Architect Fritz Johnson looks inside a Pearl City home in order to make the property stand out.
When architect Fritz Johnson first set eyes on the 1960s Pacific Palisades home he’d been asked to reimagine, he knew he wanted to use the existing structure as the base for something utterly modern.
“There was an old single-story home in pristine condition,” explains Johnson. “Sometimes when you look at renovation work, it can be a real challenge to know what’s going on inside the structure until you start to take it apart. In this case, it was easy to strategize the changes. Th e property was very clean with a real clarity to it.”
While the home’s shell provided a sound and cost-saving foundation, it did not take into account the property’s hillside view across Aiea and Pearl City.
“None of the windows were placed correctly to capture what is a spectacular view, especially at night when it’s a plane of brilliant light. We reconfigured the first floor by installing picture windows and sliding glass doors to capture the view.”
A series of small bedrooms and closed common spaces gave way to an open-plan kitchen and living space, which runs the length of the first floor. Th e old home’s painted walls and ceilings, as well as its carpeting, gave way to the raw materials which lie beneath, giving the redesigned first floor warmth and authenticity.
“We peeled up old, evil carpet to reveal the original concrete below, then we scraped it and painted it a slightly battleship gray. There is real sweat equity in this house.
The owner painstakingly stripped away the paint on the walls and ceiling back to the original redwood. The client did it stick by stick. Now you see the pieces of wood, the beams, the planking on top. It makes its own structuring known in a way that’s deeply modern, in a way dry wall doesn’t allow.”
Johnson extended that modernity through the construction of a new second floor master suite, which essentially floats over the original structure using the support of concrete pillars.
“The existing one-story home was structured perfectly for its size and shape, but wasn’t robust enough to support a second floor; therefore, we structured the addition like a bridge, reaching all the way over from one side to the other, the way a simple causeway might span a small river. The shapes at both levels are compositionally integrated, and are joined by the vertical axis of the stair tower.”
The stair tower is designed as a visual focal point to the home’s exterior. “The stair tower’s proportioning was decided to present a broader face and rhythm of patter,” Johnson adds. “The transition from one level to another is an important ‘event’ in the experience of space in architecture, and we work to create a corresponding significance in its physical form.
“Using a tall, pure rectangular shape—one which differs from the vernacular sloped-roof forms found elsewhere in the design—allows us to ‘announce’ this procession from the low, horizontal spaces at the ground level up to the open areas of the top floor. Its tall form works like the center of a pinwheel, organizing the shapes around it by providing a dominant vertical axis, and stabilizing them by creating a kind of visual anchor against which the wing-like forms of the garage and second floor are grounded.”
Johnson would like to see more homeowners in Hawai`i consider integrating older homes into their remodels, though he cautions that older structures can sometimes present complications.
“A building is a complex, integrated system made up of many interacting parts. Undertaking the expense of a renovation also means, in a very real way, that one is placing expensive new materials into a context in which their performance substantially relies on the integrity of older systems. One needs to be as accurate as possible in one’s estimation of the quality and serviceability of those older components.”
He does mourn the disappearance of homes proportionate to their neighborhood being replaced by structures with no relationship to their surroundings.
“I grew up in Kapahulu when it was all charming little bungalows. One sees larger structures now with less space between, but that’s not about clients or designers with bad taste; it’s about property values relative to wages. I notice work more reliant on industrial systems that don’t require craftsmen to produce, and it leaves me cold—but that’s part of a reality in the building industry that has been transforming for decades.”
For Johnson, this Pacific Palisades home represents a different approach, using inexpensive materials and sweat equity, as well as good design to produce something works in its neighborhood and in modern-day Hawai`i.
“I think about dramatic spaces and work to find the most cost-effective way to achieve them. The idea being, great space can be built with normal materials too. That’s the kind of work I’d like to see more of around here—work that’s more about the space, less about objects festooned with detail.”
Johnson points out that the home’s secondhand windows were sourced at Reuse Hawaii at a fraction of the cost of new ones, and a chic lanai seating area is actually repurposed airport chairs. Yet the end-effect is stylish and incredibly welcoming.
“When you go into the house, it’s got the kind of warmth that even if you don’t live there—you feel at home.”