By BUILD llc
In autumn 2018, BUILD sat down with Ed Weinstein of Seattle-based Weinstein A+U to discuss the prefabricated, modular Papali Wailea project he designed and codeveloped on Maui in 2008. They discussed his design approach for the tropics, creating a spirit of place, and how to keep pests out of architecture. Read part 2 of the interview on the BUILD Blog.
BUILD: Of all the prefabricated, modular designs promoted in the architecture industry, Papali Wailea is one of the few projects to be realized and replicated. What made the difference?
Ed Weinstein: I was trying to solve a very specific problem about a defined project in a particular place rather than trying to innovate a generic system that would work in a variety of different situations across the breadth of multifamily housing. The challenge was about how to create the greatest amount of prefabrication for 24 single-family homes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It needed to be a system that could be repetitive and easily understood by nonskilled laborers. At the same time, I wasn’t burdened with having to worry about multiple applications and multiple climates.
BUILD: How did you come to the conclusion that a modular system prefabricated on the mainland, then shipped to Maui and constructed on site was the best solution?
EW: I was both architect and codeveloper, so I reverse engineered the project from our mandate as developers—we had a responsibility to deliver houses within 30 months, which included a year’s worth of site work. Given this calculus, we had to find a method of construction that would provide a high level of quality and finish, but do so within 18 months.
We were also attempting to construct the project at the height of the real estate market, and the island of Maui had never been busier. There is a very limited resource pool of qualified contractors and subcontractors (especially rough carpenters) on the island. I had been riding around the island on my bicycle looking at construction sites, especially for stick frame, single-family houses. In talking to contractors and framers, they all had their own ideas about how to put something like this together, but they were all time intensive. They were going to put up one at a time and it wasn’t going to be very systematic. I had determined that what might take us a year to build in Seattle might take 30 months on Maui. Everything there is done on Maui time.
I also had an aesthetic bias and wanted to do a post-and-beam structure rather than generic wood framing with drywall. I wanted more craft, and the possibilities of using heavy timber and an interesting structural system also resonated with the investors and prospective purchasers.
BUILD: Any mistakes or design moves you regret?
EW: I was incredibly naive to the realities of building in a tropical climate with vermin and pest infiltration. The one difficulty that we uncovered and overcame was that the paired-glulam beam system created all kinds of opportunistic voids for rodents and insects. We solved the problem with copper plates and envelope materials to close off all the voids. Because there were so many of these voids to be dealt with, we wound up with significant change orders and numerous architectural drawings to address the different situations.
BUILD: What is the relationship like between native Hawaiians and architects/developers from the mainland?
EW: After you get to know them, the native Hawaiian communities are the warmest, friendliest communities of people I’ve ever worked with. I think there’s a certain wariness on their part because of the history of haoles taking their land. I’ve learned that they’re very spiritual and very thoughtful. I’ve worked on a couple of projects in Hawaii, and our discussions with the native Hawaiian communities is usually centered around the spirituality of place and the meaning of symbols, rather than budgets and schedules.
BUILD: Was there a spiritual ceremony to clear the Papali Wailea land prior to construction?
EW: Yes, before we started, a kahuna, a Hawaiian priest, came in full traditional Hawaiian clothing to bless the property. Later, during construction, one of the workers had a heart attack and died on the job site, which was very unfortunate. We brought the kahuna back to bless the site once again, and we held off construction for a full week. When the project was completed, we hired a kahena, a woman priest, to come and bless all of the houses. She had a bowl of water and a palm frond, and she went from house to house blessing all of the cabinets with blessed water, and I walked behind her wiping everything dry.
BUILD: Did the building department or community require changes to the original design?
EW: Other than the building department taking a year to process the drawings, then claiming that they had lost the drawings, no.
BUILD: What was the process of leveling out the site into four terraces to optimize the views of each of the homes?
