Tag Archives: Kakaako

How to Build a High-End High-Rise

A Step-by-Step Guide

September, 2016

So, you want to build a high rise. Maybe you’ve got a couple hundred million dollars burning a hole in your pocket and an acre or two of vacant land in Kakaako, and you’re wondering: How can I get in on the action? Right now, a half-dozen high rises are going up around town, and another handful getting ready to break ground. So, just in case you were thinking of adding your own giant condominium tower to the Honolulu skyline, we’ve made it easier for you by putting together this step-by-step guide.

The obvious approach would have been to follow the construction of a single high rise from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the typical high rise takes almost three years to build, and that’s not counting the many years it usually takes for permitting or design. But we didn’t want you to have to wait that long.

It turns out that, as part of its Ward Village development, the Howard Hughes Corp. has three high rises going up right now, all within a couple of blocks of one another, and all in different stages of construction.  Waiea is almost complete; Anaha still has about six months to go; and Aeo is just coming out of the ground. That gave us a convenient way to telescope the process of high rise construction, dividing it into three stages. Along the way, we focus on parts of the construction that highlight just how much you’re going to have to depend on distant, often unseen partners to build your high rise.


Before you start to build, you have to prepare the site. If you’re lucky, you start with bare dirt. More likely, you’ve got old structures to demolish, and pavement or old concrete slabs to remove. Even then, you’re probably not done. Much of Kakaako was built on low marshland. Aeo’s property, for example, was only a few feet above the water table. To gain a little elevation, the general contractor, Layton Construction, trucked in thousands of tons of gravel fill, then spent weeks compacting the ground so it would bear the enormous weight of the building. That also makes it possible for the backhoes to trench so you can bring in utilities from the street.

In a sense, though, construction starts with a soil scientist boring test holes in the ground. This is crucial, because your skyscraper is going to perch atop scores of narrow concrete piles that reach as far as 90 feet below the surface. These are augur-cast pi-lings, meaning they’re drilled into the ground with a powerful augur, then, the resulting holes pumped with concrete as the augur is removed. While the concrete is still wet, a cage made of reinforced steel bars – rebar – is lowered into the hole. Once the concrete cures, you’ve got a piling.

It’s the friction of the earth against the rough surface of these pilings that actually holds your skyscraper in place. That’s why you need so many. It’s also why the soil engineer is crucial. By studying the soil beneath the building, she calculates how much friction it will generate. That determines how deep you have to bore the holes for your piles. In some places, it might be 60 feet; in others, nearly 100 feet.

The deeper you have to dig, the more time it takes and the more concrete and steel you have to use. That all costs more money.

Once the pilings are in, they’re tied together by pile caps and grade beams. “Grade beams” is a misnomer, because they eventually lie below grade. Trenches are dug to expose the tops of the pilings, then lined with plywood or steel formwork, and filled with concrete and rebar. When the concrete sets, the formwork is removed and the trenches backfilled with gravel and dirt.

Pile caps are similar, but they tie together pilings that have been clustered to support major load-bearing features, like the elevator shaft or structural columns. Once the grade beams and pile caps are in place, the slab can be poured to tie the whole structure together.

Congratulations, your high rise has come out of the ground.

Left: Much of Kakaako is close to sea level. At high tide, the areas excavated for pile caps and grade beams can fill with salt water. Right, top to bottom: 1. Trenching reveals how much fill is used. 2. Clusters of piles exposed for pile cap. 3. Exposed rebar, ready for the next course of forms and concrete. 4. Building a high rise starts with digging.

Left: Much of Kakaako is close to sea level. At high tide, the areas excavated for pile caps and grade beams can fill with salt water. Right, top to bottom: 1. Trenching reveals how much fill is used. 2. Clusters of piles exposed for pile cap. 3. Exposed rebar, ready for the next course of forms and concrete. 4. Building a high rise starts with digging.



The articulating boom that delivers concrete to the top of the building is directed by remote control.

The articulating boom that delivers concrete to the top of the building is directed by remote control.

Congratulations, your high rise has come out of the ground. Thus begins the rhythm of construction. Floor after floor, formwork is built over the stubs of walls and structural columns. Rebar cages are fabricated and lowered into place. Utilities are led through conduits and ductwork. Then comes the slurry of concrete. The floors are poured, and the formwork filled, and the walls gradually rise, always with a toothsome row of rebar jutting out the top, ready to accommodate the next course of formwork and concrete. In fact, this is where it becomes clear that, although your high rise may ultimately look like it’s made of glass and steel, at heart, it’s a colossus of reinforced concrete.

