Beautiful Imperfection

When you’re building a $6 million dream home overlooking Kaneohe Bay, it is possible to make things too perfect. These homeowners avoided an overwhelming mansion by roughing things up alittle.


To maximize the fabulous ocean view, the owners enclosed their lanai using only glass panels.

It’s taken more than 30 years, but the owners of this Kane‘ohe Bay house are finally exactly where they want to be. When the couple first got married, in 1970, they lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment on Kalihi Street. Their dream was to own an oceanfront home, but, as the husband says, “[It was] wishful thinking, because back then we couldn’t afford anything on the water, across the street from the water or even on the hillside overlooking the water.”

Nevertheless, the couple began taking small steps toward their goal. The husband recalls, “I made a commitment to her: If you marry me, in one year I’ll buy you a house. And that’s what we did.” At the time, the husband was making $650 a month, and had to borrow money to cover the down payment, but he kept his promise, signing the offer on a small house behind Castle Medical Center three days before their first anniversary.

Just 18 months later, after fixing up that first house, they were able to sell it at a profit and buy a better house farther down the hill in Keapuka, one with a distant view of Kane‘ohe Bay.

The trip oceanward was interrupted by the husband’s finance career, which took the couple to Japan, Dallas and Seoul, Korea. Then, in 2000, the property they’d always dreamed of came up for sale: a 33,400-square-foot, oceanfront lot on Kane‘ohe Bay. They jumped at the opportunity.

With the property in hand, the wife was ready. She had spent years taking notes, making plans for the house she knew she would someday build. “At every house that we lived in, or friends’ houses that we visited, if I liked the layout or the dimensions of something, I measured. I always had my tape measure,” she says. When the homeowners hired architects Mark and Rebecca Lively, the wife was able to walk into their office with a floor plan and a clear vision of what she wanted. She even provided the Livelys with a list of their important pieces of furniture, to ensure the Livelys could design around them.

After years of living and traveling in Asia, the couple had become enamored of the open, breezy structures of Indonesia. They even toyed with the idea of a series of modular huts, such as you might find in Bali, but, for cost reasons, decided on a roughly symmetrical, bi-level, three-bedroom design, 6,107 square feet in all. The Livelys helped create a plan that hugged the landscape better than the original house, which perched atop the hill overlooking the ocean. “The swimming pool had been detached from the main house, so it was a hike down to swim,” says Mark Lively. “We really tried to bring everything closer together; the family room and the guest bedrooms of the lower level are oriented around that pool.”

Below: In their travels through Asia, the owners collected items such as this antique chest from North Korea, and this silk screen from Fuji-Tori Antiques, in Harajuku, Japan. The walls themselves are hand-painted imperial plaster on paper.

Above all, the architects stuck assiduously to the “open, open, open” mantra—just about every room takes full advantage of the ocean view, and the breezes flow easily through large sliding doors and windows. In fact, when the panels on either side of the great room are fully retracted, the space feels more like a cabana than a residential home; a pond with a waterfall burbles next to the dining area on one side, and the Kane‘ohe coast stretches out in a panorama on the other. Glass-panel railings out on the lanai and in the master bedroom maximize the view and the sense of space.

Even with all the foresight and planning, the house really began to take shape once construction began. Lively says, “We figured out the bones first, got the basic shell of the house down, and then, during the construction process, all of the little details evolved.

It was a long process, just because there were constantly elements being added in. She took ideas from everybody, the contractor, the workers on the site, the artists.”

The homeowners brought in interior designer Michelle Uchiyama early in the process, and welcomed the input of a number of talented artists, such as John Koga, who supervised the placement and installation of the homeowners’ art collection; Lionel Prevost, who contributed distinctive bronze and glass works such as a 300-pound hanging mirror for the master bathroom; and Todd Branson, who hand-chiseled granite and lava stone for counters and bar tops.

“Everyone had a different vision for what they thought things should look like,” Lively says. “[The wife] was the glue that kept it all together.”

