Hawaiian master builder Francis Palani Sinenci reflects on decades of hale construction
Native Hawaiian master builder Francis Palani Sinenci has dedicated his life to revitalizing the traditional art of building thatched houses called hale.
Now, he’s being honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, America’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Sinenci, 79, inspects a newly cleared site for his next traditional Hawaiian thatched house or hale on the grounds of the Waiʻanae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.
“We’re looking at the niho or the footing that we’re building,” says Sinenci “It’s going to be the third of the houses that we’ve built here.”
If you ask Sinenci how many hale he’s built over the course of his 30-year career, he’ll tell you he stopped counting – there were just so many. The hale he’s working on today will be thatched with loulu palm instead of the commonly known pili grass. Loulu is Sinenci’s preferred material.
“Because there’s plenty of it and it’s easy to harvest. It’s easy to attach to the hale,” says Sinenci. “Pili grass was what the maka’ainana used, it was plentiful. The aliʻi preferred lāʻī because it was nicer, softer, but I built one out of lāʻī and it took 496,000 leaves. It’s very tedious but it comes out very nice.”
The fastest build he can remember was a hale in Kalaeloa that took him and his team six days over the course of three weekends. The key word he says is laulima meaning many hands.
“It takes a village,” says Sinenci. “Ultimately, it takes at least a minimum of five people to build a hale, because it takes like if one guy’s up there thatching, it takes one guy to hand it to him, it takes the guy down here to tie the string on, and the next guy to process the leaves, and the fifth guy would be picking the leaves.”
With no existing practitioners to learn from, Sinenci used research and old-fashioned trial and error to perfect his technique.
This journey has led him to spearhead the creation of the Indigenous Architecture Building Code for hale, which requires cement in the rock wall foundation, nylon cord for lashing, and the installation of a fire suppression system.
“For public safety purposes, if you’re within 100 feet of any building, you gotta use a fire suppression system. It’s the code,” says Sinenci. “And it’s smart because I’ve had three fires and two of em had it not had the fire suppression system, it would have burnt to the ground.”
Sinenci is training the next generation of practitioners including Nānākuli native Isaiah Kahakauila-Burch. He says perpetuating this tradition is about more than just construction.
“It's for changing the cultural landscape of what you to me, you know, it's to make it known that we're still here as Hawaiian people, that our knowledge and our philosophies and our kupuna that are all still here,” says Kahakauila-Burch. “We're very alive and we're doing very well.”
Sinenci is being honored this year by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of ten National Heritage Fellows. He’ll receive a $25,000 award and will be featured in a film that will premiere in November 2022 on arts.gov.