1. Hoppers of extra concrete are hoisted by crane. 2. The concrete pump boom swivels on a tower of its own. 3. Until the new concrete has cured, the floor is supported by a forest of jackstands.

1. Hoppers of extra concrete are hoisted by crane.
2. The concrete pump boom swivels on a tower of its own.
3. Until the new concrete has cured, the floor is supported by a forest of jackstands.

One striking feature  to most modern high rises is the  engineering in the floors. They may look like simple slabs, but technology has evolved to make them thinner so you need less concrete and can have more headroom and more floor space to sell. You’re going to use the same method to strengthen your floors that they do at Anaha: post-tensioning.

Concrete is heavy and, when you pour a big slab, it tends to sag in the middle. This creates tension in the concrete and, while concrete is very good at handling pressure, it doesn’t take tension well. (That’s why concrete is always reinforced with steel.) To correct for sagging, hundreds of powerful cables are run through conduits in the floor and the concrete is poured over them. When the concrete is hard enough, jacks are used to pull the cables tight and the ends are secured to the edges of the floor. The effect is like a trampoline, with the post tensioning putting the concrete into compression instead of tension. In the old days, it used to take 14 days for the concrete to get hard enough. With modern concrete, the floors are ready in two to three days, greatly accelerating construction.

One key feature of high rise construction is the ability to pump concrete to the upper floors. That requires a massive pump and a giant, articulating boom to deliver the concrete to every point on the floor. The pump can stay on the ground, but the boom is attached to the pump by a large- gauge pipe that runs up the inside of what will eventually be the elevator shaft. That’s because the boom has to climb to keep up with construction. To accommodate that upward movement, it’s mounted on top of a self-climbing platform that also fits inside the elevator shaft. It’s a massive machine – 40 feet long, 12 feet wide and three stories tall – that uses hydraulics to hoist itself up tracks that are temporarily bolted to the walls of the elevator shaft. The construction crew often fit out the lower levels of this contraption with a microwave and bathrooms, using it like a temporary lunchroom, says Larry Schrenk, the director of construction in Hawaii for Howard Hughes. “On really big skyscrapers, they actually put in a Subway sandwich shop so the crew never has to come down.”

When the last floor is poured, the platform is disassembled and lowered to the ground by the crane.


The roof of Anaha’s garage doubles as the amenities deck and is completely waterproofed. It will eventually house the members’ club house as well as a pool and other waterworks. One end of the pool will be glass and hang out over the property.

The roof of Anaha’s garage doubles as the amenities deck and is completely waterproofed. It will eventually house the members’ club house as well as a pool and other waterworks. One end of the pool will be glass and hang out over the property.

So, your high rise has topped off.

The last floor (which is actually the roof) has been poured. The windows are all in. Now, it’s time to make the space livable. In some ways, this is the part of the process that most resembles the building of single-family homes.

To frame the interior walls, steel studs are bolted to brackets that have been attached to the ceilings and floors. Plumbers and electricians rough in the utilities. Then come the armies of drywall workers. The sheetrock is screwed to the studs. It’s mudded and sanded several times, then primed and painted. The ductwork is connected to the HVAC system. The hardwood floors are installed and the tile-work finished. Carpenters come to hang the cabinets in the kitchen so the appliances can be fitted into place and hooked up. It’s all very familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a house being built.

But there are still differences. For example, some of the penthouses at Waiea have a private swimming pool on the lanai. That calls for pool masons and specialty plumbing. Another example is the floor. Despite intensive efforts by the contractors to get the concrete even when they pour the floors, they’re rarely level. “You can’t imagine how it snowballs if you have a floor that’s even just an inch out of level,” says Howard Hughes’ Larry Schenk. “You’d be able to see that in each room. The lines where the walls or cabinets meet the floors would go up and down.”

Top: Many wires are routed through ducts concreted into the floor. Middle: Additional concrete is frequently needed to level the floors. Bottom: High-end buildings require high-end cabinetry and amenities.

Top: Many wires are routed through ducts concreted into the floor.
Middle: Additional concrete is frequently needed to level the floors. Bottom: High-end buildings require high-end cabinetry and amenities.

