Alternative construction options should be considered for Lahaina residents to assist with rebuilding efforts
In the aftermath of one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, residents in Lahaina, Maui are faced with many difficult decisions ahead, including questions about future costs for home rebuilds that may exceed current market prices.
Due to Hawaii’s remote location, concerns about construction labor shortages that have beleaguered other parts of the U.S. may be even more pronounced there.
Within the construction trades, online applications for jobs fell by 40% between 2019 and 2020 and that figure has since remained flat, National Public Radio reported. When combined with the accelerated retirement of baby boomers resulting from the pandemic, it is no surprise that the construction industry is struggling to meet existing demand and attract replacement workers.
Therefore, rebuilding Lahaina with an eye toward economies of scale and alternative construction methods should be a critical consideration to offset some of the increased costs associated with ressurrecting a community.
Potential Insurance Challenges Associated With Rebuilding Lahaina
The primary funding for most families rebuilding a home lost to a wildfire comes from property insurance proceeds. However, depending on a homeowner’s coverage and the extent to which the properly was appropriately valued, certain insurance policies may be insufficient to fully rebuild.
A financial shortfall can be due to not purchasing the correct amount of insurance, then failing to keep current with ever-increasing construction costs. It could also be because of not insuring other structures on the property, such as garages, lanais or solar panels. Unpermitted structures and additions are also considerations, since these property enhancements may not be insured, and municipalities may also be less likely to approve a building permit for a previously unpermitted addition during reconstruction.
Regardless of the reason, underinsurance is a real concern for homeowners when faced with a natural disaster.
In areas impacted by wildfire, the road to recovery is long. Reconstruction in Lahaina will be particularly challenging, given the regional focus on tourism and the prevailing preference for local, on-island contractors to rebuild. From the outset, resources will be stretched, and timelines will be elongated during the clean-up phase given the sensitive nature of Maui’s environment, as well as the complexity involved in coordinating efforts across local, state and federal agencies.
In addition to coordination challenges, sourcing and retaining construction workers to assist in the clean-up and rebuilding efforts will continue to remain an issue given the region’s high cost of living. Other potential considerations include the permitting and inspection capacity of local governmental bodies, as well as the enforcement of any potential changes or updates to building codes.
To help offset increased construction costs and accelerate rebuilding efforts, innovative construction techniques should be considered.
3-D Printed Homes: An Innovative Solution for Resilient Housing
While the devastation from the August 2023 wildfires is immense, the almost complete destruction of Lahaina does open the door to construction solutions that take advantage of economies of scale. Rebuilding a community the size of Lahaina requires thought leadership and considerations for all levels of income. This is where 3-D homes become a viable option.
Printed, 3-D homes are not only more sustainable — a 2020 study from Singapore found that a bathroom unit constructed using 3-D printing produced approximately 86% less carbon dioxide than a traditional stick-built structure — but they are also more resilient to hurricanes, high winds, heat waves and other extreme weather conditions. According to ICON Technology, a homebuilding company that is creating the world’s largest community of 3-D printed homes in Texas, these homes are not only engineered to be more resilient to physical property risks, but they are also more economical.
These economies of scale have already been tested. A 3-D printed neighborhood was created for rural families in Tabasco, Mexico, where incomes are as low as $3 per day. The project created numerous low-cost, 500-square-foot homes through partnerships between the private sector and various non-profit organizations focused on affordable housing. A similar concept could be a recipe for success in Lahaina if a sufficient housing stock can be solicited for rebuild using this technology.
A report by Honolulu’s Star Advertiser found that approximately 550 predominately low-income households were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the Lahaina wildfire. That number represents approximately 16% of the estimated 3,500 homes that were destroyed or damaged in the fire. Current Federal Emergency Management Agency guidance suggests that all options will be used to provide temporary assistance, including trailers and tiny homes, but these solutions are not meant to be long-term and will likely not help solve the housing crisis that existed prior to the Lahaina fire. Low-income housing is an area where 3-D home printing technology could be of great benefit.
While the possibility of using 3-D home printing technology to rebuild some of the housing in Lahaina is promising, this solution will require coordination between both public and private sector. It could also benefit Hawaii to partner with Texas and other jurisdictions that have approved 3-D printed housing developments. Through such alliances, Hawaiian regulators can begin to work toward reviewing and adopting new building codes that support the construction of 3-D printed houses in a time frame that allows for this option to become viable for reconstruction efforts.
In addition, the public sector has shown a strong desire to continue to innovate with this technology. Therefore, interested parties should actively engage with Hawaii, as well as other states that have the potential to experience natural catastrophes that may require rebuilding, regardless of income levels. The potential benefits for this type of public-private partnership can help both the immediate needs of disaster recovery, as well as the long-term problem of housing shortages and affordability experienced across the world.
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