WRNS in Hawaii

WRNS in Hawaii

When we talk about what we care about as designers, we talk about place. Place is our starting point – the landscapes, streetscapes, history, ecology, cultural underpinnings, and experiences of the people who call it home. A practice rooted in this viewpoint entreats a diversity in scale, aesthetics and typology, as well as a deep commitment to social, economic and environmental stewardship.

With its striking natural beauty, temperate climate, strong sense of community, ethnic diversity and deep cultural history, fewer places on earth offer as rich a context for the kind of placemaking to which we aspire as Hawaii. Its assets beg an architecture that is undeniably of its place, challenging us to look critically at color and texture, materials, porosity and landscape integration, and how to leverage natural resources like the sun, wind and water.

At the same time, Hawaii faces significant challenges, including an aging infrastructure, unfettered and poorly planned development, very limited resources (85-90% of the State’s fuel, energy and food is imported), high prices, transit woes, endangered native species, unaffordable housing, and an encumbered education system – many of the questions that compel us to use our talents in service of conservation, resilience, social justice and civic life.

While these opportunities and challenges have informed our work on the mainland for many years, our first commissions in Hawaii have magnified the complex web of stewardship that is architecture.

Ka Hei
In 2013, we were selected to serve as Sustainability Advisor to the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) — the eighth largest school district in the country, with 255 schools, 3,872 buildings, and 44.6 million total square feet — helping the DOE achieve its goal of 90% renewable energy at all public schools in the state by 2040 and supporting the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.


From the Ka Hei website.

This landmark plan is called Ka Hei. The name, which was chosen by educational specialists in the DOE’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, comes from a snare used by the Hawaiian god Maui to capture the sun. It also means “to absorb as knowledge or skill.” The program could not have a more apt name.

In the Sustainability Advisor role, WRNS is helping Hawaii’s public schools in their quest for energy independence and the goal to be sustainable, vibrant centers of their communities. Starting with low-hanging fruit — efficient lighting, occupancy sensors, ceiling fans, solar fans, faucet aerators, and daylighting sensors and systems — the initiative will result in long-term, comprehensive projects, including school campus conversion to net-zero energy with on-site generation systems that harness solar, wave and wind power. Educational programs will be integrated with the DOE’s plan to harness sustainable energy, providing new opportunities in science, engineering, technology and math for students, staff, faculty, and the broader community. These strategies will inform system-wide modernizations that create 21st century learning environments, while establishing the DOE as one of the State’s foremost environmental stewards.


This interactive online sustainability master plan provides detailed information about each region’s bioclimactic statistics. 

With this five-year project, WRNS has been entrusted with a significant responsibility and a major undertaking for our local studio in Honolulu, one that places us clearly in the center of the conversation around both sustainability and the future of public education in Hawaii.

Kuhio Park
Kuhio Park is a 22-acre, densely populated urban neighborhood located within Kalihi, a thriving community of Honolulu on the island of O’ahu. Its community is diverse, with recent immigrants from Micronesia, Samoa, Tonga, and the Philippines. Many of the Micronesian immigrants are direct descendants of victims of the open-air nuclear testing conducted by the United States in the decade following World War II, which forced entire communities to relocate and left generations of people devastated by health issues.

In an attempt at reparation, the United States established a compact with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, granting the people of these island nations the right to live in the United States and to receive social services. The Polynesian-based society of Hawaii, and particularly Kuhio Park, has attracted many of these immigrants.

In 2013 the Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) in partnership with the Michaels Organization, was awarded a Choice Neighborhood Initiative planning grant. This grant is focused on the redevelopment of existing public housing developments within the Kuhio Park Terrace neighborhood as well as improvements to the surrounding community. These residences are typical 1960’s low-rise public housing projects – aesthetically uninspired and isolated from the broader community.

WRNS was brought on to lead the community outreach charrette process and develop a new master plan. The master plan will serve as a roadmap for redeveloping the neighborhood and providing replacement housing to successfully integrate and connect Kuhio with its immediate surroundings and the greater Kalihi neighborhood.


WRNS architect, Rochelle Nagata-Wu, leading a charrette with Kuhio Park residents.

The overall vision for Kalihi is a livable, sustainable, urban community with a balance of employment, residential, and recreation all located close to transit. Kalihi will become a destination place of “choice and pride,” and this goal is in perfect alignment with the vision for Kuhio Park. Pedestrian friendly and safe, the new community will enjoy more venues for sports and recreation, open space, workforce opportunities, and a mix of education, health and social services.  Most critically, affordable, mixed-income housing will accommodate a variety of household types and incorporate modern amenities, accessibility, universal design and sustainability.

Aloha, Mahalo
The most commonly used words in Hawaii – aloha and mahalo – represent a multiplicity of ways of being, connecting, greeting, respecting, loving. For us, working in Hawaii is about this deep sense of respect and connection. As architects, it’s easy to get lost in place – we talk about it a lot; to put a finer point on it, we’re deeply interested in the human experience of the places we make.

Hawaii is often lauded for its welcoming, “aloha,” culture, and indeed this idea has its truths. Doing business in Hawaii is different. People expect you to look them in the eye, sit down for a cup of coffee, and “talk story.” They also expect to be deeply involved in the process, to feel ownership, to see their values represented not only in the architecture but in the experiences that make it.