To most people from the mainland, the 50th state conjures images of honeymoons, mai tais, and Magnum, P.I.; but along the southeastern coast of the Big Island, you’ll find a Hawaii that has largely managed to avoid tourism and its tired trappings. Here, you’re more likely to see a family of wild pigs foraging on the roadside than a family of golfers headed to tee-off; shirts and shoes are never required for service; conversations are peppered with pidgin; and the way station serves as a hub of local trade. Puna, as the region is known, was already off the beaten path when the 1990 lava flows closed part of the major highway that circumnavigates the island and further isolated this remote stretch. But no one is complaining—in fact, it’s why they’re here.
In 1988, while vacationing on Hawaii, the largest island in the Pacific chain, San Franciscans Mike Kurokawa and Paul Fishman happened upon an ad in The Advocate for Kalani, a gay-friendly retreat on this side of the island, and set off from the resorts in Kona to check it out. As with almost everyone who makes it down the "red road" fronting the ocean here, their first trip left a memorable impression. "We were crawling along
the potholes at five miles an hour and thinking, Where the hell are we?" Fishman recalls. "It really felt like the edge of the world." When they arrived at Kalani, finding a low-key oceanside retreat carved out of the voracious jungle, they were immediately whisked to nearby Kehena beach by Kalani’s founder, Richard Koob. "We didn’t know him from a hole in the wall, and here we were in his car on our way to some beach," says Fishman. "When we got there, the sun was setting, the sky was filled with those pinks and oranges, the dolphins were out, and a teenage boy was shimmying up a tree with a machete and cutting down coconuts. I looked at Mike and I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore."
Over the next decade the couple returned to Kalani on multiple occasions for yoga, breathwork, and massage retreats, although saving up for a house in San Francisco and adding a son to their family made visits less frequent than they would have liked. With a love for the spirit of the place and a burgeoning local network of friends, the pair decided to make Puna a more permanent part of their lives. An extended stay in one of Kalani’s modest A-frame screen houses provided the inspiration for a Hawaiian home of their own, and Fishman and Kurokawa were soon looking at prospective sites.
"There was a crummy little ‘For Sale’ sign on this overgrown lot with huge trees," Kurokawa recounts of their first visit to the Puna Beach Palisades subdivision. "The agent said, ‘You probably don’t want that; it’s in the kipuka,’ but we just fell in love with it because of the stupendous trees." Most of the area’s vegetation had been wiped clean by lava flows from Kilauea in the 1950s, resulting in a lunar landscape of chunky black lava, but natural pockets untouched by the flow—dense islands of flora and fauna called kipukas—commonly occur.
Although their plan was to order a bamboo-kit house or have a contractor build a simple "kitschy island hut" at a nearby construction site, they spotted a sign for an architect—coincidentally with San Francisco’s 415 telephone area code—and decided to call when they got back to the mainland. On the other end of the line they found Craig Steely, an architect who had recently completed a home for a client across the street from the kipuka site. He was in the midst of building his own house there, and he had designed a third house in the same subdivision for another set of clients from Chicago. With the Lavaflow houses (1, 2, and 3, respectively), Steely was executing something of a miniature Hawaiian Case Study program—discovering not only how to navigate the execution of a modern home in remote Puna but also how to design for the extremes of the region’s climate—and Kurokawa and Fishman were soon onboard for Lavaflow 4. "We realized that it would be more expensive to work with an architect, but we also realized that we wanted something tailored for this spot," recalls Fishman. "We wanted to see what an architect’s vision of a plywood screen house would be."
Steely executed a series of plans that took advantage of the topography and flora of the kipuka, but they proved to be out of Fishman and Kurokawa’s price range. Ultimately, the architect found inspiration and liberation in paring down the home’s design. "In a way, the more you have, the more liability you have, and the more difficult it is to really experience Hawaii," he says. "Part of the learning curve of working there is finding out what you don’t need. It’s reducing materials, reducing expectations, and being pleased at what that brings out. It’s like glorified camping."
Kurokawa and Fishman, for their part, were willing to follow the architect’s vision, even when locals thought building a house with an entire wall of screen was risky. As Kurokawa remembers, "The neighbors would come by and say, ‘The first time you get a Kona storm it’s going to flood this place.’ But the trees save us." By siting the house in the sheltering eaves of two huge monkeypod trees, Steely was able to utilize floor-to-ceiling screens rather than windows throughout the living area—a move that not only scratched thousands from the budget but transformed the very notion of shelter. "Rather than compromising the design to build a house that responds to every weather permutation 100 percent of the time, Lavaflow 4 responds to the prevalent weather patterns," Steely explains. "This idea became a theme throughout the design—designing the building for the everyday experience, not some hypothetical use."
Though houses more often than not serve to create a barrier between their inhabitants and the natural world (both its perils and pleasures), Lavaflow 4 encourages interaction and appreciation. Whether tracking the birdcalls as they transform throughout the day, listening to the rain beat down (and fill up the home’s 10,000-gallon tank), feeling the breeze, or taking in the changing colors of the jungle, nature is omnipresent here. For Kurokawa and Fishman it’s the perfect counterpoint to the bustle of city life. Kurokawa says, "I live here, but I work in San Francisco."
Sam Grawe served as the Editor-in-Chief of Dwell from 2006 to 2011.