That’s not acceptable, particularly if you’re building a high-end condo like Waiea. To remedy this problem, once the walls are in, gangs come through and fill the low spots with an easy flowing layer of mortar. The high spots get chiseled away. This takes place all over the building, because you can’t install the hardwood or the tile until the floors are absolutely level. “We literally spend millions of dollars just getting things back to flat,” Schenk says.

Sometimes there are special considerations. Howard Hughes wants Ward Village to be the largest LEED certified community in the country. That imposes restrictions on the construction process. For instance, the ductwork and blowers for the air-conditioning system are put in fairly early in the finishing process, but they all have to be sealed in plastic. If the ducts and gratings were left exposed, they would likely be filled with dust during the drywall installation. But your AC system will have to be dust-free if you want LEED status. So the plastic can’t come off the ductwork until the construction is almost done.

The buyers of an expensive condominium unit often customize their finishings. Model units give them some design options and show the view.

The buyers of an expensive condominium unit often customize their finishings. Model units give them some design options and show the view.

One other thing: If you’re building a luxury high rise, like Waiea or Anaha, your buyers will often want custom finishes. That means you’ll be working with boutique suppliers and will need a way to track and store the products they send you. In other words, you’re looking at coordinating with more supply chains. And you’ve got to make sure the right products end up in the right units. To ensure that happens, every unit has its own “bible” hanging on the door. This folder can run to several pages and lists specifications for all the finishes in that unit.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_12When you build your own high rise, you also have a “bible,” albeit a figurative one. It contains the building plans and architectural drawings; the spec sheets and supply lists; and the schedules, with their critical path analyses and Gantt charts. Nowadays, all this information is digital, credited in programs like AutoCad or Revit. If you were to print them all up, though, they would come to thousands and thousands of pages. Sadly, there’s no shorter way to explain how to build a high rise. So we’d like to close our little guidebook with an admonition you often see on products: “Some assembly required.”

Please see instructions before you begin.


The Concrete World

Your concrete is part of a vast, international industry.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_2By volume, it’s the most traded man-made substance on Earth, yet it has a deceptively simple composition: gravel, sand and cement. The gravel and sand provide the strength; the cement binds them. Cement production involves baking a mixture of crushed limestone and clay at 1450˚C to produce quicklime, which is mixed with a few other ingredients to create a hard substance called clinker. The clinker is then blended with a small amount of gypsum and ground to a find powder: the famous Portland cement.

Although Hawaiian Cement is one of a handful of local companies that mix and sell concrete, it’s the only source of cement in the Islands. All its cement is from Asia Cement. This massive Taiwanese conglomerate delivers as many as 10 shiploads a year to the deep water port at Kalaeloa. Last year, that came to $23 million of cement.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_3Hawaiian Cement has a pretty sophisticated system to handle all that cement. When it’s unloading a bulk carrier, the fine powder is moved pneumatically, sucked like a fluid from the hold of the ship and pumped into a pair of, hemispheric storage tanks that tower over the docks.

From there, a computerized overhead pneumatic system allows the company’s drivers to load the trucks themselves. In boom times, as many as 90 trucks a day pass through the Kalaeloa facility.

Of course, by weight, concrete is mostly aggregate – gravel and sand.

Hawaii, despite its famous beaches, has a shortage of sand. Hawaiian Cement has to import that from British Columbia, where’s it’s quarried from ancient dunes beneath the spruce and fir forests. About three times a year, a bulk carrier brings in about 40,000 metric tons of sand; so much that it takes 50 trucks five days to cart all of it from Kalaeloa to the Halawa facility.

In lesser quantities, Hawaiian Cement imports other ingredients. Certain chemicals can be added to concrete to make it flow better, or cure faster or slower. Some federal contracts require the use of fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, as a substitute for some of the cement in concrete. All of these products are made elsewhere, adding to the layers of people involved in building your high rise.

The only local ingredient in your concrete will be the gravel. At its Halawa facility, Hawaiian Cement quarries, crushes, and grades millions of tons of gravel a year. Since the aggregate is what gives concrete most of its strength, this local basalt is what ultimately holds your high rise up. And, in an industry that’s famously dirty (worldwide, cement production accounts for 7 percent of human-produced greenhouse gases), Hawaiian Cement runs a surprisingly green operation. Concrete, for example, is water intensive – both for mixing and for dust suppression – but Hawaiian Cement recycles non-potable irrigation water from a nearby farm. They also scrupulously monitor Halawa Stream to make sure runoff from the gravel yard doesn’t alter the pH of the water. They even accept old concrete, crushing it to recycle the aggregate.

