A House Divided
With a boxy, corrugated exterior and an interior filled with rich, imported teak, this Puna home splits the difference between clean modernism and old-world warmth.
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It’s easy to get locked into one design aesthetic when building a custom home, or even renovating a single room. This house is ultramodern and chic, someone will declare. That house is tropical and relaxed. There’s something to be said for purity of vision, to be sure, but it can sometimes be limiting.
When Big Island psychologist Tim Ambrose started building his dream home on the edge of an old lava flow on the Puna coast, he decided to pursue a house that met the demands of the surroundings and of his lifestyle, and to focus less on labels and specific schools of design. The resulting house splits the difference between Spartan modernism and romantic old-world living, and defies all attempts at easy categorization.
Part of Ambrose’s enthusiasm for mixing and matching stemmed from his international travels. By the time he moved to Hawaii in 2000, he had a head full of architecture from all over the world, picked up while living everywhere from France to Australia to Zimbabwe. “I’ve always been fascinated with architecture. My dad built multiple houses, and I always had a passion for it. I’m constantly seeing things I like and making mental notes,” he says.
He did know that he wanted something clean, modern and original. In fact, he found his architectural designer, Patrick Tozier, through emodernhomes.com, a (now-defunct) Web site that exclusively featured modernist homes and architects. “I was looking for someone young, and early into their career, who was going to be able to devote a lot of time and energy to the project. Patrick felt like a good fit for what I was planning.”
Ambrose also liked the unconventional feel of the projects on which Tozier had already worked. The home he built for himself, in St. Louis Heights, for example, featured a Plexiglass façade, two kilowatts worth of solar panels and a singular, circular bathroom that functioned as a hub for the three bedrooms surrounding it.
Tozier had apprenticed for five years with local architectural designer Carey Smoot in the late ’90s, and says he was inspired by the nontraditional structures Smoot explored early in his career, such as geodesic domes. “I’m all about systems engineering,” Tozier says. “Houses could be designed a lot more efficiently. Maintenance, productivity, recycling, pretty much everything benefits from better engineering.”
The opportunity to apply this kind of thinking to a site on the rugged Puna coast was exciting to him and, after brainstorming with Ambrose, Tozier came up with a rectilinear box shape, three stories high to get up over the tree line for an ocean view, and almost completely devoid of unnecessary exterior elements. The siding is corrugated Galvalume, a sheet steel coated with an aluminum-zinc alloy, which not only gives the house a funky, industrial feel, but promises to be extremely resistant to corrosion.
About the most demonstrative element of decoration on the front of the house are the windows themselves, which are all different sizes, and set on different planes. “It’s like a modernist painting, with a range of geometric shapes,” says Ambrose. “As a completely flat surface, it lends itself to that.”
But the main focal point of the house, as you approach it, is the open stairway that runs up through the center of the building, visually and functionally dividing the structure in two. It’s a wide, airy space, filled with sunlight, thanks to a huge expanse of corrugated fiberglass reinforced panels that matches up perfectly with the Galvalume siding around it and acts as a translucent window pane.
“I had a vision of walking down the staircase and having that visual of a blurred person walking through the space,” says Ambrose. “There’s so much light that pours into the house, but you retain some privacy.”