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Photography by Kyle Rothenborg

A Hawai’i Kai residence gives new meaning to the term “house boat.”

When Madeline and David Merrill sought inspiration in the design of their Koko Marina home, architect Peter Vincent suggested they look no further than their beloved motorboat, The Duffy.

“It was Peter’s idea and I really loved it,” says Madeline Merrill, who splits her time between Texas and Hawai’i. She and her husband had already found their dream location: a corner-lot marina location on Hawai’i Kai’s Kuapa Pond, which is the largest, privately owned waterway with direct ocean access in the United States. But the lot’s existing house was dated, and Vincent was the only architect consulted who advised against scrapping it entirely.

“We really wanted to keep the house out of the landfill,” notes Vincent. “It just needed some new life put into it. I don’t know that the answer is always to build new—sometimes financially, emotionally and in the right situation, it is good to keep the existing structure.”

The Merrills agreed. They liked the way the existing house was situated on the triangular lot. “We just loved the floor plan and it had a really good feel,” the couple shares. “The back of the house took advantage of all the house had to offer. We didn’t feel that tearing it down would benefit the design.”

Vincent started with an existing structure that was choppy and suffered from varying floor heights in the living room and poor lighting.

“The design challenge was then what to do with an existing funky structure with a ‘Pizza Hut’ roof, on a triangular lot and with an awkward interior layout and low ceilings. There was also no clear point of entry, and they felt like the front needed to be reconfigured to create a sense of arrival.”

Vincent set out to renovate toward the magnificent views and create a space more conducive to indoor/outdoor living. “The homeowners wanted to create a space that was more appropriate to the setting—the previous design had a lot of marble, fountains and other elements that did not reflect the location or their taste,” says Vincent.

Instead, they set out to create a modern “boat house” design choosing materials and a color palette reflective of the aesthetic of vintage Chris-Craft boats. The house’s central great room, which previously had a low ceiling and stepped down at the center of the room, was leveled, its ceiling raised and curved. The marina-facing wall was completely opened with a full-length wall of sliding, pocketing glass doors and shutters.

“A unique aspect of the house is how the curved ceilings were created to reflect the hull of a boat,” explains Vincent. “Nautical light fixtures add appropriate detail for effect throughout and the use of ocean-colored glass tiles expand the sense of view and lighten and brighten otherwise dark spaces.”

“Everything downstairs opens to the water—the pool or the ocean,” explains David. “It is literally outside of every door on the ground floor.”

The feeling of ocean washes through the kitchen with a boat-shaped island featuring a ship-deck “teak and holly” counter. “I love natural wood and clean lines. It is a nice balance of playfulness and sophistication,” adds Vincent.

The Merrills keep a balance between this house and their home in Texas. As an homage to Hawai’i, the couple keeps a Hawai’i room in their Texas house, and a Texas room here in their Hawai’i house.

“This is our dream house. We renewed our vows here. Every room has a big significance. We have a meditation room, which we call the Lomi Lomi room. I just love opening all the doors and walking out to the water.”

The home’s inspiration, The Duffy, is docked in front of the house, and the Merrills can be on the ocean in three minutes.

“We’d always dreamed of having a house on the water. Peter helped us articulate that. When we’re there, it just feels like we’re in a constant dream, a meditation boathouse. You feel like you’re on a cruise or boat. It’s a home away from home. We can’t imagine visiting anywhere else.”