Up and Coming Architecture Firm: Collaborative Studio

A young Honolulu architecture firm is winning awards and solving problems.

Cathi Ho Schar and Kyle Hamada, the entire staff of Collaborative Studio, with a model for an earlier version of their award-winning KaimukĪ residence design.

Photo by Olivier Koning

Earlier this year, a big winner at the design awards of the Honolulu Chapter for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was a young, two-person Honolulu firm, Collaborative Studio. It won both an Award of Excellence and the Mayor’s Choice Award for a home in Kaimukī, and the Unbuilt Award for designs commissioned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

We originally sat down with the two principals, Cathi Ho Schar, 35, and Kyle Hamada, 50, to learn more about their Kaimukī house design. We quickly found that the 5-year-old firm was up to a number of interesting projects, all with the attitude that good design and sustainability do not have to be luxuries. In fact, low budgets are the firm’s specialty and the notion of sustainability—environmentally friendly materials and construction—is deployed pragmatically, as a way to keep costs down, rather than as a display of save-the-earth piety or conspicuous non-consumption (as in, Look how much I spent on this recycled glass countertop!).

The winning Kaumukī residence is a perfect example. Owners Mark and Donna Ariyoshi had returned to the Islands to send their daughter to their alma mater, Punahou. They settled into the Kaimukī property where Donna had grown up, where her parents lived in one home at the back of the lot, while a classic 1920s bungalow sat on the front. The bungalow would be the natural place for the Ariyoshis to settle, but it was a tear-down. A new home was necessary.

“Mark is a graphic designer with a real interest in design and architecture, so he wanted something modern, minimalist and flexible,” recalls Ho Schar. “He was also working within a tight, tight budget.” The Ariyoshis hoped to stay within $320,000 for the whole project, including design, materials and labor, and came close, with a final price tag of about $350,000.

The owners also provided a mission statement, one that encouraged Ho Schar and her business partner at the time, architect Kelly Irvine, to experiment with building materials and construction techniques to achieve their goals of attractive sustainability on a budget. “It’s not often you get a client who says, ‘I want to build a house and I understand there are going to be mistakes along the way,’ but that’s how they approached it,” says Ho Schar.

Photos by Collaborative Studio

The freedom to experiment paid off. Ho Schar and Irvine’s first stab at the design called for a steel-framed home, to be prefabricated off-site, but, for all the time invested in researching that approach, it ended up being too expensive.

Ho Schar and Irvine went with a smaller, wood-framed house, using off-the-shelf roof trusses one would find at a local lumberyard such as Honsador or Hardware Hawai‘i. Then the sustainability challenge became how to use as little material as possible. “A typical house has 16-inch on-center studs [as framing for the walls], and we moved to 24-inch on-center studs, which reduced the amount by one-third. A typical roof framing system is [spaced at] 24 inches, we went to 48 inches, reducing the amount of truss framing by a half.”

Wherever they could, the architects turned to Re-use Hawai‘i for building materials, to save money and avoid buying anything new. There, they scored 2,000 square feet of something with a lot of emotional resonance for the owners—Re-use Hawai‘i had obtained the sturdy wooden floor from a Punahou gymnasium that had been remodeled, a gym where years of school dances had been held. Now it’s the floor, and some of the walls, of the Ariyoshi residence.

Roof insulation also came from Re-use Hawai‘i, in this case new, unused overstock material, as did all the exterior redwood siding and some wood windows that reportedly came from Mick Jagger’s Lanikai beachhouse. Some of the interior doors were recycled from the original 1920s bungalow.


Photos by Collaborative Studio

The Kauhale Pilot Project was meant to offer multifamily, multigenerational Hawaiian homestead housing. Shown here, Collaborative Studio’s proposal for a Kauhale kit home, to be developed with support from Big Island lumber yards.

Everything in the home is stripped down and lean, using as little drywall or paint as possible. That means no ceiling panels hang from the ceiling trusses, which are exposed for an open, bright, airy ceiling. It means unpainted roof sheathing of oriented-strand board (OSB), something normally never meant to be seen.

The two-bedroom, two-bath home is arranged as a series of open spaces and enclosed rooms down the northern length of the structure, and a long hall down the southern side. The exterior wall of the hallway comprises mainly floor-to-ceiling jalousie windows. This may look a bit retro, but has a real function. “We considered the hallway to be an environmental buffer zone on the south side of the house,” says Ho Schar. “When the weather is nice, you can open all those windows. Clerestory windows in the ceiling catch any breezes coming over the house. It’s actually very comfortable even without a/c, there are good cross-breezes in every room.”

