Loft Life in Honolulu

A new breed of luxury apartment arrives in Honolulu.

Reusing the shell of a 1950s era office building let the architect design spaces with high ceilings and huge windows.

Photos: Olivier Koning


Exposed concrete walls contrast with high-end finishes to give these lofts an industrial chic.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

After the better part of a decade in design and construction, one of Honolulu’s most interesting urban projects is finally reaching completion. The developers of the Vanguard Lofts, at 720 Kapiolani Blvd., stripped the guts out of an aging, low-rise commercial building and turned it into a complex of chic, modern loft apartments.

The building started in 1907 as the Von Hamm-Young Building, but most kamaaina will remember it in its post-1950s incarnation as the old National Cash Register Building, with a new, Vladimir-Ossipoff-designed, five-story addition.

Chris Deuchar, president of U.S. Pacific Development and partner at Cooke Clayton, two development firms responsible for the venture, says that, when his firm originally bought the property in 2004, the plan was to create an office building, with a parking structure alongside it. When they started the renovation process, though, they discovered asbestos throughout the building that needed to be removed. “In the course of remediation, we had to take out a lot of the drop ceilings,” Deuchar says. “Once we cleared it all out and got to see the volume inside, we thought, wow, this would make a pretty neat loft.”

“We did a lot of noodling, and, once we realized structurally that we could do it, the architects did a great job of figuring out how it would all piece together. It turned into something unique.”

Brent Tokita, project architect with Richard Matsunaga and Associates, oversaw the job, and says it was a challenge to work within the confines of the existing building. “I think it was well worth it, though,” he says. “We should have more of these kinds of projects in town. There’s a lot of building stock sitting out there that could be reused. Saving the embodied energy that’s within the structure itself is going to greatly outweigh the benefits of a new building, even one built to LEED standards.”


Photos by: Olivier Koning

Tokita says the original shell of the building was constructed like a bomb shelter. “They don’t build them like they used to,” he says. He decided that, instead of trying to cover up and sanitize the rough, industrial feel of the place, he would make the most of it. “We realized we had a shell that was very interesting and full of character. We didn’t want to break that up and start putting in cookie-cutter elements. You accept the restrictions, and you turn them into features.”


 

Unfinished concrete wall surfaces became something to flaunt, not hide. Water lines and duct work were left out in the open, both in the units and in the public hallways, to accentuate the functionality and rawness of a loft environment. The original elevator shaft? Turned into walk-in-closet space.

“We discovered so many interesting details as we were stripping everything back,” Tokita says. “You see formwork dovetails that they had to pull out, and we’re turning them into features, like shelves.”

Deuchar says the new direction was unexpected, but welcome. “When we first started designing this, we were shooting for something a little more Island-esqe, if you will,” he says. “After we really got into the loft concept, and started looking at the architecture and the industrial area around us, we decided to embrace that instead of trying to get away from it. That’s driven a lot of the design since then.”
  

 

Uniquely, the developers have given buyers the ability to mix and match finishes within their own unit—everything from the flooring to the kitchen cabinetry.

Photos: Olivier Koning

When Deuchar refers to the project’s design having been pieced together, it’s an apt choice of words. The entire building feels a bit like a Rubik’s Cube, everything fitting together just so. The five-story Ossipoff addition is the center of the space, with the new construction hanging off either side.

Jon Staub, a principal designer with Philpotts and Associates Inc., which handled the interior design for the project, says, “Everyone’s always promised lofts. I worked on lofts for 20 years in San Francisco, and when I came back to Honolulu, everyone was saying, We’re doing lofts. I was like, You’re not doing lofts. This is the first real historical renovation I’ve seen, and they’ve done a great job at blending the new construction with it.”

There are 36 units within the Vanguard Lofts, and 36 different floor plans. Some of the apartments are sprawling and high-ceilinged affairs—the largest is a 2,273-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath monster—others are two-story, stacked configurations, and still others are closer to conventional condo units, with floor plans as small as 845 square feet. “Everyone has this unique experience within the building,” says Staub. “It’s such a small, boutique building, and you can create your own environment.”

Of course, it’s worthwhile to note that, while these units might look, functionally, like lofts, they’re decidedly luxury in their prices and accoutrements. The cheapest units start at $590,000. Eighteen of the lofts include large private walkout or walk-up rooftop decks, with options for built-in outdoor kitchens with gas barbecues, private whirlpool spas and personal rooftop gardens. Buyers can also select custom-finish packages for their new lofts. (The evocative package titles include “Light-Filled Loft,” “Sophisticated City” and “Urban Midnight.”)

Deuchar says, “When we started developing this concept, the majority of the interest we got was from the higher end of the market, people who wanted to move out of East Oahu or Manoa, and downsize from a home to an apartment or loft.”

It’s one thing to fill the inside of a project with high-end finishes and appliances, but any building has to exist within the community around it. The views from the Vanguard are … less than luxurious. The place sits atop an exotic-car dealership, is surrounded by a fleet of other car dealerships, and the back units overlook the Hawaiian Electric base yard. Looking mauka, you can glimpse the tip of Punchbowl, but, for the most part, the whole building feels completely immersed in the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city, instead of rising above it all.

The developers are selling this as a positive. Staub says, “With high-rises, once you get up on one of those podiums, which is how they’re all structured, it becomes a world unto itself. This building, you’re connected. It’s much healthier, in a way, because you’re engaged with your surroundings.”

The immediate neighborhood isn’t a walkable, mixed-use paradise in the way that Chinatown or the Ward Centre areas are—at least not yet—but put your comfortable shoes on and you won’t have too much trouble reaching them (both Chinatown and Ward Centre are just under a mile from the lofts). And if this kind of residential refitting in the middle of Honolulu catches on, it could eventually become a catalyst for friendlier mixes of retail and entertainment.

Says Staub, “This is a lifestyle choice. There’s a romance to it. And the building is attracting an eclectic group; there are a lot of different perspectives and vitality. That was the original premise of lofts, this idea of art bohemia that turned into a lifestyle. At this price point, it’s not art bohemian, as much as you’d like it to be, but there’s an organic feel to the building, and the residents.”

To date, about half of the 36 units have been sold. When we toured the building in early July, the entire building was still in full construction mode. Deuchar says he plans on delivering the first livable units by early August, and finishing everything up by the end of the year.