Aaron Ackerman '98

Aaron Ackerman ’98 sits on the lanai of his Palolo home and enjoys the verdant canopy of trees that surrounds it, the sound of birds, the lack of neighbors and the ocean view of Waikiki. But from his jungled perch, he also looks out over his vegetated rooftop, rainwater cistern and private wastewater system. His home is one of the first residences in Hawai‘i built to exist entirely off the land.

Ackerman is a sustainable architect for Honolulu firm Bowers + Kubota Consulting who has carved out a niche designing LEED-certified buildings for clients. One of his early projects was the state’s first dual LEED-certified commercial facility in Waipahu. But even as his portfolio expanded with more LEED-certified projects, Ackerman was growing increasingly dissatisfied.

“The problem is you often have building owners who are not connected with the process. A lot of them are government entities. It’s very much like giving someone a hybrid car, but not teaching them that if you still drive with the foot on the pedal all the time, it’s really not going to produce any more savings than the non-hybrid car next to it,” explains Ackerman.

Looking beyond LEED, Ackerman found the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge. Rather than a points-based system like LEED, the Living Building Challenge defies the building industry to be “net-zero” upon a site by only using resources that are collected there. In addition, the challenge includes a red list of toxic chemicals that cannot be used in any building materials.

Originally, Ackerman hoped to convince a client to take on the Living Building Challenge. “But if you haven’t done this before, you don’t know what it’s going to cost, how it’s going to impact the process, it’s a very hard sell,” said Ackerman.

Out of frustration or lack of patience, Ackerman and his wife, Jessica Jung ’98, decided they would host the case study themselves. In 2011, after purchasing the 6-acre Palolo property and with Jess eight months pregnant with their first child, they moved into the property’s treehouse.

“Rarely does an architect have the luxury of living on site before he or she designs the site. The first year was learning the birds and the bees, the seasons, the water flow events, sun, wind and rain. In the meantime, I was researching the program and the requirements.”

Ackerman imposed an additional obstacle to the challenge. He wanted to build his home using regional materials only. He scoured Craigslist, found and deconstructed teardown homes and began collecting a trove of building materials.

“I wanted to see what was left after the termites have come, the UV rays have hit the building, the salt, the air, the mold, mildew, moisture, everything Hawai‘i throws at it. That’s the stuff I want to build my living building out of because it’s already proven that it can last.”

It took three years to break ground, but the house that rises today from the Palolo soil is a positive improvement on the land. In the words of the Living Building Challenge, “it gives more than it takes.”

The building’s footprint sits on areas of the property that were formerly overrun by invasive species. The home is a meandering 2200-square feet made of the beautiful, salvaged redwood and douglas fir that Ackerman collected, and the observatory roof deck overlooks an urban agricultural garden. It is a hybrid building, still connected to local sewer, water and power grids, – a requirement of Ackerman’s lending institutions – but with self-sustaining waste, stormwater and energy systems.

“I work for commercial entities, I do commercial architecture,” said Ackerman. “And so I wanted a project that was going to speak to that, not just be a house. I wanted to be able to bring clients here and show them. Then they could cherry-pick what they want for their own projects and have the confidence to know that I have the experience to deliver.”

Once his building is certified, Ackerman’s efforts will be recognized with a special, wooden door handle from the International Living Future Foundation. As precious as that door handle will be to Ackerman, the real reward he says: “You get to be part of the solution.”