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Shelter from the Storm
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Hawaii is the most isolated populated landmass in the world, 2,500 miles from the western coast of the continental United States. When disaster strikes, and homes are destroyed, the path to recovery is complicated by the fact that supplies and materials would be in short supply. Shipping would take weeks, and that's if the state's ports weren't damaged.
For some residents, the theoretical became reality four years ago.
"I really look at the  Kilauea event as our last large mobilization of disaster survivors," says Amber Ternus, a specialist with the resilience branch of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA). The eruption destroyed over 612 homes, displacing at least 300 families.
"We saw a lot of personal tents, and tarps over tents, and tarps attached to vehicles, and that kind of thing," she says.
Ternus wanted to find a better way.
"I'm the lead coordinator for the state and post-disaster housing, a problem that was identified early on in my work," she explains. "Instead of just putting up your own personal tent, what's another another much longer-term solution to keep people dry and out of the wet ground?"
The goal? A temporary shelter that’s quick and simple to build, uses inexpensive standardized parts, and is easy and compact to store until needed. Sensing a design problem, Ternus picked up the phone.
"I'm not an architect myself, so I decided to just call UH myself and just say, 'I want to work with some students and some architects,' and see if they might have an idea," she says. "Our lead professor really just took it up."
From Prof. Bundit Kanisthakhon's Tadpole Studios architecture portfolio.
That would be UH Mānoa Assistant Professor Bundit Kanisthakhon, who immediately restructured his ARCH 201 class to focus on the challenge.
"I have to pay respect — I keep telling them, my students, that they are my teachers," Kanisthakhon says.
"There is collaboration between me and the student, because they always come up with new ideas and things on their own terms and their way of looking at things," he continues. "There is their intention, and then what's needed from Amber on the other side, so it's a collaboration with all of us."
When it came to developing a practical housing solution, cost was a key consideration. And for this collaboration, every partner pitched in.
"It's a passion project, it’s volunteer driven, so we really did this on a shoestring," Ternus says. These included some personal funds, and some funds from Kanisthakhon's UH department and his independent studio.
The project also tapped graduate students and alumni as well.
The result was the "Wiki Hale," or "Fast House."
A simple, affordable sanctuary
The "Wiki Hale" prototype costs $2,000 in materials.
The prototype "Wiki Hale" is modest, but impressively so.
"The interior, the enclosed space, is actually the size of a standard sheet of plywood, so it's four by eight, or 24 square feet," Ternus explains. "The whole span, including the exterior or outdoor spaces, is about 80 feet total."
While designed for a single person or a couple, the "Wiki Hale" is modular.
"More than one of these singular units can be joined together to create larger spaces," she says. "The design does allow for joining two, four, six, or eight units together, depending on family size, expanding that interior, private space in the center."
Notably, the "Wiki Hale" can't be zipped closed like a tent.
"We were inspired by all the big trees on campus that provided shades for us — they made us realize it doesn't take much to provide comfortable shelter in Hawaii," Kanisthakhon says.
"The local climate allows the structure to be more open," he continues, "But we do need to overcome the common preconception that structures or buildings need to be enclosed and shut up tight."
By design, assembly is simple.
"We don't have to have any high tech design, it can be something more approachable and bite sized," Kanisthakhon says. "Anyone can do it themselves with few tools — we only use a wrench with half-an-inch nuts and bolts that are fastened together with a washer."
"They're meant to be easily taken down and put up, so we're not screwing these together, or nailing them together," Ternus adds. "They're all using bolts with pre-drilled holes."
She notes that the pre-drilled holes allow for the floor platform to be lowered and raised easily, and allow you to attach siding or walls.
"IKEA is kind of a bit of a design inspiration," she continues. "It's kind of a box set that's put together and you can add more bookshelves onto each other because they all kind of fit together, or just have one."
Similarly, the materials are standardized.
"We used materials that can readily be found at City Mill or Home Depot, and you can reuse every single piece after we knock it down," Kanisthakhon says. "The lumber are two by threes, two by fours, and two by sixes, and we don't cut anything — we just find a way to make different nominal lumber sizes work."
The feet of the structure are aluminum, which is more resistant to moisture. The roof uses cost-effective corrugated plastic that can be easily stacked and delivered. One upgrade he envisions is a standard kitchen or bathroom cabinet made out of a standard four-by-ten sheet of aluminum that can be folded.
One epiphany came when selecting a paint for the structure. While standard white paint would reflect heat and be widely available, the design team used the same paint used to paint crosswalks.
"Have you ever walked across a crosswalk and noticed that the white paint has glitter and picks up more light?" Kanisthakhon asks. "When we painted that on the wood, it also helped at night, because you might have a flashlight on your iPhone or something, and you can use the light to see all the pieces and identify whether they are located in the right place."
