Lavaflow 2. Photo: JD Peterson

Working in San Francisco & Hawaii: An Interview with Craig Steely


Earlier this year I went to the big island of Hawaii to see the lava landscape and the houses that San Francisco and Hawaii based architect, Craig Steely has put down on them. His work in Hawaii acknowledges the transient condition imposed by nearby volcanoes, as if to say  “Don’t take yourself too seriously; this place may be covered by a lava flow in a few years.”  His personality is like that too.


Kenneth Caldwell:  How old were you when you first wanted to be an architect?


Craig Steely:  I always loved to draw and build things; tinkering with things came as second nature. I remember when it really gelled. We were staying near Sea Ranch. I had spent the morning sketching these houses and there was a Sunset magazine laying around that I looked at and thought, “Oh, I should do this. I could do this.” I was 15, I think.


KC:  How did you end up at Cal Poly?


CS:  I really related to their focus on things that were tactile and physical as well as intellectual. I had a great education at Cal Poly. I learned to be self-directed and self-motivated. That’s what architecture is—that’s what working is like.


KC:  And you went to Florence for a year. Then you came back here?


CS:  Working in a small studio in Italy made me unemployable!  When I returned to California, I saw how a typical American office works and realized early on that working in this type of environment wasn’t for me. I’ve always been careful not to lose enthusiasm for architecture. I enjoy it. I am fascinated by it, excited by it. A lot happens in day-to-day practice to take away that enthusiasm.


KC:  So after you worked in a few offices, did you stop working in architecture?


CS:  I got back into construction. I worked for Gump’s for a while doing window displays. I liked the fact that they had a huge woodshop that I could use. I was always designing a project here and there for someone. Eventually that evolved into my practice, into the work I’m doing now. But we are not doing any construction. There’s no time for it.


KC:  What was the first significant project?


CS:  The first version of our house on Beaver Street. It was published. A lot of really great people were interested in it and helped get it out there. That just rolled into other jobs.


Beaver Street Reprise. Photo: Rien van Rijthoven.


KC:  What were your early architectural influences?


CS:  I’ve always been interested in those north  coast Sea Ranch style houses that belong to the site. The juxtaposition between this rough landscape and this very modern building: it fits, in part, because of the contrast. I feel like I’m still doing that same thing.


I remember going to see the Parliament complex at Chandigarh in India by Le Corbusier and being fascinated with how driven Corbu was to design a modern building that would make a great ruin. You know, it’s built to go mano a mano with the Acropolis! It kind of kicks the Acropolis’s ass.


Lavaflow 1/ Robert Trickey House. Photo: J.D. Peterson.


KC:  What’s it like designing buildings in Hawaii, in this lava landscape?


CS:  The first house I did here was for a client in San Francisco, Robert Trickey. It is sited on a flow from 1955. It’s barren, hard and inhospitable in a lot of ways, almost like a frictionless plane. Yet it is also timeless in a way, in the sense that there’s no context for anything. Your mind starts creating context. You use the clouds and the sounds to create context. One of the reasons I do modern architecture is that every project creates a new set of rules based on what you find at that site.


There is an active volcano less than five miles away. Rather than seeing it as a problem, I wondered, how do you turn it into a catalyst for making something better?


KC:  Is that why you didn’t make your own house very precious? Reduced to its essence, it is basically two roofs.


CS:  Exactly: one is enclosed, one is not. I was at this gas station and it was pouring down rain. I was under this big umbrella. I looked up, and I was dry. I was like, “This is it. This is the house I’m going to build.”

People who walk by our place here (Lavaflow 2) think this is a mini market/gas station.


KC:  Tell me about the ideas behind the other houses you’ve designed in the neighborhood.


CS:  For our house, I acted as the general contractor. My wife Cathy and I built a lot of it, besides the steel framing. The budgets weren’t really huge for these other houses. We built them conventionally with a contractor and bank loans. We didn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of materials. We used the same materials that everybody uses over here, like Hardie board, Trex decking, bent metal gutters.


KC:  But your houses don’t look like any of the other houses over here.


CS:  One of the things that I don’t like on a lot of the houses over here is how they deal with the water tanks that are needed for rainwater collection. In our house, we put the water tank under the house so it doesn’t dominate. At Lavaflow 4, you can see the tank from the carport underneath the deck, and we used a similar but lighter gauge steel to clad the house. The important thing here is to work with the climate and circumstances and not fight them. For example, you really don’t need air conditioning if you site the house correctly.


KC:  Of course this environment is completely different from San Francisco’s.


CS:  But I don’t think my houses in San Francisco would look like they do if I hadn’t designed houses in Hawaii. It’s almost like for every project I’ve done in Hawaii, there’s a counterpart in San Francisco. They share ideas, but work differently.


Building these houses in Hawaii and seeing how they address the landscape has given me different ideas of how to address the landscape in San Francisco. In our house in San Francisco, we reduced the square footage of living space to give ourselves more outdoor space, but that essentially made the interior space seem bigger because it has a connection to the outside. Here in Hawaii, you live outdoors, but in San Francisco you can enjoy it without always being in it.


KC:  Are you starting to work outside San Francisco and Hawaii?


CS:  We are doing a house in Austin, Texas, that is also a really simple idea: a big flat floating tray that’s half indoors, half outdoors. It’s interesting because Austin gets much colder and much hotter than San Francisco. We are using a moveable fabric roof over the outdoor space for shade, a lot of air circulation, cross-ventilation.


KC:  Do clients come to you asking for sustainable features?



CS:  We always build in sustainable features, but there’s so much more you can accomplish by just building smaller. For example, at Xiao-Yen’s house, the owner, Andy, dismantled the old house himself and catalogued the wood so we could reuse it. He turned sweat equity into new siding for his building. That’s not easy sustainability, that’s commitment. An 8,000-square-foot house that uses low VOC paint has nothing to do with sustainability. I’m always stoked when we can get clients physically involved and committed in creating their home. That seems somehow to get to the root of sustainability. Pretty soon sustainability won’t be separate from the design process, it will just be part of what every architect does.



Xiao-Yen’s House. Photo: Bruce Damonte.

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