Concrete has to be tested. It takes as much as 50,000 cubic yards of concrete to make a high rise. That means mixing thousands of batches of concrete. Because of subtle irregularities in the cement, no two batches are necessarily alike. But your concrete has to meet strict engineering standards. It’s particularly important that the concrete harden quickly to keep construction on schedule.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_4That requires testing, says Gavin Shiraki, sales manager for Hawaiian Cement’s Concrete and Aggregate Division. “The contractor has a third-party lab that checks the concrete on a daily basis,” Shiraki says. Hawaiian Cement conducts similar tests. For every batch of concrete, several samples are taken and formed into four-inch cylinders. Then, at intervals, those cylinders are crushed in a powerful press to measure their strength. Only when the concrete reaches its prescribed hardness can you remove the forms and jack stands and move on to the next floor. Before you complete your high rise, thousands of these little concrete cylinders will be crushed.


It Looks Like It’s All Glass

The dominant feature of a high rise is frequently its glass facade.

In fact, with a curtain wall, sometimes that’s all you can see. Not surprisingly, that makes glass one of the project’s larger budget items. “The glass contract for Anaha is about $30 million. That’s over 10 percent of the total cost of construction,” says Larry Schenk.

So, if you want to understand why building a high rise is so expensive and complicated, the glass is a good place to start.

When you build a single-family home, most of the key elements are available at your local hardware store. In fact, the house was probably designed around the specs of standard windows, doors and hardware. That’s not the case when you’re building a high rise. Each high rise is unique and everything is made to fit. Especially the glass. As Schenk points out, “None of the exterior glass of Anaha is off-the-shelf. It’s all custom.”

All that customization means that, to build your high rise, you have to deal with an elaborate, highly specialized supply chain.

First of all, the technical name for modern plate glass or window glass is “float glass.” The term refers to the manufacturing process. For most of the 20th century, plate glass was made by flattening a blob of molten silica sand and a few other ingredients between a pair of steel rollers. This technique was cheap and yielded a relatively smooth surface, but the resulting panes of glass still had to be polished on both sides to be truly transparent. This was time-consuming and expensive. Then, in the late 1950s, an Englishman named Alastair Pilkington devised a quicker, cheaper approach. Instead of using metal rollers, the molten glass was poured evenly onto a bath of molten tin, where, because of the two materials’ difference in density, it floated like oil on water. Because the glass spread evenly over the tin bath, it was perfectly smooth on both sides. The thickness could be controlled by modulating how quickly the molten glass was poured onto the tin, and how long it took to cool.

Acccording to Dennis Jean, the senior project manager for AGA, the glass contractor for Anaha, the float glass for the building is manufactured by a California company called Guardian Glass at its Kingsburg plant. Guardian adds a tinted reflective coating to the raw glass to make it more energy efficient. Sometimes, it also adds spandrels to make it opaque. Then, they ship the glass to the next company in the supply chain: Northwestern Industries in Yuma, Arizona.

At NWI, the glass is cut to size and fabricated into individual window units. Each unit is composed of two panes of quarter-inch glass, with a half inch of space between them, and enclosed around the edges with a polymer seal. Sometimes, argon gas is injected into the space for additional insulation. These finished units are then trucked to AGA’s plant in Livermore, California, where they’re fitted into custom-made aluminum frames, packed into custom crates called “bunks,” and shipped in containers to Hawaii.

That’s the easy part.

A key design feature of Anaha is the curved glass at all four corners of each floor. If your skyscraper is going to use curved glass, that adds another step to the supply chain. Instead of Yuma, the raw glass is shipped from the Guardian factory to Standard Bent Glass, a specialty glass fabricator in Pittsburgh. There, each pane is heated until it’s plastic enough to bend over special forms. Only after the glass conforms to the proper radius can they fabricate the individual, double-paned units. Those are then installed in their custom aluminum frames, crated and shipped to Honolulu.

Getting the glass here is only half the job. It still has to be installed. On site, AGA’s local glaziers are responsible for the custom-made mounting brackets and molding that hold the windows in place. They also install each window. For curtain walls – the kind where the entire surface of the building is glass – they bolt the windows to aluminum brackets that were embedded in the edge of each floor when the concrete was poured. In this system, the weight of the glass is carried entirely by the brackets. For “window glass,” the weight of the glass rests on top of the floor or a wall; the brackets merely hold it in place.

