Volcano Urbanism


Before I get to the urbanism portion of this post I need to do a quick geography and geology lesson for those readers who are unfamiliar with Hawaii. The state is made up of a chain of islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, the Big Island (that’s the largest island called “Hawaii”) and numerous lesser islands. All the islands formed from the same volcanic hot spot on the sea floor over a period of 70 million years.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 1.13.56 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 7.12.16 PM

DSC_6314 Picture 082 DSC_7911 Lava (2)


The hot spot continually pushes up molten lava from the center of the Earth forming new islands. Over time the plates of the Earth’s crust drift carrying the old islands away while a new island forms at the hot spot. The old islands gradually erode, shrink, and disappear under the sea, while a new underwater mountain gradually pushes its way up to the surface. At the moment the youngest island is the Big Island and it’s still growing in size. These Hawaiian volcanoes aren’t the kind that lay dormant for centuries and then suddenly erupt like Mount Saint Helens, Vesuvius, or Pinatubo. Instead they are shield volcanoes that continually release slow steady flows of lava. You can actually walk away from the lava as it inches forward.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 12.34.25 AM Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.33.00 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 12.37.36 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 12.37.57 AM

I just took these photos of the newest lava field that formed from June through February this year.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.31.12 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.29.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.32.18 PM


Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 10.47.32 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 10.47.18 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 10.22.52 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 2.26.54 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 2.06.39 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 2.19.09 AM

In the first hundred years after a new lava flow pioneer species slowly colonize the rocks. First there’s moss and ferns. Then the rugged ohia trees sprout. Then coconut palms wash up on the newly formed black sand beach and take root. After two hundred years a dense forest is established.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 3.42.25 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.56.42 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.01.41 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.52.54 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.52.20 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.55.26 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.26.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.45.32 PM

Soon after the lava cools a new kind of pioneer species arrives to colonize the rocks. Before the lava flow the land had already been carved up into farms and subdivisions which were covered over. Once the lava cooled the old lots were resurveyed and sold off at bargain prices. Lots began at $1,000. When I asked one resident about the precarious nature of the location he explained, “You pay your dollar and you take your chances.” Then he asked me where I live. San Francisco. “Hmmm. Nothing dangerous about living on top of a massive earthquake fault is there?” We continued to talk. Seattle and Portland have volcanoes in their back yards too. Manhattan has seen terrorist attacks and super storms in recent years. Florida and Louisiana are directly in harm’s way when it comes to hurricanes. Entire towns in Kansas get swept away in tornadoes. There are 180 aging nuclear power plants all over the mainland. What could possibly go wrong there? Or you could live in New Jersey which has… New Jersey. His point was that people were more directly engaged with the danger on the lava flow. They live with the risk everyday and can’t let themselves forget what they’re dealing with. The lava could return tomorrow or it might be another 50 years. No one knows. Everyone enjoys life, but has a Plan B.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.50.51 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.11.37 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.49.24 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.25.39 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.07.43 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 3.43.38 AM

As I took these photos of the lava dwellers I was fascinated. It wasn’t so much the dramatic location or funky architecture, although they’re certainly worth exploring on those terms. Instead, I looked at these lava homes as a window into the past. Historically this is exactly how all towns and cities began including Rome, New York, London, and Toronto. There’s no city water supply. No complex sewer system was installed ahead of development. There are no paved roads. No banks have financed any of these buildings. No insurance company provided coverage. There are no building codes, zoning regulations, or government inspections. (Or more accurately, all those strictures exist, but they’re simply unenforced.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 1.45.25 PMGoogle

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.40.12 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.06.18 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.24.19 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.02.46 AM

The average North American town gets 37 inches of rain per year. This part of Hawaii gets 148. That’s over 12 feet of water falling from the sky. The simplest way to supply an off-grid home with water in this location is to collect it from the roof and hold it in a tank. The water is generally clean enough to be used directly for things like washing, but the drinking water needs to be filtered or boiled. The climate is mild year round so there’s never a need for heating or cooling, particularly if a home is built with traditional techniques that provide shade and cross ventilation. A barbecue size tank of propane will keep a stove going for a very long time. A few solar panels and/or a small marine style wind turbine will keep the lights on, especially if they’re compact florescent or LED. Ten years ago people would have used gasoline generators, but these days solar is more cost effective, silent, safer, and more convenient. Toilets come in the same form that was used by Moses, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln. Dry composting toilets use no water and the waste quickly turns to soil so long as sawdust or other carbon rich material is added to neutralize the nitrogen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.41.01 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.43.00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.04.40 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.27.56 AM

A D9 bulldozer and driver can be rented for the day to do the work of a thousand men in a single afternoon. The rough lava is scraped flat enough to be passable by car. A few loads of cinder help smooth the way. The roads are only improved where and as needed in an incremental fashion. The value of individual vacant lots rises as ease of access improves so homes tend to be built in clusters along the cinder roads. This level of infrastructure is in keeping with the needs and budget of the community without involving higher levels of government.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 4.01.11 AM

I’m not advocating building in this kind of environment and I’m not romanticizing counter culture off-grid communities. What I am saying is that in a country that prides itself on freedom and private property rights you shouldn’t have to move to the side of a volcano to escape the regulations and social constraints that make self built mortgage free homes illegal everywhere else. I know the arguments against this sort of thing. Shanty towns are dangerous and unhealthy. They will be populated by meth labs and crack whores. These people aren’t paying their fair share of taxes to society. This isn’t a wholesome environment for children, the elderly, or the disabled. This sort of thing will destroy nearby property values. The list goes on. My response is pretty straightforward. So… we don’t have unhealthy pockets of poverty, meth labs, and crack whores in places that were built entirely to code and heavily regulated?

I will say that in this kind of community there’s no need for “affordable housing”. Even the most cash strapped residents can provide shelter for themselves. It may not be the sort of home most middle class people aspire to, but living here is entirely voluntary within a community of like-minded self-selecting people. As time passes each of these makeshift structures is being improving and upgraded. The shanties are gradually evolving into more substantial and respectable homes in the same way the moss and ferns yield to ohia and palm trees. This is an extreme example, but the same principles can be applied selectively in other locations in a more intentional fashion. These lava homes provide a glimpse into what town building used to look like and could look like again if the banks, regulators, and Upright Citizens Brigade cut people a bit more slack. I’m not counting on that, but it’s good to see obscure demonstrations of the historical pattern playing out in forgotten corners to remind us of how things were done before the days of the production home builder, the master planned community, and the seventeen volume building code.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.