Lika | Photo: Michelle Mishina
Over several decades, invasive Albizia trees have grown wild across the state of Hawaii, causing millions in damage each year when loose limbs fall. Removing them is expensive, dangerous, and necessary, and the payoff is nil; the trees are mostly turned into landfill.
This big, glaring problem was the spark that created the Albizia Project, a company co-founded by Architect Joey Valenti and his partner, Christine Johnson. Today, they remove and mill Albizia and develop unique and innovative ways to use the trees in support of native ecosystem restoration across the state.
Their team has built an elegant and affordable housing prototype, interior installations, retail products, and most recently a surfboard prototype with immense scaling potential. While they’re spearheading a new era for the life cycle and end-use of Albizia, this has not been an overnight success; rather, it has an ongoing process of discovery that has forced them to find useful ways of managing something that impacts the greater community they inhabit.
Let’s take you back to the beginning.
When Joey Valenti began researching an affordable building material that could be sourced in Hawaii, he found an unlikely candidate in one of the state’s most unwelcome guests: Albizia trees.
Right off the bat, this was not a hot lead. As mentioned, Albizia trees are very, very unpopular.
Introduced to the islands just over a hundred years ago, these ultra-fast-growing trees are everywhere, strangely beautiful, yet highly dangerous. Known for long, wiry limbs that are prone to breaking without warning, Albizia have earned a reputation for destroying ecosystems and structures, wreaking havoc during hurricane season. To boot, they’re also very difficult to trim safely. The sum of these things has led to significant doubt about the usefulness of Albizia wood for anything construction-related.
Despite pushback and reasonable opposition, Joey went on to test the timber and consider it as a case study for his doctoral thesis in 2015. He had a very specific need: a lightweight alternative to the premium hardwoods native to Hawaii that could be used for an affordable housing solution.
After returning from an internship in China, where the scale, quantity, and speed of development had made an impact on Joey, he was acutely aware of Hawaii’s isolation when it came to materials. “Coming back to Hawaii, to an island with finite resources and where we’re fully dependent on imported materials and foods, really drove the direction of my research,” he said about the early stages of the project.
About three months into his research, word got around about a large Albizia removal taking place at the university’s arboretum. “They were getting rid of about 20 very large trees, and this would cost somewhere around $1.5M.” Joey said.
The benefits of the operation did not add up against the labor and time. “Observing the cost and scale inspired me to investigate the potential for using Albizia as a resource, especially after finding out that they were cutting up and dumping these logs in a ravine behind the arboretum. As I dug a little deeper, I discovered that this was happening all across the state.”
Joey was able to salvage one of those logs and learned how to mill at the same site from the crew who were handling the removal. “They had a crew with an Alaskan sawmill. It’s a good way to learn how to mill and cut logs,” he said. “At the same time, I was coming up with a design solution and I proposed this as a potential building material to house our communities. Just like many communities, we’ve been facing a crisis with many people unhoused in urban areas.”
He built models based on using Albizia in his thesis, which ultimately led to a $10,000 grant by the university. This opened the door to additional sponsorship opportunities and allowed him to begin developing a working prototype, known as Lika, a housing pod built entirely out of Albizia wood.
The success of the Lika prototype helped put the Albizia Project on the map. Today, the company is based on site at Bello’s Mill Work, the largest mill in the state, which has been around for thirty-some years. Bello’s has established itself as a leading custom door and window manufacturer that uses mostly imported woods.
This partnership has given Joey and the team at Albizia Project access to mentors, resources, collaborators, and clients. “My story is using invasive Albizia and theirs is one of long-held traditions. But they’re also into innovation, which has allowed us to form this synergistic bond. The team recently invested in a sawmill, so we’re collecting logs from around Oahu and milling our own Albizia.”
While the Albizia Project’s range of impressive, elegant products are stellar examples of Albizia in use, one of the most exciting developments will honor a cultural pastime native to Hawaii: surfing.