EW: It was really an eye opener. The fundamental slopes in West Maui are consolidated blue granite with about four inches of topsoil. In order to bench the site, we had to dynamite twice a day for six months to break it up. The resultant boulders were loaded into a “rock crusher” to create the 3″-minus material that was used to create the four essential “benches” on the site. Unless you’re developing adjacent to the beach, all developments on this part of the island have to go through this exercise. But the liability in developing sites closer to the ocean presents the likelihood of uncovering archeological relics and graveyards that will impact construction schedules. All things considered, it’s probably better to build in the granite than in the sand.
BUILD: How did the noise of dynamiting go over with the neighbors?
EW: Waiting to start the dynamite phase until the end of the active tourist season—November through April—was important, so we began in May.
BUILD: Were there any design compromises made in order to meet the needs of the real estate market?
EW: While the natural ventilation of the gable roof and hopper window vents do an excellent job of cooling the units, in order to appease the real estate market we still had to provide six tons of air conditioning for each one of the houses simply because buyers expect it.
BUILD: Given that the Papali Wailea project was delivered to market during the Great Recession, were there concessions made regarding the business model?
EW: In a perverse twist of fate, my business partner and I were fortunate that we had no experience developing in the Islands. When it came time to secure the construction financing, our lender required us to sell 50 percent of the units before we could commence construction. We were able to meet this requirement, then sold another six units during construction. This left us with only six units to sell once the project was completed during the Great Recession. We were fortunate that our lender imposed that constraint on us, otherwise we would have been caught in a precarious position. With that said, escalating construction costs, unforeseen circumstances, and the general softness in the market precluded us from making the profit we had hoped for. Nonetheless, we were the only project on all of the islands constructed in this period that actually paid our lender back in full. We also paid our investors back in full and they all received a significant discount on the acquisition of their units. So, in spite of all the circumstances and the Recession, it turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor for the lender and investors.
BUILD: Does this system lend itself to reproducing the units further?
EW: Probably not. As an architect, I wanted Papali Wailea to be specific to its place and time and have a certain level of integrity; I feel that it would be demeaned if it were repeated elsewhere. If the exercise had been to design a more generic, universal prototype, I would have done that. I actually have designed a number of cost-effective, prefabricated, steel prototypes that are intended for multiple applications and a variety of sites. But Papali Wailea is a site-specific design.
BUILD: How has the project performed over time and would you do anything different with the design?
EW: I would have thought more about the vermin and pest infiltration. In subsequent designs I’ve completed for Maui and elsewhere in Hawaii, I designed a much more conventional roof-to-sidewall detail—it’s a real eye opener when you see that rats can get through half-inch voids.
BUILD: What has been the response from the surrounding community?
EW: The Wailea community greatly appreciates it. When houses go on sale, they get snapped up very quickly. Even though the project is 10 years old now, most people tell me that when they walk into a unit, it feels brand new. They have an essential, timeless quality that is well understood. The privacy aspects in the design are immediately apparent to prospective purchasers and the current owners certainly value this quality. As far as the design is concerned, it is exactly what I envisioned. When I first conceived of the project, I would say that I hoped the copper roof would weather to look like it had been there forever, and that the surrounding vegetation would look like it enveloped the houses. The visual today is of a mature landscape with floating, weathered copper roofs, and not much else is apparent. The broader community likes the fact that the development is very low and doesn’t block views. The project is very well integrated into the site; it feels like it’s part of the landscape and has very few environmental impacts. In general, I think it’s a prototype for a certain kind of housing.
BUILD: What is most important for the design community to take away from the Papali Wailea project?
EW: A couple of things. Don’t be afraid to approach a project like this as a developer-architect. If you want to achieve a certain outcome, sometimes you have to put your effort, and your money, where your mouth is. You can’t always wait for the perfect client. That said, choose your partners well and try to minimize your financial exposure so that you can sleep at night. That’s on the development side. On the architectural side, throw everything you have at the endeavor, but don’t expect that everyone is going to respond favorably to all your clever ideas. The marketplace is littered with the roadkill of innovation.