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.

Owner Tim Ambrose relaxes on his makai deck.

Photo: Olivier Koning

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.

The exterior of the house is dominated by corrugation—both Galvalume steel and translucent fiberglass.

Photo: Olivier Koning

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.”

Photo: Olivier Koning

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.”




Thanks to a large picture window, even the master bathroom’s shower stall is a room with a view.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Inside, the layout of the house has been kept very simple; the central staircase bisects the house into two wings, and each level of each wing functions relatively independently. The second floor, for example, keeps the kitchen/living room area on one side, and the study on the other. “It’s a straight box with an orderly arrangement of spaces,” says Tozier. “That makes it seem very Old World, in a way.”

“When I have guests, I can lock up my bedroom and my office, and they have the whole rest of the space to use,” Ambrose says.

The separate areas also lend themselves to his preferred mode of entertaining. “When I’ve had parties, you’ll find smaller groupings of people throughout each of these spaces. There’s no one large space for everyone to congregate in. I like to circulate.”

Palimanan tiling remains cool underfoot, making it perfect for the sunny outdoor lanai.

Photo: Olivier Koning


Had it been up to Tozier, the interior of the house would have followed in the stripped-down spirit of the exterior. But Ambrose wanted to incorporate some of the colonial elements of the architecture he had seen abroad in the course of his travels. “I love modern design, but I don’t think modernism works as well right by the sea, if you’re using traditional modernist materials like metal, which rusts. I wanted wood.”

Indonesian hardwoods, specifically, such as merbau and teak. Ambrose had friends in Indonesia who helped him find sources of raw timber and manufacturers who could fabricate window hardware, doors and furniture at much lower prices than he could get in Hawaii. Even the central staircase was constructed in Indonesia, and shipped back to Hawaii in large sections.

And so Ambrose filled the place with dark, dramatic woods, everything from the flooring to the custom window hardware to the furniture, much of which he designed himself. While the mauka side of the house is cool, spare and streamlined, the makai side is warm with natural textures, and dominated by windows and doors that can be thrown open to invite the ocean breezes in. “The combination of materials just felt like they would work together,” says Ambrose. “I’ve lived in colonial countries, and loved the way they do tropical architecture. Transom windows, French and bi-fold doors. There’s just a simple elegance to it.”

Almost everything in this kitchen and dining area was custom designed and then fabricated in Indonesia, from the furniture to the window hardware.

Photo: Olivier Koning


Teak flooring and other dark hardwoods give the house an old-world charm.

Photo: Olivier Koning

There are nods to old-world tropical living throughout the house. Ten-foot ceilings give each room a gracious, open feel. Ambrose ditched closets in his bedrooms in lieu of stand-alone wardrobes, and went with open shelving in the kitchen, in order to minimize the number of hiding places for critters. “The last place I was in, all the cupboards were full of cockroaches, spiders, geckos,” he says. “Here, they won’t go inside because it’s all open.”

Other custom additions were more personal, such as a central vacuum system to make cleaning quick and painless. Ambrose even took his dogs into account when designing the staircase. “I used to live in an old pencil factory in Jersey with very steep stairs, and I had to carpet the stairs, because my Scotty would slide and fall all the way down them,” he recalls. “So I made sure these risers were easy and wide enough for a Scotty. It sounds funny, but it’s part of my life.”

Some creative elements of the house came out of Tozier’s efficient engineering. In order to keep the plumbing as simple as possible, for example, he stacked the bathrooms and the kitchen along the mauka wall. At first glance, this killed Ambrose’s hopes of giving each bathroom an ocean view, but they solved the dilemma by installing large windows into each of the shower compartments, giving them a view of both the ocean and the bedroom area. And vice versa. “There’s a little bit of a voyeur aspect to it,” says Ambrose. “I remember these houses on Fire Island [New York] where you could walk by and see people in the shower or in the pool. I like that look.”

The additions raised the cost of the home, of course; the initial budget of $150,000 climbed to roughly half-a-million dollars by the end of the project. But Ambrose says he’s more than happy with how things turned out. “How many times was I going to build this house?” he asks rhetorically. “I’d rather spend the money the first time and have it built right.”

Now that it’s completed, the house looks like absolutely nothing else in the area, and yet it manages to make a tall box of gray corrugated steel and dark hardwood seem perfectly at home overlooking the black lava rock and ocean beside it. Says Ambrose, “I wanted to show that you can use conventional materials in unconventional ways, and do something interesting and beautiful.”