The whole contraption is fabulously complex. “For Anaha,” Jean says, “each glass panel has 147 different parts: brackets, bolts, screws, glass, etc.” Maybe more to the point, almost every one of those 5,000-plus panels is unique.

Onyx Has Its Own Specialists

If you want to build a high-end skyscraper, you  have to include high-end finishes.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_14Each of those has its own supply chain, often with tentacles that reach around the globe. For example, the designers at Waiea wanted to use book-matched slabs of pink onyx to line the walls of the showers in several penthouse units. It turns out, though, there aren’t many sources for pink onyx. The giant slabs in Waiea came from an old, family-run quarry in Iran. But the trip from the mountains of Persia to Kakaako is circuitous. Bruce Kumove, whose company, BMK Construction, is responsible for the onyx, walks us through the process.

It starts with a man named Raoul Luciano, a Swiss stone expert who acts as a sort of third-party inspector and quality-control consultant. “This guy is the best,” Kumove says. “He did the stone at the new World Trade Center in New York and the stone for the Getty Museum. He’s been in the business for 35 years and has offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. This is all he does.”

Luciano’s main job was to make sure Waiea got onyx that would work for book-matching. That means taking a thick slab and slicing it into two thinner slabs, then opening them, like a book, so that the vein patterns in the onyx radiate symmetrically from the centerline. Onyx is quarried in giant blocks – in this case, with nine-foot faces – so it’s hard to assess the color on the inside. “Luciano hand-picked which blocks to use so they would mirror properly,” Kumove says.

Although the Iranian quarry had the best pink onyx, it wasn’t able to finish the stone to the standards Waiea required. “Once Luciano selected the blocks,” Kumove says, “they were put on 40-foot semi-trailers. They were so large that, if you were lucky, you could get three blocks to a trailer.” Then, the blocks were trucked through Turkey and Eastern Europe to Italy. It took six months to get the stone from the quarry in Iran to Italy.

Processing the marble took another eight months. The big blocks were cut into slabs using a gang-saw. This is a gigantic industrial device with a rack of evenly spaced saw blades at the top and a hydraulic lift at the bottom. It works by setting the onyx on the lift and hoisting it inexorably through the scything rack of saw blades, cutting the stone as clean as sliced bread. Then the slabs are carefully numbered so that adjacent slabs can be used for book-matching.

Cutting onyx is slow, but it’s not the only time-consuming process, Kumove says. “Onyx is a very unstable and brittle material. It cracks very easily because it’s full of cavities. So, once they cut the book-matched slabs, they have to fill the cavities with epoxy and polish it. They also apply a layer of epoxy and mesh to the backs of the slabs. That’s why onyx is such an expensive stone: it’s so difficult to work with. There’s also a lot of wastage. You might get 20 slabs out of a block, but 50 percent might be waste. And it takes a lot of time for all this to happen.”

Even after the onyx is crated and shipped, the international nature of the stone industry doesn’t end. “There aren’t a lot of people that understand how to deal with book-matched onyx,” Kumove says. “It takes experienced marble masons. To make sure the job is done right, we have a special crew that we built especially to handle these slabs. Most of them are Ukrainian.”


Building a high rise calls for a lot of coordination between workers. Clockwise from top: 1. Concrete worker signals the boom operator. 2.The temporary elevator requires an operator. 3. Boom operator supervises concrete pour. 4. Metal formwork gives the concrete its final shape.

Building a high rise calls for a lot of coordination between workers. Clockwise from top: 1. Concrete worker signals the boom operator. 2.The temporary elevator requires an operator. 3. Boom operator supervises concrete pour. 4. Metal formwork gives the concrete its final shape.

The job of your general contractor is to organize all the different construction activities. Every subcontractor needs space and time for staging and loading. They need to be able to work without interference from other subcontractors. They have to be able to get supplies when and where they need them, so they need some of that scarce crane time.

And it’s not just the subs that need coordinating. As the contractor, you’ve got to deal with moving utilities, traffic stoppages and temporary structures to protect pedestrians. You’ve also got to respect the needs of your neighbors, some of whom may also be tenants.

For example, to make sure Pier 1’s and Nordstrom Rack’s stores would still be able to access their loading dock, Howard Hughes designed Anaha so the bottom level had enough vertical clearance for a semi-trailer to pull in under the building and do a three-point turn.