In all her creative decision-making, the wife stuck to a philosophy of beautiful imperfection. Nothing could be too polished; everything had to have its own unique, irregular edge or slant. “The only things I wanted straight and level were the structural parts. The details I wanted rougher,” she says.

The hardest part was convincing the construction workers that she really, truly wanted rough edges—the craftsmen just couldn’t wrap their heads around the off-kilter aesthetic.

When it came time to weld the vertical bronze balusters along the staircase’s handrail, for example, it took a concerted effort to have them installed unevenly spaced and off-center. The wife smiles at the memory: “The fabricator kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’” He thought I was joking when I said, ‘Oh I like that, don’t touch it.’ I had to go with him the entire way down: make this one more crooked, these are too evenly spaced here.”

Rich organic textures abound: the ceilings are hand-woven bamboo, the kitchen floor is cork and the bar stools are constructed from mango and monkey pod woods.

Sure enough, the finished effect is organic and charming. The unusual angles and unfinished welding seams contrast nicely with the stately curves of the wood risers.

Walking through the house, evidence of this beautiful roughness pops up everywhere. The stained concrete floor of the downstairs family room contains scattered leaf prints, a reminder of the winds that were blowing through an open door on the day the concrete was poured. The lava rocks by the pool are lovingly mismatched, one squat and bumpy, another flat and perfect for laying on. The corners of the exposed rafters have been hacked and chopped to soften their edges. Amazingly, none of these “imperfect” details read as sloppy or unthoughtful.

The risers of this custom staircase comprise 14 different Hawaiian woods. Their rich color is offset by the exposed welding seams and rough finish of the bronze railing.

“Contractors and carpenters focus on the perfection of the finish,” says Lively. “It’s a little bit misguided, I think, because you come back a few years later and the wood has dried up and maybe warped a bit anyway. If you have good-quality materials and solid craftsmanship, any imperfections will just add character.”

On top of the rough finishes and other “imperfect” touches, the homeowners also injected their house with a dose of whimsy. The pantry, for example, a freestanding structure in the kitchen area, boasts its own curved totan (corrugated tin) roof. It’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to a staple of Old Hawai‘i that hasn’t yet been widely romanticized in local architecture: the Quonset hut. Both the husband and the wife retain fond memories of the utilitarian semi-cylindrical structures, thanks to their childhoods in Kaka‘ako and on the Big Island, respectively. “Growing up, I could hear the rain on the tin roof,” says the wife. The totan roof also doubles as a light diffuser—light fixtures in the pantry cast a soft glow in the living room.

The husband shared his wife’s aesthetic, but, having done all the hard work to afford the house in the first place, he was content to let her take the lead in designing it. He had only three requests: a putting green and bunker, a dedicated karaoke room and a bar near the pool. Needless to say, he got all three. Otherwise, his role was to rein back spending and inject some practicality into the design process. “[My wife] has so many ideas. I have to be the one that says, ‘uh-uh.’ I wanted things to be practical and cost-effective.”

Occasionally, his straight-forward aesthetic even helped solved knotty design problems. During the flooring installation, for example, Uchiyama and the wife had trouble deciding exactly how to shape a vein of purple heart wood that would unite the cork flooring in the kitchen with the hardwood flooring in the great room. Uchiyama recalls: “We knew we wanted to have an artistic curve between the two materials, but we didn’t know exactly how that arc should go. He took a look at it and said, ‘Just go from there to there,’ pointing from one side of the entryway to the other.” Bingo: the result was a direct joining with a simple, sinuous curve.

Even with the husband’s straitening influence, a work of love such as this home inevitably goes over budget. An initial budget of $1.8 million has ballooned to more than $6 million, and the work isn’t quite done. At press time, the entire front half of the property was being torn up by backhoes and earth movers—the beginning stages of an elaborate landscaping project—and the owners are also contemplating a separate cottage on a mauka corner of the property for the wife’s parents.

But the house itself is complete, and the owners can finally relax on the lanai of their dream home, overlooking the ocean they stared at from afar for so long.