Wave after wave of glittering, gargantuan condo towers wash ashore in Kakaako — they’re the talk of the town, the cyborgs of central Honolulu, surrounded by all those other, older Honolulu high-rise homes.

The sad difference is that the old ones are mostly breezy, trade wind-ventilated lanai stacks, and the new ones, presumably harbingers of Honolulu’s future, are hermetic glass boxes where you can barely open the windows and the mechanical refrigerant hums 24/7.

And it’s not just in Kakaako: The city’s transit-oriented development policy is currently in the midst of recalibrating much of urban south Oahu onto a transit matrix, wherein residential development is coaxed into high-density population nodes corresponding to the 21 station stops along HART’s elevated 20-mile commuter line from Kapolei to Ala Moana.


The Newton Suites in Singapore, a project of WOHA Architects.

Patrick Bingham-Hall

If all goes according to city planners, within 25 years there will be new clusters of high-rise apartments at Pearlridge mauka of Kamehameha Highway; in Kalihi, where Dillingham bridges Kapalama stream; and in Iwilei, on the irregular blocks around the intersection of Dillingham, North King and Liliha.

If Oahu is, indeed, saving its rural purlieus and ag lands and going up, up, up instead, maybe we should ask our developers and architects to start thinking harder about the kinds of high-rises we — and our keiki — might actually want to live in.

Architects used to have to account for climate when they designed buildings, environmental engineer Patrick Bellew tells me on the phone from his London office. He recalls a “lovely picture” he once saw of New York’s iconic Flatiron skyscraper circa 1912, its surface studded with canvas awnings shading the tall, narrow window openings.

“But that instinct was sort of lost when air-conditioning came along,” he says, explaining that architects eventually detached themselves altogether from engineering.

Heating-ventilation-and-air-conditioning (HVAC) became its own field — architects designed buildings then had someone else put in the HVAC, whatever’s required to make tenants comfortable summer and winter. Post-WWII towers were largely doctrinaire modernist boxes, divorced from earthly considerations like sun- and wind-orientation. “Energy hogs” and “gas guzzlers,” Bellew calls them.

Increasingly however, architects and engineers are getting back on the same page, especially in Europe and Asia,” he reports, to front-load maximal natural ventilation, cooling and heating — and to minimize mechanical HVAC.

Bellew, a fellow in the Royal Academy of Engineering and a visiting professor of architecture at Yale, mentions the work of Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, whose pioneering “biophilic” or “bioclimatic” tower designs — some built, others not — are festooned with rampant greenery, deeply recessed garden spaces and sky courts.

He touts British architect Norman Foster’s 1997 Commerzbank Tower in Frankfort, Germany. With its atriums, sky gardens and natural air-circulation systems, lighting and HVAC costs are said to be dramatically reduced for the 56-story office tower.

Lastly, Bellew, who had just been in Honolulu to consult with Group 70 Architects, talks about Hawaii’s “happy conjunction” between the sun, tracking mostly to the south, and the more-or-less reliable trade winds streaming in from the northeast. “So you can naturally cross-ventilate spaces really easily, especially when they’re on an east-west axis.”

Architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen published an impassioned screed on the future of residential towers in The New Republic three years ago. Her article, premised on the unstoppable pace of global urbanization, zeroed in on what’s going on in Asia, where profound urbanization is forcing its often hot and humid mega-cities to come up with some new solutions for efficiently housing millions.

She cited the work of such firms as WOHA, whose principals, Mun Summ Wong and Richard Hassell, are based in Singapore; Amateur Architecture Studio in Hangzhou, China, led by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu; and Mass Studies, a firm in Seoul.

WOHA’s towers in Singapore and Bangkok pull apart both vertically and horizontally to enhance natural light and air flow into the apartments. Irregular facades, trimmed with plant walls, projecting balconies and recessed common outdoor spaces, sport sunshades and innovative window bays tricked out with gizmos that let air in but keep out wind and rain — “no airtight air-conditioned boxes here,” Goldhagen wrote. She confirmed WOHA’s claim that the cross-ventilated apartments are designed so that occupants only need the AC on during the hottest days of the year … in steamy Singapore, just a few degrees north of the Equator.

Most of the residential units in Mass Studies’ 36-story mixed-use contraption in Seoul, called the Bundled Matrix, offer four different exposures, Goldhagen reported admiringly. In Hangzhou, Wang Shu’s six, irregularly stacked, 26-story towers, called the Vertical Courtyard Apartments, feature two-story units with private courtyards.

“…these buildings and their architects belie the common belief that high-rise towers must be ugly necessities rather than desirable contributions to life in the contemporary metropolis.”

“These firms’ projects cut smart silhouettes on their urban skylines,” Goldhagen wrote, “but they do much more: They weave large numbers of unusually designed and comfortable homes into vertical communities. Together these buildings and their architects belie the common belief that high-rise towers must be ugly necessities rather than desirable contributions to life in the contemporary metropolis.”

Texas-based Howard Hughes Development Co. is currently making almost daily headlines as it develops the former Ward Estate in Kakaako into 60 acres of master-planned, high-rise living with 22 towers called, somewhat absurdly, “Ward Village.”

Two years ago, Hughes exec Nick Vanderboom told me the company was looking at using natural ventilation in the public corridors to reduce energy use. “We are very interested,” he said, “in exploring innovative design and exploring things that haven’t been done in high-rises here recently, or ever.”

So, I checked in with him last week via email, asking about natural ventilation in the planned towers and wondering which unprecedented innovations had been incorporated into his village, where two ultra-luxury towers are now under construction and a few others are on the drawing board.

Race Randle, senior director of development for Hughes, got back to me with this answer: “Our designs allow natural ventilation in all our residences so that owners can choose to turn their AC off and let the cool breezes into their homes.”

Whether this means those little flap-windows that open a few inches or robust cross ventilation, I cannot say.

Randle also pointed out that all of Hughes’ project is LEED certified, that it is “the largest LEED for neighborhood design (LEED-ND) platinum-certified project in the country and the only LEED-ND platinum-certified community currently selling residences in Hawaii.”

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council as a long checklist used to certify such things as energy efficiency and water consumption, sustainable practices, and use of sustainable materials. As of January 2015, 69,000 building projects globally had achieved some level of LEED certification.

For the past few years, though, the entire LEED thing has been colored by controversy, at least since the world’s most famous living architect, Frank Gehry, dismissed it during public remarks in Chicago in 2010. “A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff,” the iconoclastic designer said. “A lot of the things they do really don’t save energy.”

“What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want—namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin told a Congressional panel in 2012.

Oh well.

On a lighter note, I’m happy to report that another tower about to go up in Kakaako will, indeed, have robust natural cross-ventilation built into its 262 residences, LEED or no. It’s called Vida at 888 Ala Moana Boulevard and will replace a Cutter car dealership on the mauka side of the street.

Published renderings show a curved, makai-facing facade with an abstracted wave pattern limned into its surface by the irregular railings of its generous, recessed lanai. The concave backside is a massively articulated stack of outdoor corridors, staircases and elevator shafts. In form and function, the building is an homage to — and a new version of — Honolulu’s older vernacular lanai stacks, many of them designed by unheralded UH engineers.

Designed by LA-based Arquitectonica in association with Ben Woo Architects of Honolulu, The Vida is being developed on former Kamehameha Schools land jointly by the Kobayashi Group and the MacNaughton Group. Construction is scheduled to begin in July.

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