Round Top, Straight Edges

After more than 40 years as a commercial architect, Vincent Tai designed his first single-family residence–for himself. The result is modern, open and original.

Photography by Olivier Koning

Vincent Tai’s playful use of primary colors balances out a stark, modernist exterior.

When architect Vincent Tai began thinking about retirement in 2000, he knew he and his wife wanted to settle down in Hawaii. But he wasn’t picturing a life of golf and lounging on the beach. He wanted to build his own house.

In the course of a productive 40-year career as a commercial architect in California, Tai had designed libraries, condos and parking garages, but had never designed a single-family residence. “It never interested me,” he said. “I just didn’t want to deal with the clients.” But a do-it-yourself project sounded intriguing. Tai even studied for and received a general contractor’s license so he could oversee as much of the construction as possible.

He bought the land in 2003, a long, thin, steep lot up on Round Top Drive that still managed to look promising to Tai. “I’m from San Francisco,” he says, “so it looked almost flat to me.”

He went with an open, modern design—a three-story pile of geometric shapes that fits tightly along the side of the hill, fronted by a 20-meter saltwater lap pool. “It was a technical challenge to fit everything into the space,” Tai says. “Every foot means so much. If I had extended the house back into the hill, it would have probably cost me another $200,000, because the retaining wall would have had to be much higher.”

Photo courtesy of vincent tai

Tai used prefabricated industrial flooring grates as eaves.

Inside, though, there’s no sense of being cramped. Not only do the indoor public areas flow freely into the expansive outdoor lanai and pool areas, but all the interior spaces have been united with an open floor plan. There are virtually no interior doors in the house; rooms are divided with floor-to-ceiling shoji screens, which are normally left open.

Photos by Olivier Koning

The (above) dining table is a Le Corbusier 1929 LC6 table. The chairs are Mies van der Rohe 1927 MR-10 models, made by Knoll.  For kitchen table seating, Tai reused aluminum Eames office chairs (right) from his architectural practice. But there are nods to the residential as well: Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances are used in the kitchen.

“It’s just me and my wife,” Tai says.

Tai’s relative inexperience in the field of residential architecture allowed him to design with a clean slate. In addition to creating a loftlike environment inside, he stripped away anything he didn’t need: fancy foyers, sculpted columns, moldings. In fact, the house doesn’t even have a front door, in the traditional sense. Instead, visitors ascend the stairs and walk right into the kitchen on the second floor. “A house, to me, should be as simple as possible. If you look at the floor plans, there’s not much to it,” he says.


Photo by Olivier Koning

Stair treads of solid surface material make for easy cleanup.

Tai also drew from his decades of commercial architecture experience when selecting materials for his house. Outside, stucco and cement-board siding protect against the elements; inside, there’s not a trace of wood to be found, apart from the bamboo flooring. Instead, Tai makes liberal and creative use of steel, enamel and Corian-like solid surfaces. The staircase leading from the main living area to the bedrooms, for example, was custom fabricated from powder-coated steel, and uses solid-surface risers. “It’s an amazing material,” Tai says. “If you scratch it or get it dirty, you can just buff it out yourself.”

All of these industrial elements could come across as cold and uninviting in a living environment, but Tai humanizes the hard surfaces with a playful use of color. The majority of the walls are white, a nod to the minimal aesthetics of the Bauhaus school of design, but splashes of bright primary color pop out here and there: yellow rafters, green columns lining the pool, and, most of all, the two iconic, bright red staircases, one outside, one in. “I think many people think of white as being dull, but I’d rather use white as a base, and then use colorful paintings, furniture, details as accents,” Tai says.

As a bonus, the white walls help illuminate the interior of the house, eliminating the need for any additional lighting during the day.

“Everything about the planning and the layout came from the Hawaii environment and site.”

To keep the house as simple as possible, Tai came up with a host of clever, thoughtful solutions. For example, traditional eaves wouldn’t have fit the boxy exterior, so he decided to use off-the-shelf industrial floor grates instead, which offer yet another burst of color against the cool grays and whites of the walls. “The grates make a good sunscreen,” Tai says. “They come in 3-by-8 sections, so I just designed the eaves to fit that. And they’re fiberglass, pre-colored, so no painting, no worrying about termites.”

Photo by Olivier Koning 

The house’s cool, modern aesthetic continues into the master bathroom, with gray enamel cabinets and simple wall sconces.

The yellow of the grates is mirrored inside, in the skylights above the living room. Tai knew that he wanted the extra light that skylights would provide, but didn’t want to deal with the thicker structural beams and additional engineering required by a long series of large roof openings. Instead, Tai simply cut openings between the regular joists, and painted the exposed joists yellow. “They’re just unfinished wood, but who cares? It worked out perfectly.”

He also figured out a way to keep hardware to a minimum when installing the shoji screen dividers. Because he intended to keep them open most of the time, he didn’t want to have to trip over a raised section. “I explored 16 different ways to do it, and settled on using a router to create recessed tracks for them to run on, because I want to be able to forget that they’re there.”

Of course, designing and building a house for the first time is a learning experience, and Tai admits that he made a few mistakes along the way, especially since he was his own general contractor. There’s nothing that would make the house fall over, but Tai points out the stacked row of awning windows on the third floor, the thick frames of which create a visual obstruction of the view overlooking Honolulu. To cut costs, he ordered much of his building materials direct from China, sight-unseen, and in the process underestimated the dimensions of each of the window frames. “Just little things like that,” he says. “If I had done 30 other houses, I would have known.”

His DIY approach also meant that construction took more than a year and a half, but all in all, Tai is very happy with how everything turned out. He says it might not be the right house for everyone, but for him and his wife, it’s perfect. “This house looks nothing like most homes in Hawaii,” Tai says. “But really, everything about the planning and the layout came from the Hawaii environment and site.”