All in the Family

What do you get when an experienced contractor builds his own dream home? Clean, understated ‘Ohana living.


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In Hawai‘i, it’s common to have adult children living at home. Part of this is our ‘ohana tradition, but often the high cost of living in the Islands means squeezing in together for just a little longer than you might otherwise.

all photos: courtesy of James Chou photography
Architect Dennis Lee furnished the house with clean, modern pieces such as the Coco dining room chairs, designed by Fratelli Tominaga, and a PH5 pendant lamp, by Poul Henningsen.

When the owner of this house was planning his dream home, though, he embraced the ‘ohana concept from the get-go. With plenty of room to spare on his 10,900-square-foot Kahala lot, the owner decided to allocate roughly a third of his new house to his college-age son. As anyone who’s lived at home into their 20s knows, space and privacy are very important, so the son’s area has a separate entrance, a mini kitchen, a family room, a washer and dryer, and two bedrooms and two bathrooms. “He has his own group of friends, so he’s able to have his own get-together while I have one on my side. The two sides are totally separate,” the owner says. “He can live here until he gets married or whatever. For now, that’s the way it is, and it works out well.”

While of course the homeowner loves his son, he had a more design-oriented reason for the two-in-one concept. A long-time-single, 54-year-old man who owns his own contracting company, he wanted to avoid a problem he had seen all too often in 30 years of building homes for other people. “I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t use certain rooms in their houses. They’ll build it, but they won’t use it, because it doesn’t flow, and it’s too big,” he says. “I just wanted every part of the house to be used.” Setting aside the extra space for his son solved that particular problem.

Just as he knew he didn’t want too much house, the owner also knew he wasn’t looking for a lot of ostentation and bric-a-brac. After building custom homes all day, he just wanted to come home to something simple, functional and well built. Luckily, he knew just the architect for the job: Dennis Lee, of ManoArchitects. The two had collaborated on more than a few of Lee’s custom design projects over the course of 15 years, and the homeowner had come to appreciate Lee’s local-style designs and hands-on approach to home-building.

Some Kahala houses go overboard with exterior decoration. Here, understated touches such as the five-foot-deep cedar eaves and a glass and aluminum garage door hint at the custom work inside.
Traditional Japanese kusari doi (rain chains) offer a visually pleasing alternative to clunky downspouts.

Sure enough, Lee also had a checklist of design elements to avoid. “We drove down through Kahala to look at other people’s houses,” says Lee. “We saw so many McMansions and Hawaiiana designs—goldy-brass gates with dolphins and flowers—and we didn’t want any of that. We just wanted something that was our own. No extraneous details, no trim. Nothing in excess.”

Accordingly, the exterior of the house is very low-key, with sloped tile roofs that blend in with the rest of the neighborhood. A minute’s inspection from the sidewalk, though, reveals that this home is far from a run-of-the-mill spec house. Its five-foot-deep eaves feature a finely finished cedar soffit, and the garage boasts a unique glass and aluminum door that resembles a cross between an old-style firehouse door and a shoji screen. The garage door is especially noticeable at night, when the translucent glass glows from within. In fact, says the owner, “Two guys have actually knocked on my door to ask where I got it from.”

For the most part, the impressive features of the house are hidden inside. Clean and simple doesn’t have to mean austere, and Lee has created a luxurious, yet functional, haven for the homeowner. The front door opens onto an expansive, open-beam living room, which flows easily into the kitchen and covered lanai area by the pool. The homeowner enjoys entertaining, so these public areas function as the centerpiece of the home. Natural woods abound, and the shoji-screen pattern introduced by the garage door continues in elements throughout the house: the front door, the woodwork of the TV cabinets, the bathroom cabinets.

Many open-beam houses turn into ovens during the summer months, but a combination of reflective foil ceiling insulation and solar panels keeps this living room cool, even without resorting to the installed central air conditioning system.
The outside patio is the ultimate hangout. The counter here contains a professional-grade wok and an actual beer tap, and there’s a big-screen TV hidden behind that door.

It’s obvious this is a man’s house through and through. There are huge, flat-screen TVs in both the living room and the master bedroom. Wander out poolside, and you’ll find a barbecue area with a massive gas-fired grill, a covered wok, a beer-tap and yet another flat-screen television. Rich materials and luxe appliances abound, all in a clean, contemporary setting. The master bedroom, for example, features not the usual carpeting, but lustrous bamboo flooring. The front door is African mahogany, the living room floor travertine, the kitchen cabinets koa. The kitchen appliances are top-of-the-line Sub-Zero and Wolf units. There’s a wine cellar in the kitchen and a sauna in the bathroom.

The open layout lends itself perfectly to entertaining. One of the owner’s first parties at the new house accommodated more than 150 people, but smaller gatherings work just as well. “Even just two people sitting out by the pool, barbecuing, is great. It’s nothing like being inside. Hawai‘i is made for being outdoors,” says the owner.

It’s gotten to the point where, Lee says, “All his friends pass by this corner to go down to the country club. If they see [the owner’s] light is on, they would rather have a drink over here than the club.”

Even when the house is packed to capacity, Lee’s design manages not to sacrifice privacy. Guests can use the bathroom in the pool house, and the son’s side of the house is effectively shielded from the main section.

The kitchen is tailor-made for entertaining. The low counter in the foreground provides additional dining space, or an accessible place to set pupu and other dishes.
A huge picture window brightens the bath area. Privacy glass ensures that no one outside can see inside.

Not only is it functionally separate, the interior design of the son’s areas sets itself apart visually from the father’s. On this side, you’ll find carpeting instead of travertine flooring, drywall instead of dark wood, and distinct moldings and light fixtures. To comply with Hawai‘i’s single-family-home zoning restrictions, the son’s mini kitchen features only a sink and a refrigerator. The owner says it hasn’t been too limiting, as the son usually comes over to have dinner with his dad anyway.

When the materials are good enough, even clean and simple can be expensive. The contractor-owner was only able to accomplish the project thanks to his connections in the business. He bought much of the material at cost, and friends volunteered time and skills. Even so, the initial budget of $600,000 eventually ballooned to $1.2 million.

For the owner, the time and expense were all worth it. Surveying the living room of his dream home, he says, “I’m so happy with this place. Everything just worked out so well.”

Says Lee, “I’m glad that he’s happy, because during the entire construction period, he would often accuse me of bankrupting him.” The two friends share a laugh.

“Pretty close,” rejoins the owner. “I argued with this guy on everything, but 90 percent of the time, he got his way. I got 10. That’s how you get the best, if you have two guys going at it all the time, compromising.”

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