Story by Emily Bott | Photos by David Watersun Photography
Napili Kai Resort sits on the West Maui coast between Napili and Kapalua. Its 163 condominium units, mostly privately owned, cluster in two-story buildings spread throughout the ten-acre property. Constructed when Maui was a much more rural island, and oceanfront land a more abundant commodity, the complex hugs the stunning curve of Napili Bay, an elegant, upscale vacation spot gently brought down to Old Hawaii size.
But the resort had problems. Its buildings needed major renovations just to meet codes, much less revitalize living spaces. Lars Wernars, a general contractor and president of Cutting Edge Development, recalls finding “big holes in the walls. Windows leaked air. There was no insulation. Doors didn’t close properly. Mechanical systems were inadequate.”
If that weren’t enough, cast-iron sewer pipes near the ocean were corroding. And the air conditioning? Woefully inefficient; a true power guzzler. Wernars shakes his head. “If the A/C was on in one unit, it was on throughout the building, occupied or not.”
Napili Kai wasn’t alone. Many Maui condos were built in the sixties and seventies, when federal and state codes were much less stringent, and “green” was just a color, not a structural consideration. Wernars estimates that Maui has “thousands” of units in similar shape. That’s significant, because buildings are major energy users, and on Maui, energy derives mostly from imported oil.
“There comes a time when fixes of large failures [sewers, elevators, air conditioning] are so expensive that a complete redo makes sense,” Wernars says. Would Napili Kai owners take the extra step of renovating green?
Wernars, who grew up in Amsterdam surrounded by historic preservation, knew that eco-building works. Energy costs in his own home are half those of his neighbors’. He was convinced that reduced energy and maintenance expenses would speed the return on investment if the owners “did it right the first time.”
Napili Kai’s various buildings have separate owners’ associations. Invited to the annual meeting of one, Wernars gave them the unpleasant news. The buildings were in such bad shape, “They had to be deconstructed.”
His solution seemed Draconian: start by gutting everything down to the concrete. Put in new wiring and lighting fixtures. Upgrade the sewer system. Insulate walls and ceilings. Install ceiling fans and low-flow plumbing fixtures. Replace the faulty air conditioning. Wernars also urged the owners to install dishwashers, if only the smaller, eighteen-inch models. “They use much less water than washing dishes by hand.”
Possibly his most controversial recommendation was the variable-flow refrigerant system, which would drastically reduce electricity consumption. No more cooling the whole structure for a single unit, and no more having the air conditioner run full blast all day, even when the temperature didn’t warrant it. But upfront costs were expensive. Owners liked the concept of being environmentally friendly, but only if the budget didn’t reach to the moon.
Wernars had some convincing arguments. “The building industry was in recession,” he recalls, “so labor rates were lower than usual.” Electricity costs, already the highest in the country, were rising. Occupancy was down, which meant entire buildings were available for renovation. “Now was the time.”
Armed with presentations and handouts, and backed by a team of experts, Wernars showed how “value engineering” could give owners more control over their expenses. He priced everything ahead of time and offered two or three choices.
Cutting Edge got the nod.
On a gorgeous spring day, I meet with Lars Wernars to tour the oceanfront complex. My guide turns out to be a tall, genial fellow with an infectious enthusiasm for green renovation. His workers have completed forty of Napili Kai’s condos, and plan to finish an additional thirty-one.
We pick our way past an off-limits area where piles of discarded construction materials wait to be removed. Nothing that can be used again is thrown away. Appliances and fixtures go to Habitat for Humanity’s Maui ReStore, on Lower Main Street in Wailuku, soon to find new homes. Hammerhead Recycling takes metal, steel and industrial copper. Owners were encouraged to give Napili Kai employees furnishings from remodeled condos. Refrigerators were snapped up immediately. Items that weren’t taken went to Paradise Living, in Lahaina, to be refinished and sold as used furniture.
“In the past five months,” Lars tells me, “we’ve filled eight of those huge construction dumpsters with recyclables. At 30 cubic yards per ‘roll-off,’ that’s 240 cubic yards that we kept out of the landfill.”
There are other, more personal ways he tries to be a better steward of the environment, like paying his workers bus fare to encourage them to leave their cars at home.
As we come in from the blinding sunshine to view one of the twenty units in a building named Puna 2, Lars remarks that it’s booked for arrival later that afternoon. Turns out that renovating a condo to make it more environmentally friendly increases its desirability as a rental; part of the return on investment Napili Kai owners are starting to enjoy is coming from increased occupancy.
Lars can hardly wait to show off the finished product. Raising and lowering a sunshade that adds privacy to a wall of sliding glass doors, we get a dramatic illustration of the need for glare reduction in these west-facing units. A blast of hot air greets us as Lars opens the first door. When closed, these double panes, insulated with argon gas, effectively keep out the heat. At night, stops built into the frame allow the doors to be safely locked open a few inches for ventilation.
“A unit can’t be air tight,” Lars explains. “People live in it. They cook. They use cleaning agents. So there’s toxic air inside. That’s why we went with HVAC, a heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system that brings filtered air in and sucks bad air out.” Louvers in a hall door can be opened, and a magnetic sensor in the ceiling determines whether or not to activate the A/C.
Extensive work had to be done on the gravitational sewer system’s old pipes; a full 20 percent were replaced. The rest were lined or refitted with internal “sleeves.” The reduced capacity was not a problem, since the new, low-flow plumbing fixtures cut each unit’s water consumption.
Renovated kitchens feature ceiling fans, Energy Star appliances, marble or granite countertops, and American cherry cabinet doors. “We used bamboo in some units,” Lars says, “but you have to be careful where you get it. Some bamboo from China has formaldehyde in the glue.
“We replaced the incandescent light bulbs,” he adds. “They’re 80 percent heat. And they only last about a thousand hours, compared to forty thousand for an LED (light emitting diode).” What about compact fluorescents? “The bulbs are fragile and contain mercury. We used some, but where possible, we stuck with LED. It throws out light, not heat.”
The key to energy efficiency, he believes, is “how you use it and how it’s maintained.” Example: Napili Kai maids no longer turn on the air conditioning the morning of a guest’s arrival. They wait until half an hour before check-in time.
Outside, I’m surprised at the lack of solar panels. Lars explains that this building’s roof was replaced a few years ago. But during renovation, Cutting Edge installed a chase (conduit) in each unit, leading up to the attic and down to the mechanical room, where future photovoltaic wiring can be run. As we head back to my car, he points out the common areas; their flat roofs have PV panels already, and — among other things — provide power for the electric golf carts the resort’s maintenance staff use.
Puna 2 and its sister complex, Puna Point, have proved such a success that other Napili Kai owners (as well as condo associations outside the resort) have begun to look at the renovation as a model. Kilowatt hours have dramatically dropped, and last year Puna 2 received the Building Industry of Hawaii’s Renaissance Award of Merit. Perhaps the most impressive measure of the value of green is that the refurbished rental units frequently have the highest occupancy rates in the resort.