Modern and inviting, this Wilhelmina Rise home achieves the perfect flow.

Great things can emerge from a challenge,” notes architect Fritz Johnson when explaining the design of a client’s Wilhelmina Rise hillside home on a site Johnson describes as “physically complex.”

“The site slopes steeply in two directions, so the resulting building envelope is complicated,” Johnson says. “With these kinds of properties, the topography usually drives the architecture to step with the hillside and can produce forms that are so broken up there is very little continuity in the spaces, and often no harmony in the overall design.”

Instead, Johnson and the client embarked on a process that responded to the slope but also created cohesion. Johnson stacked the rooms that benefitted most from the view on the downslope side. The client knew they wanted the highest levels of the home to be the most private: the family’s bedrooms.

“The client didn’t want to build in an overly formal way; the home was intended to be approached in a relaxed manner. The major public spaces were designed to flow into each other and throughout all three levels in a way that blurs distinctions between living, dining, entertaining and play.”

The client’s young family and love of entertaining inspired Johnson to create lower floor spaces that feel intimate for the family but artfully expand into a crowd.

“The client wanted to design a home that not only accommodated the number of family members, but provided the kinds of spaces they use now and expect to use in the future. They’re a young family, and that means for now, some large, open play spaces work beautifully for the children, but will flex into rooms that teens and adult guests will use because of their direct relationship to fun elements like the pool, deck and pizza oven.”

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“Honestly, I think the best design element isn’t in the home,” says Johnson. “It’s the environment and the way we connect the design to it. But I do have a weakness for the stairs, they’re pretty incredible.”

The house, completed in 2015, is generously proportioned and highly contemporary, yet its profile amongst a hillside of predominantly traditional plantation style homes is subdued. Johnson says, “We weren’t looking to mask the design by blending it with the historic homes of the neighborhood. That’s not a repudiation, but rather a respect for those styles and that period. We pursued similar themes—a compact footprint, continuity inside and out, connection to the mountains and ocean—but built in a contemporary idiom. Where plantation-style homes are ringed with open verandas, we cantilevered broad expanses of lanai to create the same interconnected spaces and passive cooling. Modern execution, but timeless underlying themes …”

In an era when older Hawai‘i homes are increasingly finding modern ones encroaching right up against them, Johnson went a different direction.

“This house functions like a viewfinder on a camera. Its front door frames and focuses you forward toward the view of Diamond Head, rather than the house bleeding out to the side and being invasive toward neighbors. It’s lovely that the house has a low profile, and from the street one would never know you had something substantial. It keeps the house more subtle from the street side,” Johnson says.

Rising to these challenges required a unique approach to the structural design. Baldridge & Associates proposed a system that’s quite common in tall building design, but very rarely seen in individual homes. Post-Tensioned Concrete (there’s a lot of it being done in Kaka‘ako now) allowed us to run floor spans up to 60 feet with slabs that are only seven inches thick. This enabled the team to accomplish a three-story, multi-level structure with broad, flowing spaces—all under the legal height limit.

Johnson emphasized this spatial idea with material continuity, bringing exterior surfaces directly into the interior. He carried materials from one space to the next without interruption, rejecting the notion that different rooms require distinct treatments.

Johnson brought the wood flooring all the way through the main entry space rather than switching to stone for the kitchen to give it an uninterrupted feel. The stone used outside came into the first feet of the home rather than stopping with an abrupt change.

“The material palate was key, and the client was very savvy about this. The design’s formal complexity could not have come together if we’d used a huge material palette. We thought about reflectivity too, working intentionally with matte surfaces (hand-scraped wood flooring, honed stones, rough fabrics) to tone down the home’s visual complexity,” Johnson says.

While the client wanted something stylish and elegant, their relaxed, fun family aesthetic fit Johnson’s philosophy for modern Hawai‘i homes.

“There is a playfulness, and an informality to some families that find an affinity in the open and interconnected spaces I like to design,” Johnson says. “Our desire to embrace the property’s views and keep the architecture as quite as possible can be seen in the final form.”