the house that Tai Built

photography by OLIVIER KONING

One architect goes big with his second Round Top Drive home.

PERCHED ATOP ROUND TOP DRIVE, STANDS A HOUSE BORN OF FIRE. “TWO YEARS AGO, A FIRE DESTROYED THE RENTAL house we owned next to our own house,” explained architect/homeowner Vincent Tai. “I basically had a choice to sell the lot or build this house.”

When he discovered that his insurance policy wouldn’t cover the fire as fully if he simply sold the lot, “that gave me the incentive to build a new house.” Tai chose to build a larger, more dramatic version of the house he’d already designed and built next door in 2007. “This is time, I knew I wanted an indoor pool,” says Tai. But the design he came up with was unlike anything Tai had seen before.

The twenty-meter pool runs nearly the entire length of the first floor of his home, acting as its recreational and aesthetic center. Tai’s kitchen, dining, living and o˝ ce spaces all look down onto the pool’s Mondrian-inspired tile bottom. ° ree stairwells and an elevator connect the pool-along with its surrounding bedrooms-to the open plan living space above it.

“It’s like looking down at a painting,” says Tai, who good-naturedly concedes that while he tried to “copy” Mondrian, he was forced to make changes when he discovered the colored tiles he’d pre-ordered for the pool were running short in certain colors. “I had to make some changes to the design.

But having the pool placed there is a bold scheme. I haven’t seen any precedent. There is a wow factor to it.”

Tai notes the pool wouldn’t work elsewhere. Hawai’i’s moderate temperatures allow the home to rely on open-louvered cross ventilation, preventing the pool’s moisture from causing condensation in the home.

“It would only work in this climate,” emphasizes Tai, a Hong Kong native and longtime San Francisco-based commercial architect. Before retiring to Hawai’i, Tai had never done a residential design. With an energy level far beyond most people approaching 70 years of age, he acted as the architect, supervisor and general contractor on the construction of both Round Top homes. He kept the projects on budget by spending so many hours at home construction stores that, according to Tai, “I tell my wife I’m going to build our next house next door to Home Depot.”

At 6,300 square feet, this second home is 50 percent larger than the First. In both homes, Tai employed an open living space plan but created de~ ned spaces through a mixture of high end and Ikea furniture and cabinetry. He used a mixture of high and moderately priced building materials, as well as a white walled, neutral floor color scheme to set off the bright punches of color in his paintings and furniture, all of which he has moved into his new home as he prepares to sell the first.

“I could have built this new home to sell, but there was a part of me that wanted to learn from the mistakes of my first project, correct some of them, but then of course you end up making new ones,” laughs Tai.

As with the first project, the area’s limit on large truck loads presented a challenge in delivering materials to the site, but the city views and forest setting of this narrow lot made the site’s challenges worth it to Tai.

“I wanted many of the elements of the first house I built, the open space, natural light, and a wood-burning fireplace. And as when I built the first home next door, the challenge was fitting everything on a very tight site.”

Some of his concessions to a lack of physical space have led to his greatest pleasures in the new home. Wanting to maximize space, he built a studio space above the carport. It’s now his favorite space to paint, and his wife’s room to sing. Tai notes with satisfaction that an unintended outcome of his home design is great acoustics throughout for the Hawaii Opera Theatre evenings he and his wife like to host. “Look at this,” Tai says, motioning out the window at the steep forest coming up to meet the back windows of his house, and then over to the view spanning from Waikiki to Honolulu and the ocean beyond it. “You can’t get a setting like this anywhere else in the world.”

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