As each newly poured floor cures, work surges forward on the floors below. Each floor is divided into distinct areas, and crews rotate through them to do their work in the proper order. A gang comes through to mark the profiles of the non-load-bearing walls and permanent furnishings on the floors. Other gangs rough in the plumbing and electric. Still another gang comes through to install the windows. And all of this work reaches a crescendo after the glass goes in. Once the floor is weather proof, the finishing can begin.

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Toxic Waste in Paradise

     Photo: iStock

Thirty years after it shut down, the old Gasco site in Iwilei is still a vacant lot. For generations, it converted heavy petroleum into synthetic gas and light oils. Now, its storage tanks, thermal cracker unit and pipelines are long gone and, in their place, is a field of gravel and weeds.

All that remains of the old gasworks is its contamination – a vast underground reservoir of viscous tar and toxic aromatics, like benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene. Indeed, the Gasco site is one of the most contaminated sites in the state, and the technical and legal consequences of that contamination are why the land sat vacant for more than three decades. Even so, three years ago, Weston Solutions, an international environmental engineering company, bought the property – and all the liability that goes with it.

That’s because the four-acre site is prime real estate. It’s near downtown, the harbor, airport, highways and the planned rail line. Weston plans to clean it and redevelop it, but three years after buying the land, Weston’s project still faces technical glitches and regulatory hurdles, and has become a symbol of Hawaii’s contaminated lands problem.

     Operations manager Dave Griffin, left, and Mark Ambler are 
     confident that Weston Solutions’ chemical oxidation process 
     can clean up the old GasCo site in Iwilei. The contaminated 
     property is immediately makai of the Home Depot store.
     Photo: David Croxford

Distribution of toxic sites

Here’s the good news: Hawaii is much less affected by contaminated sites than most Mainland states, according to Fenix Grange, manager of Site Discovery, Assessment and Remediation for the state Department of Health. That’s largely because we haven’t had as many heavy industries as in the Rust Belt or the petrochemical regions of the Gulf Coast. Also, according to Grange, it’s rare for contaminated properties here to sit idle.

“In Hawaii, because land is so valuable, most large, urban properties that have contamination on them get developed anyway,” she says. “People just make the cleanup and control costs part of their redevelopment plans,” Grange says.

Nevertheless, industrial areas like Iwilei, Campbell Industrial Park, Mapunapuna and Kakaako are heavily contaminated, which complicates land sales and development. The main issue, of course, is liability for the required cleanup, which can mean millions of dollars in uncertain expenses.

Beyond these large, well-known industrial sites, there are hundreds of anonymous, smaller sites: dumps, auto-repair shops and old underground tanks at gas stations. Former sugar and pineapple plantations have dozens of contaminated sites that were once used for fertilizer storage or pesticide mixing.

The state Department of Health has investigated more than 1,700 sites of potential contamination, nearly half of which merited further action. “We have about 800 sites in our database that have current or historic contamination that are either still dirty, or were dirty and have been cleaned up,” Grange says.

Joint and several liability

Hawaii’s rules on toxic sites are mostly derived from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. “In federal law,” Grange says, “liability is ‘joint and several,’ which means anybody associated with the contamination is in the chain of responsibility. The regulators look first to the party that actually caused the contamination. Then they look to the current property owner. But anyone associated with the contamination is in the chain of responsibility.” That means, the current property owner is on the hook, but so is the previous owner.

An excellent example is Weston’s other Oahu project, the old Chem-Wood facility in Campbell Industrial Park. From 1973 to 1988, Chem-Wood, a Campbell Estate tenant, used copper chromate arsenic to pressure-treat lumber there. Campbell sold the property to Chem-Wood in 1989, but, under duress from the EPA to clean up the site, Chem-Wood went bankrupt in 1997, leaving behind tanks of the toxic chemical. In 2008, vandals broke in, spilling 300 pounds of the copper chromate arsenic. Arsenic levels in the soil are now some of the highest in the state.

In the intervening years, other responsible parties have disappeared. The most recent owner, a Japanese businessman who also faced pressure to clean up, walked away from the property, taking haven from the EPA in Japan. His predecessors went bankrupt. But bankruptcy is not an option for the Campbell Estate; its pockets are too deep. Until it sold the site to Weston Solutions, it was stuck with all the liability for the cleanup, even though it hadn’t been the owner of the property for more than 20 years. That’s the principle of “joint and several.”