Ternus says "Wiki Hale" distribution was also considered.
"The longest piece is 10 feet, so we really see them as very transportable — they can be put in a regular pickup truck, and then they can be taken piece by piece and put in," she says. "People will be able to move and put them up in a very kind of efficient manner."
There are two scenarios the "Wiki Hale" team designed for: a group field site, or on a private parcel.
"That would be a large field, much like the tent city we saw after the Kilauea eruption, and the secondary purpose would be something that people could have in the backyards of their property," Ternus explains. "Historically and in recent disaster events, at least one or two family members are almost always going to want to stay at the property for security, and also just for that sense of wanting to start rebuilding as quickly as possible."
And being able to reuse or easily recycle "Wiki Hale" materials is a key differentiator.
"Using screws and nails, when you're taking stuff apart, you kind of have to wreck it a bit," Ternus notes. "We really wanted to be able to take it up and put it down 20 times if needed."
Finally, the total cost of materials: $2,000.
Considering that a standard shipping container, a common suggestion for emergency shelter, costs about $20,000, the "Wiki Hale" is very affordable.
Designed for Hawaii, and for anyone
"Wiki Hale" is not just a utilitarian shelter, either.
"If we're going to design something for Hawaii, we want it to be something that people in Hawaii are going to want to use," Ternus says. "We really feel like the final product turned out quite lovely and very pretty—we hoped that people would, if they're using it, be able to really enjoy it."
"For everything, there’s the head and the heart, and if you design something that's purely functional, it never lasts for too long," Kanisthakhon concurs. "We have to allow art to be factor into it, integrate into it, something that I try to do with all my projects."
"Wiki Hale allows a lot of flexibility for people inject their own personality to it," he adds.
Ternus notes that the "Wiki Hale" compares very well against the most common solutions used elsewhere in the country.
Shipping containers, as noted, are expensive, bulky, and difficult to modify.
"Most of the mainland has access to trailers which are deployed to them post-disaster, but that's not an option in Hawaii," she notes. "We don't have trailer parks here and we don't support mobile home development."
There are pre-fabricated shelters or tiny homes on the market, Ternus acknowledges.
"They have doors and windows and all kinds of features, they fully fold up," she says. "Those units are probably going to be $50,000 or $60,000."
Besides price, factoring in Hawaii's weather may make them a nonstarter.
"We're still curious how they're going to work in the tropics, how they're going to hold and release heat," she says. "We know that after a disaster, a lot of times we do lose or our trade winds.
"We also know that the kind of treated plywood and the plastics that we're using, and the metal foundation system, are all things that can withstand at least at least good six to twelve months in the tropical climate without really deteriorating," Ternus continues. "We don't think that pressboard or any of those other kind of constructed materials will survive very well in extreme high humidity and high rain environments."
Notably, the design for "Wiki Hale" is being made freely available to the public to anyone to use, adapt, and improve upon.
The prototype, initially erected on the UH Mānoa campus, has been disassembled until its next adventure.
"We're just regrouping, getting ready to take it out to do some field site testing," Ternus says. "We are looking at having it set up on a property somewhere out in nature to see how it responds to weather, to sun and wind and rain, and how we can adjust and modify the foundation system."
The hope, in fact, is to set it up in several locations.
"Hawaii doesn't have one climate, we have dry, we have wet, we have high elevation, we have places that are windier, and colder, and right now, this is designed for the middle of all of that," she says. "We'd love to see how it adapts to different places."
Experimenting with materials is also on the wish list.
"We'd love to see these adapted to other natural and found materials in the state — it would be amazing, if this keeps on rolling, to see these built with bamboo, with ‘ohia, with other woods, other materials," Ternus says.
And yes, advances in post-disaster emergency housing, designed to be used for about two weeks to six months, could also help with the long-term housing shortage.
"Whether it's from economic hardships, or natural disasters, the need for temporary housing solutions is very real, and we're very open, we'd love to see what can happen with this," Ternus says. "We haven't had anyone live in one, and we're hoping that in the future to be able to see how that works."
“Hawaii has been fortunate over the past few decades and avoided the very destructive major events with widespread damage that we’re most concerned about as emergency managers. An event like that could create a huge need for shelter, but it also could make it much harder to rely on outside resources to provide that shelter. The partnership with UH gave us an opportunity to explore a uniquely Hawai‘i solution to the specific challenges we face here."
— David Lopez, HI-EMA’s Executive Officer
Wayne Akiyama contributed to this report. Images courtesy Wiki Hale, Aaron Yoshino, Khoa Nguyen.