For years, no one could figure out how to build a house on this tiny north shore lot. The answer was to go up.

Photography by Dave Rezendes, Photos courtesy of Long and Associates


If you’ve been a regular on the North Shore for more than five years, you may remember seeing a little empty lot on your way to Waimea Bay—one of the lone undeveloped properties along a stretch of highly desirable beachfront homes. About the only use it got was as a footpath for surfers looking for beach access.

Why would such a hot spot stay open for so long? The main obstacle turned out to be its tiny size—a scant 50 feet by 114 feet. The property had changed hands several times in the past couple of decades, but no one could figure out how to fit a house onto the postage-stamp-size piece of land, especially given the 30-foot shoreline setback requirement.

The master bathroom includes Japanese furo and a wet area in which to shower beforehand.

But when the current owner saw the “For Sale” sign out front, he saw only possibility. An independently wealthy Japanese national who is an avid surfer, the owner had been searching for a property close to some of his favorite surf spots. (His last Hawaii home had been on Diamond Head, for the same reason.) Here was a conveniently empty lot just minutes away from some of the best waves in the world.

After buying the lot, he approached local architectural firm Long and Associates AIA Inc. to design something for him.

Jeff Morrison, the project architect, says it was a daunting assignment. “I started looking at the site plans, and was like, OK, setback, setback, setback—you want to build how much house on it?”

But Long and Associates had a lot of experience with the ins and outs of Honolulu city and county’s building codes, gained from previous oceanfront projects—setback limits, height restrictions, exceptions to the rules—that allowed Morrison to draft up a surprisingly spacious floor plan.

“What the city and county does is, if the shoreline setback requirement reduces the property to an amount that’s not viable for building, they’ll give you back 30 feet,” Morrison explains.

The master bedroom may be relatively small, but fully retracting pocket doors maximize the view.

Spacious in this case is a relative term—the house’s footprint is just 25 by 38 feet—and so the architects decided to go vertical to get a livable amount of square footage. Here again, they were able to turn code restrictions into advantages. Because of the property’s oceanfront location, it’s subject to something called the regulatory flood elevation; no habitable rooms are allowed below that level, in this case 18 feet above grade. But those feet taken away at the bottom are given back at the top—a builder can add them to the total height limit for the structure (25 feet for residences).

And although Morrison couldn’t put any habitable rooms below the flood elevation, he didn’t let those 18 feet go to waste. In fact, he went subterranean, digging down deep enough to fit a full garage and a storage room.


The owner requested an eclectic, modern mix of interior design. Here in the living room/kitchen area, details range from the 14-foot-long monkeypod table harvested here in Oahu, to a brick end-wall that evokes a New York City loft.

Digging a basement so close to the shoreline posed its own challenges. Not only did the builders have to watch out for high surf conditions washing up over the excavation, the lot happens to sit on the lowest part of the street. Whenever it rains, street water pools up into a large lake. To solve the problem, contractor Sutton Construction shaped the downward-sloping driveway to deflect incoming water, and installed multiple sump pumps with battery backups to suck out any water that does collect.

The house sits just a few steps from a popular surf spot—the owner can check out wave conditions from his bedroom.

The tiny lot didn’t help matters during construction. Normally, a contractor is able to use part of the lot as a staging area, to store building materials. Here, they had literally no extra space, and were forced to keep materials offsite and truck them in as needed. “It was almost like building a ship in a bottle, where you’re sticking pieces into this little hole and put it up as you go,” says Morrison. “It was pretty wild. When you look back it seems fun, but when you’re in the middle of it, it drives you nuts.”

All of the thought and effort put into finessing the codes really paid off in the end. “Some of the other plans that we saw developed for this lot were in the 2,000-square-foot range, and we’re just above 2,500 square feet,” he says. “Considering the footprint of the house, 500 square feet is pretty much a whole floor. Plus we’ve got the roof deck.”

Ah, yes, the roof deck.

Undoubtedly the most singular experience the house offers is walking up the three-story floating staircase, and, as you near the top, seeing the large skylight above you slide open, allowing you to walk directly onto the roof, which has metamorphosed into a tiled hangout area with an amazing 360-degree view. It’s a real-life Bond lair.

Once the motorized skylight has been drawn back, it’s a simple matter to walk right up onto the roof.


Of course, a large hole in the ceiling comes with its own unique hazards. Long and Associates and Sutton Construction spent a lot of time engineering the automated skylight to make sure it worked perfectly. “We got the skylight itself from Skylights Hawaii, but the real trick is to keep it waterproof,” says John Sutton. “There are lots of rubber gaskets and flashing; we spent more money than we did on the skylight itself just making sure it didn’t leak.”

The system also features sensors that prevent the skylight from accidentally closing on someone, as well as moisture sensors that detect raindrops and automatically close the skylight at the first sign of inclement weather.

The skylight isn’t the only large, breezy opening in the house. The structure seems to fling itself open to the ocean and the blue sky at every opportunity. The living-room-and-kitchen area features a 25-foot-wide by 9-foot-tall set of pocketing doors that, when open all the way, fills the room with fresh air and the sound of the surf. The master bedroom welcomes the view in a similar way, and enjoying the furo in the master bathroom with all the windows open is the next best thing to bathing outdoors.

Translucent Kalwall panels brightens the entryway and staircase, while providing privacy and soundproofing.

All the spaces are tied together by the floating staircase, which rises up through the house and carries away heat in an instant. It was a tricky project, Morrison says. “There’s not a fraction of an inch to spare for how tight a fit it was in there. Sutton went through a laborious task of mocking up the stairway with pieces of plywood, to verify that the treads and the risers and the landings and the railings were just right before he started fabricating the steel and all the pieces. We didn’t want to just wing it.”

While the makai side of the house is open and airy, the other side, facing the road, does its best to offer privacy and soundproofing without looking like a fortress.

“The exterior design is all about breaking down the overall mass of the house into smaller, more interesting elements,” says Morrison. “With all the different floor levels, the house already lent itself to a differentlooking façade. It was just a matter of tying those pieces together and changing up some of those materials.”

Translucent panels made of a material called Kalwall take up a large vertical expanse on the front, blocking traffic noises yet inviting in natural daylight. De- corative aluminum bands punctuate the façade’s otherwise simple, straight forms.

The layout smoothly connects a series of spaces—from the basement storage area to the living room to the bedrooms above.

About the only wood used on the exterior is the Western red cedar on the eaves; the rest of the siding is durable, synthetic plaster, with copper and aluminum accents designed to weather well in the corrosive salt air. “We really think of these houses right on the ocean as boats, when it comes to finishes. If you don’t see it on a boat, you probably shouldn’t put it on the house, because it’s the same exact environment,” says Morrison.

All in all, the house manages to be modern and provocative without seeming out of place in the relaxed beach community it’s joining. The North Shore has lost a little more open space, but it’s gained a landmark. Says Sutton, “That tiny lot scared people away for years, and I don’t think anyone would have dreamed that you could build a house like that on it.”

ARCHITECT: Long & Associates AIA Inc., 521-1467,
CONTRACTOR: Sutton Construction, 233-2200,
PROJECT COORDINATOR: Kato & Associates, Inc. 523-1694,
Photos: Courtesy of Long & Associates