Albizia is technically a hardwood, because it has a seed pod system, but it also has soft density and is very light. “What we found during the tests was that Albizia’s strength is comparable to Douglas Fir - that’s essentially what we wanted to test it against. Albizia might not necessarily be as desirable as a local favorite, like Koa, but I think the story behind it (taking something invasive and making something beautiful from it) is what people are attracted to.”
The weight and strength of the wood lends itself to surfboards. An avid surfer, Joey was naturally drawn to the idea of a surfboard prototype. “When I presented it to the owner at Bello’s, he was really excited. He had actually started experimenting with Albizia years ago and had made a prototype surfboard with some of the local board shapers.”
Following the development of a prototype, the firm was recently awarded a USDA Forest Service Grant, which is providing funding to develop the product. “We’re close to launching and have a few prototypes now,” Joey said. “I feel really good about the product and the story behind it. Not only did surfing start with wood, but it also started in Hawaii, and this island specifically is a testing ground for modern boards. To find a way of using Albizia to honor the sport and history of Hawaii would be really rewarding.”
There’s a poetic connection between Albizia wood being used as a material for surfboards and the historic significance of surfing in Hawaii.
To give a very brief and basic overview, the first forms of surfing can be traced back to ancient Polynesia, when warriors in training would use wooden boards to ride waves across coral reefs and onto pristine beaches. Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa each practiced a form of surfing that was part sport, part cultural pastime.
Modern surfing, as a cultural and spiritual artform, took shape in Hawaii during the precolonial era, where it was known as heʻe nalu, wave sliding, and existed as a deeply meaningful part of local culture. Long before the Western invasion, ancient Hawaiians used a variety of local woods, including Breadfruit, Koa, and Wiliwili, to create early boards, known as Olo and Alaia, as well outrigger canoes and bodyboards. The beauty, spirituality, and prestige of riding waves in Hawaii was brutally interrupted when Europeans arrived and imposed their way of life on the islands. It wasn’t until the iconic Duke Kahanamoku, a five-time Olympic swimming champion, began incorporating surfing demonstrations into his post-Olympic career, that surfing began to develop a consumable identity that haoles (non-native Hawaiians) could see themselves attempting.
There’s no denying that Western intervention has gravely harmed the native Hawaiian people. Albizia, in some respects, is another form of Western intervention that was brought to Hawaii by Joseph Rock as a fast, effective way to stop watershed erosion.
The act of removing an invasive species that was brought to Hawaii and repurposing it to honor an integral part of Hawaiian culture, working alongside direct decedents of the island’s Kingdom, is a small but heartfelt gesture. The path to mending historical hurts is not short or simplistic, but all progress must start with the truth.
Looking ahead, Albizia’s future as an approved building material is tied to years of testing. While this goal should be seen as more of a marathon than a sprint, the company is focused on a variety of immediate opportunities. One of the most meaningful of these is the removal (and later milling) of Albizia trees for the purpose of native reforestation and, in turn, replacing them with native species.
Albizia Project recently hosted its first restoration native tree planting day. “We had about 25 volunteers at a site where a group of native Hawaiian cultural practitioners have a lease on the land and started to grow Breadfruit and other edible canoe plants for the community. Part of their land was covered in Albizia.” Their team cleared 15 Albizia trees and took those logs to the company mill. This opened up roughly 2 acres, where they planted native trees to replace the Albizia.
What the future holds of the Albizia Project is yet to be discovered. But looking at all of the possibilities and opportunities that have been unearthed, it seems very hopeful. “Now that we’ve got our mill up and running, we're at a place where we’re trying to improve supply chain efficiencies so that we can get enough lumber to support larger scale projects.”
What Joey and his team have brought to the table is a shift in the way their communities manage a problem that was thrust upon Hawaii without a full understanding of the long-term consequences.
While this team is spearheading a new era for the life cycle and end-use of Albizia, this has not been an overnight success; rather, it has an ongoing process of discovery that has forced them to find useful ways of managing something that impacts the greater community they inhabit. This just goes to show that good ideas aren’t inherently complicated. Often, they’re simple ways of looking at a problem from a unique perspective.
Follow @TheAlbiziaProject on Instagram for regular updates from Joey and the team.
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