Working the Angles

Even with a tight budget, this first-time homeowner managed to land himself a one-of-a-kind, architect-designed house. Turns out you don’t have to be a millionaire to afford a custom home.


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When the parents of this 35-year-old homeowner gave him a house and an 11,870-square-foot piece of property in Halawa Heights, he was ecstatic. He quickly realized, though, that there was a lot of work to do. The tract house that sat on the property had been used as a rental for years, and looked it. “The house was very old, I didn’t like the layout,” says the owner, who works for the United States Air Force as an engineer. He decided that he didn’t want to put a lot of time and money into restoring a house he wasn’t crazy about in the first place. “It just didn’t make sense to fix it up,” he says. “I figured that, if I’m going to be in debt for 30 years, I’d better do it up right, and have a house I liked.”

At the time, the owner was reading The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, by Sarah Susanka, an ode to smaller, more intimate residential spaces. Inspired by Susanka’s design philosophy, he decided to shoot for his own custom home, something that would be just his, without being ostentatious. Given his initial budget—$400,000—he couldn’t afford ostentation anyway. With most custom homes in Hawai‘i costing between $250 and $350 per square foot, he would have to squeak by on just $175 per square foot. Luckily, he found an architect up to the challenge: John Black of Lapis Design Partners. Black says he was intrigued by the prospect of creating a custom home for a young, not-super-rich client. “I really wanted to encourage him to do it, so I gave him a good fee to do it,” he recalls.

A screen wall attached to the side of the house gives the backyard some privacy. It’s also designed to support a lanai in the future.

As a first-time home buyer, the owner didn’t have too many requirements for Black, but he knew he wanted something interesting. “One of the first things I told John was, I don’t want my walls white. I just hate that. And he understood that.”

With a mandate for originality and little to restrict him but the budget, Black came up with a strikingly unconventional design—a two-story structure with a blocky, almost cartoony exterior, featuring slanted walls and roof lines and pleasing horizontal strokes of color. “I liked the idea of angled walls. It seems a little more friendly, it’s growing up and out,” Black explains.

There’s a method to Black’s madness. Photos of the house accentuate its quirkiness, but in person, the structure blends in surprisingly well with the rest of the neighborhood, which is composed mainly of older, single-story tract homes. The slanted collection of roof surfaces also serves a practical purpose. Because the house sits on a hillside plot, rainwater saturation is always a concern. Instead of relying on traditional rain gutters, each of the roof surfaces directs water toward one large scupper on the side of the garage that shoots water toward the street, safely off the property. “It’s quite a water show during a rainstorm,” Black says.

Inside, the spaces feel open and airy, thanks to varying ceiling heights and a clever interplay among the first floor living room, the kitchen and the second- floor hallway areas. Large skylights flood the interior with natural light, and the many windows maximize light and ventilation throughout the house.

With all these great features, how did Black manage to build the house so cheaply? The first step was bringing in the contractor, Bill Emery, of Emery Construction, early in the process, to ensure that Black’s plans could realistically be built within budget. By making cost-cutting decisions before breaking ground, the team was able to get through construction with only one change order, which kept costs down.

Among the early compromises: Black replaced the air conditioning with a fan system that pulls in the hot air from the top of the house and exhausts it outside. A second-floor lanai featuring a spiral staircase had to be nixed as well.

Two large skylights, along with windows on either end of the second story hallway, fill the space with light.

Throughout the planning, Black and Emery were smart about materials. Rather than spending extra for flooring, Black polished and stained the concrete foundation slab with a rich green patina, for a floor surface that’s both minimalist and good looking. By saving money with inexpensive fixtures such as vinyl windows, hollow core doors, and using limited interior trim, Black was able to concentrate on beefing up the structure itself. “This house was, according to the contractor, horribly over-structured,” he says. “Our engineer is conservative about these things, and there was an ongoing battle between the two. When we were building it, the joke was that, if a hurricane hit, we should all head for [the owner’s] house.”

Whenever possible, Black’s design left the door open for future upgrades. The foundation is already laid for the spiral staircase, and the solid wood panels above the doors are sized so they can eventually be replaced by louvered wood vents.

Black was even able to squeeze in some niceties, such as an open, stringer-less staircase that lends the space a sense of light and air. All in all, the house feels amazingly luxe, given the budget constraints, and the homeowner says he’s very happy with his new digs. “When I come home, it really feels like I’m coming home to something different,” he says.

For Black, who often works on much larger residential projects, this house was a welcome challenge, and the kind of thing he’d like to see more of in Honolulu. “It would be nice to get more people thinking that they don’t have to spend $4 million for a mansion, that they can still hire an architect for a small, simple house that’s well-designed and easier to maintain.”

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