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Saturday, March 8, 2014
From Chicken Coops To Grand Champion Homes
By Susan Sunderland
Talk about humble beginnings. Homebuilder Robert M. Kayas first project was a $25 chicken coop for a neighbor in Punaluu. That was in 1937.
It was an inauspicious start for someone who later dramatically changed the scope of residential construction in Hawaii. His leadership in organizing the Building Industry Association (BIA) and the first Parade of Homes is legendary, making Kaya synonymous with progress.
The pioneering spirit of Kaya lives today, as BIA puts the spotlight on the states leading home construction projects. With the theme Showcasing 50 Years of the Best of Hawaiis Builders, it celebrates the 2006 Parade of Homes.
Its an appropriate tribute to Kaya and others who literally built Hawaii. The residential, commercial and public structures on our Islands are monuments to the craftsmanship and dedication of builders.
As the Parade of Homes begins its 50th year, BIA takes the occasion to remember Hawaiis housing heroes. The past is a firm foundation, members say, on which to build hopes and dreams of the future.
Before we march into this years Parade, lets take a stroll down memory lane to meet a homebuilder-pioneer. Recollections of the late Robert Masayoshi Kaya are relayed to us by his daughter and grandson, principals in a three-generation family construction business.
Kaya was a first-generation issei who migrated from Yamaguchi, Japan, to work in the Waialua cane fields. He attended Hauula Elementary, Central Intermediate and McKinley High schools (McKinley class of1932). In 1937, he started a contracting business in Punaluu.
Merle Higa is one of four daughters born to Robert and Florence Kaya. She married her high school sweetheart, James Higa, who served as president of Kaya Builders from 1981 to 1989. The couples eldest son, Scott I. Higa, is president of the construction company today.
My father was a go-getter, not afraid of challenges, and liked being involved in organizations like BIA, General Contractors Association and Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Merle says. He took leadership roles because he wanted to make changes.
Kayas foresight in having a trade organization came in 1955 when he joined nine colleagues - William Blackfield, Bert Kanzaki, Earl Kato, Ward Kegin, Robert Kuniyuki, James Lai, Melvin Muraoka, Richard Sato and Kenneth Shioi - to charter the Home Builders Association of Hawaii. Kaya was its first president.
The local association affiliated with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), one of the largest, most influential trade associations in the country These visionaries fore-saw the importance of the building industry in the explosive growth of Hawaii and understood the value of bonding together in an association to promote the home building and construction industry, says Karen T. Nakamura, BIA chief executive officer.
Along the way, Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union, and the Home Builders Association of Hawaii grew and expanded its reach, ultimately becoming the Building Industry Association of Hawaii in 1979. Members are developers, contractors, suppliers, realtors, architects, financial institutions and other professionals who service the building industry.
Kayas contracting business expanded as well, moving from Punaluu to McCully, Kakaako, Dillingham Boulevard, and eventually to its present headquarters at Kokea Street in Kapalama. His wife, Florence, was at his side every step of the way.
In 1981, son-in-law James Higa became the companys president. Higa was instrumental in expanding the family business beyond homebuilding, into government contracts and major commercial projects.
The company built Ward Centre, Manoa Marketplace and the first phase of the Japanese Cultural Center. In 1994, it garnered a Parade of Homes Grand Champion title for work on Iwalani-Village 5 in Kapolei. To date, the contractor has received four Grand Champion awards for homebuilding projects.
I was at school (University of the Pacific) when my dad was running the company, Scott says. He asked me to come back to Hawaii to work for the company, and I jumped at it.
That was in 1987, the 50th anniversary of the company. Scott was 24 years old.
I rode around with the superintendents as an assistant and helped to manage projects, Scott recalls. I thought I might start in the field to get experience, but I was told my job was to provide leadership, direction and to make decisions. It was frustrating at first, not being familiar with the business.
But it was fortuitous that Scott was put on a fast-track learning curve. Two years later, his dad died, leaving the company management in his young hands. Kaya came out of retirement to mentor his grandson.
Today, Scott Higa, 43, runs Robert M. Kaya Builders Inc. with the help of his mother and three brothers. Dane, 41, is accountant; Brad, 39, is a journeyman-carpenter foreman; and Ward, 38, is executive vice president.
What legacy did Kaya leave to the family business?
He had the reputation of providing quality, Scott says. People must be happy with the results. The job has to be done right.
Merle agrees. My father was a perfectionist, she says.
Materials have changed a lot since I first started, Scott reflects. At that time, it was wood or masonry construction. Now its steel construction with exterior finishes like vinyl or composite siding. Before, we built homes with jalousie windows; now its vinyl or aluminum installations.
My main thing is to maintain the reputation that was built by my grandfather, he says. Its the key driver of all of my decisions.
Thats an enviable standard by any measure. Home buyers want the confidence of a well-built, quality-oriented residence.
Thats why Kaya would be proud of this years Parade of Homes. There are 25 entrants who offer the best of new home design and construction. These are the pacesetters of local home-building.
Carefully inspected by a panel of judges, the most outstanding projects are declared Best of Show and Grand Champion.
Bill Paik of Grace Pacific Corporation and BIA president-elect is chair of the judging committee. He and seven experts devote a week to Parade of Home judging chores that take them to all parts of Oahu and three Neighbor Islands. Winners are announced at an awards gala on Thursday, Oct. 5, at Ihilani Resort.
Each project is judged from the perspective of an appraiser, architect, builder, financier, interior designer, landscaper, and realtor. Scoring on a 10-point system, the builder for instance looks at:
The top-scoring project is hailed as the most outstanding home on the market today. Discerning buyers will undoubtedly have their personal favorites as well.
Fully furnished models range from Ala Moana Hotels condo unit of 297 square feet, to Gentry Pacifics Monterey Residence 3 at Cypress Point of 5,000 square feet.
Getting 25 entrants for the Parade of Homes, including a first-time entry on Lanai, is no easy feat. Inventory of new homes is slim to none as voracious buyers comb the marketplace for best buys.
Homebuilding and commercial projects will drive our industry for the next five to six years, says Paik. There are fewer heavy construction projects like the H-3. But due to a labor shortage, its a long wait for home-builders wanting to start new projects. This affects home prices.
Thats why BIAs priority is the building next year of the Construction Training Center of the Pacific, where we can educate craftsmen, he states. High schools no longer offer industrial training, and we need to bring it back. There is no place to train employees for Hawaiis third largest industry.
We need support for this training center, so homes can be built quicker and efficiently. The worst thing we can do is to bring in people from outside the state, he adds.
The Construction Training Center is scheduled to break ground next April at Waipahus Mill Town Center. Completion is expected by early 2008.
Meanwhile, BIA uses available classrooms here and there, and has graduated 40 students since its pilot program two years ago. Seventy percent of them are employed in construction today, 27 percent of whom are women.
The outlook continues bright and favorable for Hawaiis construction industry. Developers, encouraged by strong housing prices, plan to build more and more new homes in the next 20 years, according to city surveys.
BIAs Parade of Homes will keep pace with the momentum. For 50 years, it has been the welcome mat to Hawaiis finest new homes. More importantly, it is the catalyst to the American dream of homeownership.
Robert M. Kaya, the Parades beloved grand marshal, would be pleased.