The hallway is also home to some nearly invisible built-in storage, so the owners don’t have to clutter the space with furniture. Otherwise featureless wall panels, for example, open to reveal shoe racks and storage spaces. 

A Kauhale Pilot Project proposal known as “the shed” investigated the use of shipping containers for storage within a wood-framed residence with second-floor lofts.



In all, the home is reminiscent of a kind of crisply tailored, modest modernism found in, say, mid-century Honolulu suburbs designed by Ernie Hara in Pacific Palisades. Just before double-wall construction, drywall and central air hit the suburbs in the 1970s, many new homes, from Waipahu to Kāhala, feaured this sort of spare, low-key, nakedly structural look. Then, and now, a driver of the look was cost—it has always been expensive to build a home in Hawai‘i, and this is the look one gets with off-the-shelf materials in a mild climate. In the Ariyoshi residence, Collaborative Studio has rediscovered this aesthetic, while updating it with 21st-century values for sustainability.

Living in the home has been a joy, says owner Mark Ariyoshi. The very real initial satisfaction of reusing so much material in an “ethic of building it the right way” has since been joined by the day-to-day pleasures of being there. “The space is great to be in, it’s very light and airy.”

Both the owners and the architects hope the house will serve as an example of what can be done on a small budget. Thinking like this—by both client and architects—may be a way for the larger architectural community to reconnect with the general public, as the prospect of being able to hire an architect for a custom home has become something of which only the wealthiest people dream. “Not a lot of people with this budget would think of hiring an architect; they’d opt for a kit home or go straight to a contractor,” says Ho Schar. “But there’s value to hiring an architect even with a low budget, not just in aesthetics but in the performance of the building and in meeting a budget, in the attitude toward how you actually build something.”

A six-classroom complex Collaborative Studio designed for LĀna‘i High and Elementary School opens in spring 2013. It’s designed for as much passive cooling and daylight as possible.
A metal prefab structure for the Kauhale Pilot Project aimed for durability and affordability in an agricultural context.

Lessons learned on this house came in handy for the next Collaborative Studio commission, a six-classroom complex for Lāna‘i High and Elementary School. For this, even the DOE has innovated—the Lāna‘i project was the first in which it set a price, then solicited proposals, then chose the firm that added the most value to the project. This is an encouraging reversal of the decades-old practice of simply selecting the lowest bidder, which yielded a generation of graceless cinder-block campuses statewide.

At this point, the firm was three people, Ho Schar, Irvine and Hamada, all alumni from another Honolulu firm, Urban Works. “The DOE gives you a two-inch stack of criteria to follow and, in this case, a $6 million budget,” expains Ho Schar. “Then you have two months to come up with a proposal. The space-making is all up to the designers.”

“It’s a good way to have nicely designed schools, because the project is based on the users,” adds Hamada. “A big part of the criteria are the aesthetics.”

The campus opens in spring 2013. Overall, the project shows the same environmental sensitivity as the Ariyoshi residence, while picking up design cues from the existing campus to make it work in its context.

Then there’s the Department of Hawaiian Homeland’s Kauhale Pilot Project, which sought ways to offer innovative multifamily and multigeneration Hawaiian homestead housing. They got the commission through the state’s standard RFQ, but didn’t stop developing their proposals just because they got the commission. Instead, they thought the project would benefit from still more brainstorming, so they organized collaboration with the DHHL and the UH Mānoa School of Architecture. “This led to a schoolwide charrette which the UH synced with a visit by members of Architecture for Humanity. The project was later put on hold, but it had a really engaging start,” says Ho Schar.

While the project may be on hold, Ho Schar’s and Hamada’s work for it was one of their winning projects this year. The awards felt, says Ho Schar, “Like someone told us, ‘Good job, don’t give up.’ The mayor’s award was completely unexpected, since it usually recognizes public work. We have to thank the Ariyoshis for seeing their private residence as an opportunity to contribute to a public good. All our awards were really enabled by our clients. Their progressive outlooks supported everything that we did.”

It’s a great start for a young firm, especially in a field where architects in their 30s, even 50s, are thought of as “young architects.” Says Hamada, “I’ve heard it said architects reach their prime in their 60s.”

Ho Schar jokingly describes the firm as “small potatoes—it’s just the two of us and we do absolutely everything.” Given where they are now, it will be interesting to see where they go in the years to come.