Inspired by the architecture of Bali and Polynesia, a family commissioned a series of luxurious, beautifully designed pavilions in Hawaii

Kauhale Kai is located inside a luxury hotel on Hawaii’s Big Island—yet it’s no ordinary vacation villa. 

Taking up 9,902 sq ft of interior space, Kauhale Kai is a private residence. It was built from the ground up by owners who have a strong affinity for design, modern art and the culture of Polynesia, as well as an appreciation for Balinese architecture. It sits on a 47,337 sq ft site within a five-star resort development, which also houses the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on Kohala Coast on the northeastern part of the island. 

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Comprising six pavilions linked by a series of external corridors, the home is surrounded by beautiful water features, which cascade into a swimming pool.

Situated above Kaunaoa Bay, the pavilions offer views of the ocean at every turn; rows of palm trees line the gardens. There are five bedrooms and six and a half bathrooms. Five of them feature private outdoor shower gardens. 

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The owners had purchased the site and commissioned Mark de Reus, founder of Idaho- and Hawaii-based de Reus Architects, to transform the bare grounds into a modern tropical paradise that their family would enjoy for years to come.

The process, from conception and design to completion, took just over two and a half years. 

The clients had enjoyed vacations at the resort in the past, and also previously lived in Tahiti.

The island vernacular building form in Polynesia became the inspiration behind the design of the home, says de Reus—and this is especially evident in the distinctive hipped roofs of the pavilions. 

“Traditional buildings on Polynesian islands were typically small structures limited in scale from available building materials,” he says. Structures of this kind were usually built as village-like clusters, with gable, shed or hipped roofs. “They usually had a steep pitch in order to efficiently shed the rain.”

Kauhale, the Hawaiian term most accurately represented by the word “village” in English, refers to clusters of this kind—and is what the home is named after. 

The six pavilions are each designed to accommodate different pursuits: some are dedicated to gatherings. One of them is where the master suite is, and another is a guest home. 

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The pièce-de-résistance is the “floating” glass-walled pavilion: designed for dining, it is a feature the owners had specifically requested. 

The hipped roof of this pavilion is supported on four structural corner posts clad in coral stone, explains de Reus. Meanwhile, a coral stone wall houses a glass case, home to a collection of Balinese kris blades, which are considered spiritual objects in parts of Southeast Asia. 

Culture of the Island of the Gods proved to be an inspiration for other features in the pavilion: its stepped wood ceilings and columns—“rising into the underside of the steep, hipped roofs”—are reminiscent of the architecture of the ancient Majapahit kingdom, an empire that encompasses modern-day Indonesia.

Bali was a destination both de Reus and the owners had visited—and they had all “greatly appreciated the rich artistic culture that had evolved” from the Majapahit kingdom, says the architect. 

The dramatic, upwardly stepped cedar wood planks provide the space with a sense of both formality and warmth. 

The dining pavilion is connected to the outdoor living pavilion—a space dedicated to alfresco gatherings—and a beautiful pool. This is what de Reus describes as the axis mundi, or pivotal point, of the home—and is a “symbolic connection with heaven and earth”. The spatial arrangement in these spaces is reminiscent of the geometry seen in a kauhale.

The master pavilion, which houses a bedroom, study, and a living space, is also equipped with indoor and outdoor baths. The outdoor shower is one of de Reus’ favourite features: located within a sunken orchid garden, it is surrounded by tall stone walls for privacy. A sea grape tree provides shade to the garden. 

It also has a lanai: commonly found in Hawaii, the Philippines and in Latin American countries, this refers to a roofed veranda on the ground floor of a house that is the embodiment of indoor-outdoor living. Outside, an antique Balinese door is framed by Hawaiian basalt stone. 

Materials used throughout the home, from copper shingles and cedar eaves to travertine pavers, were selected for their endurance in the tropical environment, as well as for the low level of maintenance they require. Sustainability was also a consideration: solar panels are atop the garage pavilion and are hidden out of sight. 

The owners’ love of architecture and design proved to be a particularly memorable part of the project for de Reus. The lady of the house was in regular contact with the architect following completion of the home: “She would describe details about the design and referred to living there as magical,” remembers de Reus.

Her husband, who had interpreted certain features of the home to carry religious symbolism, also expressed appreciation.

“Jokingly, I replied that he had been reading too many books on the Crusades,” says the architect. “I was, however, moved by his heartfelt thought and appreciation into describing deeper meanings he saw in the order of the design.” 

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