The uncertainty and risk created by joint and several liability has made it difficult to redevelop parcels that are contaminated – or are even suspected of contamination. As a result, the EPA and state regulators have devised programs intended to ease liability for buyers that want to redevelop a contaminated property. The state’s Voluntary Response Program, for example, provides owners and purchasers with technical assistance, quicker oversight and some relief from future liability.

“With the VRP,” Grange says, “a developer comes in, agrees to characterize a site and take responsibility for the contamination up to a level suitable for their proposed use, and then they’re free from additional liability.” She adds that the liability for the remaining contamination doesn’t simply go away. “That liability stays with whoever caused the contamination in the first place.”

She gives an example from Iwilei: “The site of the Lowe’s store has a bunch of petroleum-contaminated soil from the old ConocoPhillips tank farm. Lowe’s wanted to build its store there, but it didn’t want to assume all of ConocoPhillips’ responsibility. So it entered our VRP and agreed to remediate within the property boundaries to a level that was safe and appropriate to build a commercial store. The VRP leaves the remaining environmental responsibility with ConocoPhillips.”

Probably the most important program for encouraging the redevelopment of contaminated lands has been the federal Brownfields Program. This law, which was mirrored at the state level in 2009, provides many of the same protections as the VRP. “We have about 20 VRP sites in the state,” Grange says. “But with the new Brownfield purchaser law, I think there will be less need for those in the future, because they can get those protections automatically now.”

One of the big differences with the Brownfield Program is its funding options. “Right now, we have what’s being presented as the poster child for Brownfield,” says Mike Yee, one of the principals at the local consulting firm EnviroServices and Training Center. “That’s our East Kapolei site, the pesticide-mixing site and surrounding area in Ewa that the Department of Hawaiian Homelands wants to put homes on.” Through the Brownfield Program, DHHL is funding some of its environmental assessment costs with a $200,000 EPA grant. DHHL is also the first entity to use a $1 million EPA revolving fund administered by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This money can be used for the actual cleanup and paid back after the property has been redeveloped.

“Wow,” says Yee. “What a wonderful way to use federal money: to bring that money into our state to investigate and clean up contaminated sites. It’s good for the developer, good for the state and, ultimately, good for the community – not to mention the environment.”

Weston has created an interesting business model for its Gasco and Chem-Wood projects. Typically, environmental firms are simply consultants or subcontractors; the developer remains liable for the contamination. But Weston bought these properties outright. In effect, Weston has gambled on its expertise in environmental engineering, believing it can purchase properties at a discount, clean them and sell them at a premium. In the interim, though, Weston is the responsible party as far as DOH is concerned. In the lingo of environmental engineers, Weston has bought the liability.

“I’d like to tell you that we’re really smart at this,” says Dave Griffin, Hawaii Operations Manager, “but we have a card up our sleeve: We buy an insurance policy. We engage insurance to underwrite this risk for us, so if we encounter 50 drums of methyl-ethyl that nobody knew about, we can recover some of our expenditures.”

While being the property owner is much riskier, Griffin points out some advantages. To begin with, any upside on the development end of the deal belongs to Weston. And since the company’s cleanup agreement with DOH is based upon the end use for the property, Weston can tailor its cleanup process to a specific function, potentially saving money.

There’s also the method of payment. Although Weston technically “bought” the property from BHP, the details of the contract are more complicated: The seller pays most of the downstream costs. “Instead of billing for hours,” Griffin says, “we get paid up front. So now we’re sitting on that money, drawing interest. Financially, that makes a lot of sense.”

Rick Smith elaborates: “You get paid for everything up front,” he says. “So they (property sellers) pay for the insurance. We don’t pay for that. … The cost of the cleanup, what we actually do in the field, all that’s paid up front. All that’s part of the calculation.” But he notes there’s a lot of prelude before the symphony of cash. “That reward, that big lump of money, doesn’t just stroll in the front door. There’s a lot of work that goes into putting one of these deals together.” In this case, the deal took 18 months to arrange.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Griffin. “The truth is, we’re trying to do the right thing here. By redeveloping this property, we get jobs, we get tax base and we get a more vibrant community out of the deal. That’s our kind of model. Would we like to make some money at the end of the deal? Absolutely. We found a piece of property that’s been sitting vacant for 30 years (the old Gasco site), and it’s right next to the highest-selling Costco in the country. We think we’ve found a little gem here. But, in the end, it’s Weston’s contamination now.”


