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Natural Progression

Modernist architect Craig Steely finds his flow in Hawai‘i.

Completed in 2012, architect Craig Steely’s LavaFlow 5 sits high up in rural Laupahoehoe on the Hamakua Coast
of Hawai‘i Island. The home’s main entry is accessed via a walkway built over a reflecting pond.

The dining room in LavaFlow 7.

The incredibly spacious kitchen in LavaFlow 5

An epoxy resin screen diffuses sunlight entering LavaFlow 5.

Small friends take a walk by the lap pool at LavaFlow 7.

Pure and simple, architect Craig Steely (craigsteely.com) is on a mission to bring modernism to Hawai‘i—to these exact specifications, only with the complex skill produced by prodigious aptitude for such tasks, nurtured and encouraged early by a family of intuitive tinkerers on a walnut orchard in the foothills of Northern California. Now, not only is Hawai‘i Island Steely’s base for half the year, it is also the home of his LavaFlow series, a rigorously architected undertaking changing the local landscape that inspired it.

“I love the ocean, the sky… the aloha,” explains Steely, of the impetus for bringing his contemporary aesthetic to the islands. “It’s important for me to prove that modern architecture can respect and connect to this place and its people without copying some style from the past.” (Enter Hawai‘i’s ubiquitous plantation style, which Steely considers bereft of the islands’ dynamic multiculturalism.) And yet, it’s Steely’s own past that informs his work, a vast oeuvre that includes everything from sleek urban apartments to stunning glass houses to an eco-lodge in the Philippines.

Although Steely long left behind the rural surrounds of his formative years for the intellectual and abstract architectural opportunities of the city (his studio is in San Francisco), he remains rooted to nature—the principle influence in his work. “Life in the country revolves around the rhythms of nature; your senses become acute to the information around you,” he explains. “When I first came here, I loved how similar life was to where I grew up. It was interesting as an adult to notice how the senses I had honed as a boy resurfaced in a new environment.”

Add to these inclinations country-boy resourcefulness, a combination that proved invaluable in the shaping and execution of his LavaFlow series, comprised of seven sustainable homes constructed on a 1955 lava flow that required the architect to channel his innate instinct for repurposing, modifying and customizing to create their strong simple shapes free of fussy details frequently used to resolve contradictions.

Building upon the islands’ bare-essential attributes with the same ingenuity that produced its older globally influenced single-wall homes achieved, in Steely’s words, “an appropriate modern architecture for the tropics” ruled by view, light and orientation—the very narrative threading through his seemingly inexhaustible output.

Naturally, the formation of the series unfolded organically, with the architect circumventing the universal challenge of “how to relate a manmade object to something pristine and primordial as a new lava flow” by making no-more-than-necessary alterations to the site while “addressing context through geometric harmony and scale as well as detachment and contrast.” Steely’s reductive architectural approach saw the use of few materials, sparse construction and linear plans to open the homes to the surrounding elements of land, sea and sky.

And, given their remote location, “sustainability was not a luxury, but a necessity,” Steely says. “All utilize rainwater catchment; domestic hot water is solar heated; none have a mechanical AC; and all are oriented to catch the prevailing trade winds for natural cross-ventilation and cooling. They are all simple to maintain and as compact as they can be.”

What he doesn’t mention is most obvious—each is as much a study in natural beauty as it is an astonishing ode to innovation. Located in a kīpuka, a place of old growth vegetation, LavaFlow 4 (the Fishman/Kurakawa house) is solid on the east side and open with a screen on the west side, so when the weather changes, a canopy of mango trees protects it from the elements. LavaFlow 5 (the Bennett/Yeo house), meanwhile, benefits from a position on 30 acres of remote pasture and a slender steel frame that supports walls of varying opacity, for an expansive but tempered view overlooking the Hāmākua coastline. (While the fifth installation is not in the same area as the other LavaFlow houses, Steely includes it in the series because of its strong aesthetic and conceptual connections.) And, anchoring LavaFlow 7 (the Mayer/Penland house), sited in a 5-acre ‘ōhi‘a forest, is a large concrete beam running the length of the building, its massive span supported by three short concrete walls, allowing copious amounts of uninterrupted glass and covered outdoor space to mimic the sensation of forest living.

Although Steely has a “sketchbook full of ideas” for more LavaFlow homes, he’s island-hopped to Maui, where he’s working on Emily’s House, a new project featuring a thin steel-framed roof floating above a concrete slab, on an organic farm near Ha‘ikū. But he always returns to Hawai‘i Island, where surfing at Pohoiki, skateboarding at the Pāhoa skatepark, and entertaining friends on his lānai constitute the good life.

“The Big Island is home,” says the man responsible for creating many of Hawai‘i’s very finest. “The food, the people and the vibe are for me.”