By James Sturz
November 03, 2015

When Paula and I tell friends we’re building a house on the Big Island, some of the ones in Hawaii ask if we’re doing it ourselves. Alas, I’m writing this from New York City. But as it gets colder here, the idea of being in a bulldozer becomes almost more compelling than one of lazing on a sunny beach, with waves frothing at the shore—even if it’s true that the sum of our construction experience involves moving plastic trucks and pails in the sand.

And thus we have actual professionals on the job. The core of our Hawaii team is our contractor, Lyle Hooley of Lloyds of the Pacific, and our architect and project manager, Paul M. Donoho, both of whom are Big Island-based. Our goal is to visit Hawaii as often as we can, perhaps every two to three months. For the rest, there’s email and conference calls. And a stream of photos, renderings, diagrams, drawings, site-meeting minutes, screen shots and links—plus an application called SketchUp that lets us navigate through the rooms, whether we enter through the doors or float through the walls like ghosts. Either way, we can take in the views, imagine and dream.

We’re building three pavilions, connected by pathways. Here are three renderings, so you can see what they look like, and judge how the finished structures compare a year from now, when they’re not just pixels:

Some of the same friends have asked us why we’re building three separate structures, when we could have stuck with one. Here’s our explanation:

The central pavilion has an open kitchen/dining room/living room facing the ocean, one and a half bathrooms, a library, mud room and an office with a view of the ocean—as well as of less-distracting pasture grasses for when actual work has to get done. There’s also a covered porch (better known as a lanai in Hawaii) with an uncovered section with a fire pit. The pavilion to its west (with the pair of chaises on the upstairs deck, along with SketchUp’s reoccurring grey-clad clone) is our bedroom. Our bed will look out onto the ocean, with closets behind it, and a bathroom behind those. There’s also an outdoor shower, wrapped on three sides by walls of lava. A staircase inside the pavilion leads to a second floor, where Paula will have an office/exercise/whatever room. The deck’s just outside that.

But our thought is that nobody visits Hawaii for the weekend. They come for at least a week, and if they’re coming from Argentina, where Paula’s from, perhaps they stay for even longer. So our goal was to have a separate structure that would allow them to stay as long as they wanted (within reason). Thus the third pavilion has two separate bedrooms, each with its own bath, and a living area with a kitchenette between them. In Hawaiian terms, this is called an ‘ohana, exactly the same word for family. Our garage sits below it, with a scuba-equipment washing station with ventilated closets for storage, and racks for kayaks, SUPs and bikes. The main pavilion is where everyone meets and eats and plays, including watching movies on a motorized projection screen, plus there’s a second lava-wrapped outdoor shower just outside the mud room, so that guests can use it—or so that we can if we come back home covered in salt or dirt or sweat and want to shower before heading inside (at least that’s how I explained the necessity of having two of them to Paula). I’m not sure Paula truly understands my love for outdoor showers. All I can really say is that when I was 18 years old and backpacking through Europe, I stayed in a hostel in Stockholm that was a converted 290-foot sailboat, and to this day I remember taking a shower on it while rays of sunlight poured through an open portal, illuminating the water sprinkling down. So there’s that.

How big is the house? It’s 3,517 square feet inside, plus the garage, and 1,876 square feet of covered and uncovered paths, lanai and decks. One curious thing we don’t have: any hallways, which turned out to be an unexpected benefit of building separate structures. You’ve seen photos of the ocean, so for now there’s no pool. Although there is this natural one off the coastal path:

Back in New York, we have a storage unit that’s slowly filling with things we’ll one day put inside.

And as for the idyll of driving the bulldozer (or crane, or excavator, or backhoe loader), I’m a native New Yorker, which in this particular case means I’ve never actually owned a car. But as those same Hawaiian friends advise, first we’re going to need a riding mower and a truck.