Ohana Guest House

Cutler Anderson Architects

James Cutler crafts an ocean cottage, Ohana Guest House, for a windy and lush site at the end of the road on Hawaii’s Big Island

By Robert Ivy, FAIA

A house near the end of the road holds infinite promise. And here, the architectural stakes rise when the route turns past the northern, windward tip of the island of Hawaii, arriving finally at the blustery, sloping site of a former sugar mill. How to respond to such a heroic natural setting?

Photo: © Art Grice Photography
The Ohana Guest House occupies one of three lots in a 75-acre compound. Set near a former sugar mill in the community of Niulii on the Big Island of Hawaii’s windswept north shore, the coastline property lies within a protected conservation zone.

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The Ohana Guest House at Niulii offers a contemporary illustration of the Wrightian notion of organic architecture, in which “the whole is to the part as the part is to the whole.” Take the defining instance of a detail in this windswept house, in which flitched metal supports slice into ovoid wood columns, then cross brace between uprights. Structural integrity—literally holding things down, not mere ornament—underlies the design of this singular joint and, for that matter, the entire house. “Lacing the roof to the massive earth elements with metal,” as Ohana’s architect James Cutler, FAIA, puts it, was essential to creating a viable structure on this particular site.

The wind, unseen but ever present on the Big Island of Hawaii’s lush north coast, helped inform the building’s shedlike shape. Designed to withstand 80-mile-per-hour sustained gales, the pitched roofs reflect the angle and direction of the prevailing trade winds, which blow in both rain and shine—now clearing, now gusting again.

Set on the clean brow of a 75-acre estate composed of three distinct parcels of land, the guesthouse (ohana means “extended family”) crowns the hillside site, which drops to spectacular oceanfront conservation property graced with historic, spiky Hala trees, used by native Hawaiians for weaving baskets and textiles. 

James Cutler of Cutler Anderson Architects; Photo © Cutler Anderson Architects

After the parcel had provided decades of service as a casual town dump, the current owners, who have taken a position as stewards of the land, set about planning a home on the full acreage, and embarked on six years of manual cleaning (large equipment is banned by local ordinance) to clear the land of buried detritus. With the site finally cleaned up, three buildings, including a private residence for the owners, a retired executive and his wife, will form the ensemble, which is still in the planning stages by the client and Cutler, with only the guesthouse built so far. While solitary in its siting and primary views out to the sea (about a mile away), the guesthouse rests on a lot, which stretches toward the ocean, where it abuts a community of modest homes.

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