, to draw up basic plans. I later walked through all the required government departments to secure a county building permit. That was as legal as I planned to ever go.

I started gathering additional construction materials in earnest. First, I harvested ohia trees from our land and prepared some of them to be construction posts by debarking them, drying them, and eventually sanding them. A neighbor from Kapoho brought a portable saw mill onto our land and, from the largest ohia logs that I had cut down and dried, he produced a pile of odd-shaped pieces in trim and slab dimensions. These I took to my friend Clive where, using his planes and saws, I was able to convert them into usable sized construction lumber. With the assistance of Craig and several good friends, I dismantled two 20-year-old tomato greenhouses and brought load after load of recycled 2×4’s, 2×6’s, 2×12’s, and 4×4’s back to the Belly. It was well-matured virtually free lumber, we had to tediously remove nails rusty and trim the ends. I also found used windows, doors, glass, hardware, and paint for a fraction of their original cost.

I prepared a materials list of additional milled lumber, siding, and roofing that I would need from Dean’s drawings and shipped a full 40’ container load from the mainland for about $16,000. Once I was ready for construction, and had the site leveled and cleared by our local bulldoze driver, a HICCUP circus parent formed and poured my concrete slab in exchange for several years of circus classes for his kids. From that point on, all the workers on my house were friends, locals, or strangers who became friends. Several of them also became competent jugglers during the course of construction and later joined the circus.

 A carpenter friend, Will, from Canada, plus Joe and Dan—two inexperienced young men fresh from adventures in Alaska—formed my low-cost building crew. I worked with them on a daily basis in between my responsibilities as the HICCUP Circus director and Bellyacres land manager. Early challenges arose when I learned that it was 14 years since my crew leader had done any house framing and had since been building boats, mostly using fiberglass. This accounted for more than a few unique features in the early building days of my house. 

We were all amateurs and together we had to decipher the building plans and learn the language of construction as we progressed. We pushed and pulled, sweated and struggled as we built walls and then tore them down and put them back up again. We broke tools and often used totally wrong techniques, but we did it. As we built it we made modifications organically evolving it to suit our purpose and budget while making it exquisitely beautiful incorporating an assortment of natural hardwoods. We called it a sculpture in the making. Being British I fuelled my crew with good old English tea, it took exactly 720 tea bags, over five months, to complete the basic construction shell. Joe and Dan stuck around quite a while and after a long hard day pounding nails and moving lumber we juggled on the back deck together and they got pretty good.

My wife and I moved into our house before we even had running water or power. Everything we needed came on Hawaiian time. As the months and years passed, I sanded, painted, caulked, and added trim and other details. Fortunately several local friends had construction experience so I hired them to do my plumbing, electrical, and drywall for a fraction of what licensed contractors would have cost. I never called for any county inspections because I knew my house wouldn’t pass and the required changes would cost far more than I could afford. I also believed that I didn’t need to engage any further with building permit legalities and really didn’t want to be a part of a system that I didn’t support.  

Over the next eighteen years, my electrical friends, Wing and Noman, upgraded my solar system and we enjoyed a fair bit of socializing. I was able to improve it every few years as I accumulated enough money to buy more solar panels, two 12v inverters then a 24v inverter, four charge controllers, four new sets of deep-cycle batteries, and a complete rewiring. This approach was my only option to obtain a quality house and demonstrated the difference between a mortgage constructed home and an ongoing homestead project.

One building cost that I was not able to trim was the legal cesspool which was dug by a licensed contractor to the rigid  standards required by the county planning department.  After my family and friends had used the cesspool for 14 years, it was eventually inspected by a civil engineer and we discovered that it conformed to the regulation 12-foot depth; however, only had only 3 inches of sludge at the bottom. This revelation suggests to me that I could have saved a great deal of money with a perfectly adequate and healthy sanitation system that was a quarter of the size and cost. Very naïvely at that time, I believed that composting toilets were not legal because the county administration never listed or suggested them as an option. It was much later that I learned I could have legally installed four composting toilets for the price of one excessively overbuilt cesspool.  

In 2005, I hired another carpenter friend to upgrade my roof deck and a few other features to building code standards thinking that I might be forced to get it officially inspected someday. In 2007, I laid flooring in the ground floor rooms and had one of my former HICCUP kids install counters with beautiful mango wood slabs harvested from our land. The ‘Tea House’ became a beauty and served me mightily well until my departure. 

Including the outdoor deck areas, the house expanded to over 2,200-square feet. I also added 3,600 feet of usable covered space with an almost flat roof/deck covering the carport and the original office for the HICCUP Circus, Hawai’i’s Volcano Circus and Bellyacres. A deck is a great resource and, before we built S.P.A.C.E., I designed and constructed a tent to cover the whole surface so we could use it for HICCUP Circus weekly classes and summer and winter camps. For three years, I used the Tea House for my daughter’s homeschool program and thanks to the high open beam ceiling also as a rehearsal space for HICCUP performers and for some circus classes.

In 2015, under pressure from our new V.G.S. administration who wanted to bring more structures into code compliance, I spent another $2,500 and upgraded my perfectly adequate and functioning plumbing so that it could get its final inspection. After 18 years, I had finished most of the house projects on my list but, as is the way with homesteading, the building will always be under construction, waiting for the funds for the next item. It remains a work in progress and still has no electrical permit; however, these have become issues for the new occupant to resolve…thank heavens! 

The Tea House was much more than just a home for me. It was the realization of a dream that I had held since buying the land and, with lots of help from friends, it was built board by board. It has been truly representative of a homesteader’s house project because I never borrowed any money to build it and was therefore never at risk of losing it to a bank by defaulting on payments. I created a secure and safe home base from which I was able to help build community and I believed, at the time, I was creating something of real value to pass on to my daughter. This will now remain an unfulfilled dream because, unlike the traditional homesteader model, the whims of a community of anarchist jugglers are now deciding what happens in the future to my house.

Another unfulfilled fantasy has been my retirement plan, which was based around the construction of a second 24’ x 24’ home that Joe built to replace my original Hobbit House in 2009. It was my final building project and incorporated all of the sustainable practices I had learned over the years. It has a very solid timber frame of majestic ohia trees, single wall construction with concrete panels on the outside and mahogany plywood on the interior. It is open plan with one bedroom, exposed beams, large windows, mango, and koa slab counters with a bathtub, a toilet, and showers both indoors and outside. 

The house is named the Horvat House after my sailing buddy, Ed Horvat, who passed away too soon and left me much of the lumber it was built with. The outside deck is under a 6’ overhang and has rustic ohia benches. It has only four steps, designed to accommodate the physical limitations of a senior citizen. It was where I had planned to end my days in retirement. But, since plans are just God’s joke on us mortals, I’m now exiled in the UK creating totally new dreams. 

Such is the life of a renegade homesteading fire juggler!

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 !

One thought on “Homestead Builder

  1. A magnificent chronicle. I well remember jugging under the tent on that large roof deck! The kitchen and nooks of St. Fields, well, many more shall pass through the first space. More oft than not, we don’t set our own bridges afire.

    Liked by 2 people

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