Exterior of a modern house

Craig Steely’s Musabi House is a Force of Nature

On the Big Island of Hawai’i, the local architect designed a 2,200-square-foot residence that is completely off-grid.

Land is a living, breathing thing. Nowhere is this more powerfully felt than on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, the largest yet youngest isle in the archipelago. Forged by the explosive power of five volcanoes, the island continues to be reshaped by Kilauea’s every eruption. Landscapes are erased, shorelines altered. With peaks reaching 14,000 feet above sea level, the area also generates its own weather, which can be equally unpredictable. Clear skies can suddenly give way to dense cloud cover and violent wind and rain. 

interior of the house with a white table
Musubi House’s prowlike roof helps deflect its hilltop site’s strong winds. A conversation pit carves out protected intimacy, while expansive windows and an open-air atrium provide connections to the site.

Capturing—and mitigating—these elemental forces was the assignment for Musubi House, a 2,200-square-foot residence perched high above the Big Island’s Hamakua coast on 100 acres of pastureland and native ohia forest. Designed by architect Craig Steely, who splits his time between Hawai‘i and San Francisco, the glass-and-concrete residence is a series of nested triangles, the largest of which resembles the nori-wrapped rice snack that gives the building its name. The house is topped by a monumental diamond-shaped roof that is “pointed right into the wind,” Steely says. “It’s like a ship,” oriented so that the eastern corner serves as a prow, deflecting the site’s buffeting trade winds, while an open-air atrium creates a visceral connection to the oft-changing weather patterns. “There are some days when it’s so bright and so still and other days when the fog will roll in and sort of sit inside of it,” the architect adds.

A live-work space for a pair of local commercial artists, Musubi House is completely off-grid, generating its electricity via a solar-tracking photovoltaic array and filtering rainwater runoff for use inside and outside the home. A ¾-mile-long road was built to access the site, but weather and the island’s rugged topography created logistical challenges during construction. Floods took out bridges; storms blew trees across the road. Steely compares the build to Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog film in which an obsessive businessman persuades an Amazonian tribe to haul a riverboat up a steep mountainside with only manpower. “It took two years just to get the concrete done,” Steely says. “Honestly, Fitzcarraldo would have been easier. It would’ve been easier to drag a boat over the top of a mountain.” 

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interior of the house living room with concrete floor and walls

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