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Up and Coming Architecture Firm: Collaborative Studio

A young Honolulu architecture firm is winning awards and solving problems.


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Cathi Ho Schar and Kyle Hamada, the entire staff of Collaborative Studio, with a model for an earlier version of their award-winning KaimukĪ residence design.

Photo by Olivier Koning

Earlier this year, a big winner at the design awards of the Honolulu Chapter for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was a young, two-person Honolulu firm, Collaborative Studio. It won both an Award of Excellence and the Mayor’s Choice Award for a home in Kaimukī, and the Unbuilt Award for designs commissioned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

We originally sat down with the two principals, Cathi Ho Schar, 35, and Kyle Hamada, 50, to learn more about their Kaimukī house design. We quickly found that the 5-year-old firm was up to a number of interesting projects, all with the attitude that good design and sustainability do not have to be luxuries. In fact, low budgets are the firm’s specialty and the notion of sustainability—environmentally friendly materials and construction—is deployed pragmatically, as a way to keep costs down, rather than as a display of save-the-earth piety or conspicuous non-consumption (as in, Look how much I spent on this recycled glass countertop!).

The winning Kaumukī residence is a perfect example. Owners Mark and Donna Ariyoshi had returned to the Islands to send their daughter to their alma mater, Punahou. They settled into the Kaimukī property where Donna had grown up, where her parents lived in one home at the back of the lot, while a classic 1920s bungalow sat on the front. The bungalow would be the natural place for the Ariyoshis to settle, but it was a tear-down. A new home was necessary.

“Mark is a graphic designer with a real interest in design and architecture, so he wanted something modern, minimalist and flexible,” recalls Ho Schar. “He was also working within a tight, tight budget.” The Ariyoshis hoped to stay within $320,000 for the whole project, including design, materials and labor, and came close, with a final price tag of about $350,000.

The owners also provided a mission statement, one that encouraged Ho Schar and her business partner at the time, architect Kelly Irvine, to experiment with building materials and construction techniques to achieve their goals of attractive sustainability on a budget. “It’s not often you get a client who says, ‘I want to build a house and I understand there are going to be mistakes along the way,’ but that’s how they approached it,” says Ho Schar.

Photos by Collaborative Studio

The freedom to experiment paid off. Ho Schar and Irvine’s first stab at the design called for a steel-framed home, to be prefabricated off-site, but, for all the time invested in researching that approach, it ended up being too expensive.

Ho Schar and Irvine went with a smaller, wood-framed house, using off-the-shelf roof trusses one would find at a local lumberyard such as Honsador or Hardware Hawai‘i. Then the sustainability challenge became how to use as little material as possible. “A typical house has 16-inch on-center studs [as framing for the walls], and we moved to 24-inch on-center studs, which reduced the amount by one-third. A typical roof framing system is [spaced at] 24 inches, we went to 48 inches, reducing the amount of truss framing by a half.”

Wherever they could, the architects turned to Re-use Hawai‘i for building materials, to save money and avoid buying anything new. There, they scored 2,000 square feet of something with a lot of emotional resonance for the owners—Re-use Hawai‘i had obtained the sturdy wooden floor from a Punahou gymnasium that had been remodeled, a gym where years of school dances had been held. Now it’s the floor, and some of the walls, of the Ariyoshi residence.

Roof insulation also came from Re-use Hawai‘i, in this case new, unused overstock material, as did all the exterior redwood siding and some wood windows that reportedly came from Mick Jagger’s Lanikai beachhouse. Some of the interior doors were recycled from the original 1920s bungalow.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2019
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