Bankers and Consultants

Although a large, international company like Weston Solutions can afford to self-finance its projects, most local companies interested in redeveloping contaminated property will need a lender. And that’s just the beginning, says Scott Rodie, environmental risk manager at Bank of Hawaii.

“Banks don’t like uncertainty,” says Rodie. “What we try to do, cooperatively with the client, is help them avail themselves of the experts that are out there.”

That means making sure their clients have qualified environmental consultants and appropriate insurance, and that, overall, they know what they’re getting into.

One problem is figuring out if your advisors are knowledgable. “It’s unregulated and unlicensed,” Rodie says. “Under federal law and Hawaii Revised Statutes, there are requirements that you have an ‘environmental professional,’ as defined by the rule, perform a Phase-1 (site investigation). But, again, it’s unlicensed. You have nearly nothing to go after” if they get it wrong.

“So it’s buyer beware,” Rodie says. Or, better yet, listen to your banker.


 How Toxic Land is Cleaned

Environmental engineering companies have several ways of cleaning contaminated land, from the most basic method to high-tech solutions.

First, figuring out if there is anything toxic in the ground, what it is and where, can be complicated. Mike Yee, of EnviroServices, elaborates: “How far down does the contamination go? How wide has it spread? What are the actual contaminants and what is the level of the contamination? Then we look at remediation alternatives – what’s the best way to treat it? Normally, there’s not just one way to clean up a site, and there are a lot of factors that go into determining which one you select.”

One option is very basic: dig up the contaminated soil and remove it. Damon Hamura, project manager for EnviroServices, calls it “Bag it and tag it.” With this method, you’re not actually getting rid of the contaminant; you’re just moving it – often to a landfill.

That’s sometimes the only solution, particularly with metals contamination, but it presents its own problems, including moving truckloads of contaminated soil through the neighborhood.

“Sometimes,” Hamura says, “they just put it back on the same site – a kind of reinterment. They dig a pit, put all the contaminated soil in there, then cover it with concrete or asphalt. That’s called ‘encapsulation.’ ”

This is the strategy being used at the Chem-Wood site in Campbell Industrial Park.

When it comes to cleanup options, Hamura says, “Removal is a pretty short list, but when you get to remedial action, it’s a relatively long list. And it’s getting longer as technology grows.” This is particularly true for petroleum-based contaminants, the prevalent form of soil and groundwater pollution in Hawaii. For example, you have various kinds of bioremediation – basically using petroleum-eating microbes, either natural or introduced – to remove the contaminant. This is often combined with sparging, essentially bubbling oxygen through the groundwater to improve the effectiveness of the bacteria.

A more radical approach is thermal desorption. “Basically,” Hamura says, “you’re heating up the soil, trying to burn off the contaminants. But you also need to capture the vapor that’s produced. Usually, you use this method for organic contaminants. If you have a metals issue, that’s not going to do much for you.”

Often, remediation is an ongoing responsibility. Many properties, especially those that have passed through the VRP or Brownfield Program, require “administrative controls.” These controls might forbid digging or strictly limit the use of the property.

The remediation can also be engineered into the new development. In areas with petroleum contamination, like the Lowe’s and Costco sites in Iwilei, this probably involves the installation of a vapor barrier and a vapor extraction system.

Weston plans a more aggressive approach with the tar and benzene at the Gasco site. “We’re proposing to use in situ chemical oxidation,” says David Griffin, Weston’s operations manager in Hawaii. “That’s pumping 40,000 gallons of diluted industrial-grade hydrogen peroxide into the ground. That treats the contamination. (The byproducts are carbon dioxide and water.) Plus, it destroys the contaminants in place, so we’re not bringing them to the surface, putting them in trucks and hauling them through the local neighborhoods.” This drives the benzene out of the groundwater to a ventilation system on the surface, where it’s burned off. “Then, we do a monitoring program to make sure we’re meeting the levels we signed up for,” Griffin says.

This system is not without risks. Last September, the flame arrester failed on the thermal oxidizer – basically a big furnace – and the resulting backflash caused an explosion in the PVC ventilation system, which ignited a small fire in a benzene vent. No one was hurt, but the fire department arrived in HazMat gear and took two hours and 200,000 gallons of water to put out the tiny fire. Nevertheless, Weston is confident in its system – early tests suggest it’s already lowered the benzene level 60 percent – and only awaits Department of Health approval to expand from the current test grid to the whole site.

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