Isamu Nakano started building his Japanese house atop Kaimuki in 1951, and as far as we know, he never finished. "It’s been my lifetime dream to build this house," he told Lois Taylor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1980. "To do something big instead of just drawing pictures of it … "
Nestled on a steep hillside on Paula Drive, with a dramatic overlook of Diamond Head, Nakano’s dream home became something of a local landmark, a superbly handcrafted example of Japanese architecture and Western moxie. Before he opened a neon sign business, Nakano earned a journeyman carpenter’s license, and his home library was filled with books dealing with construction techniques, craft guides and color analysis.
The house was built in phases, and Nakano also excavated and built the foundations. Except for final inspections of electrical and plumbing installations, every bit of the house had Nakano’s fingerprints on it, and his original blueprints were framed, and the original building permit still tacked up under the eaves.
» Warehouse hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays
» Location: 30 Forrest Ave., Kakaako
» Contact: 953-5538 or www.reusehawaii.org
But what is constructed is eventually deconstructed. It’s the cycle of carpentry. The Nakanos died some years ago and nature began reclaiming the property. The heirs decided to rebuild, and so, Nakano’s dream home had to go. Generally, that means guys with a skip loader and wrecking bars creating dust and a pile of kindling.
Appropriately, however, bits of Nakano’s craftsmanship will live on in other Hawaii homes. Instead of being destroyed, the Japanese-style house is being disassembled by Re-Use Hawaii, a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing waste and promoting environmental sustainability. Why let perfectly good pieces of building material go into the trash?
"Something like 30 percent of all the waste that goes into Oahu’s landfill is building debris," said Quinn Vittum, Re-Use’s "deconstruction program manager" and one of the founders. "But a very large percentage can be recycled."
RE-USE IS A DEMOLITION contractor, bidding on demo jobs like every other contractor. Unlike with the others, the materials salvaged by Re-Use can be written off as a tax benefit by the owner.
Nakano’s house is being carefully whittled down by the Re-Use crew, and their brand of demolition typically takes a little longer. The Nakano house is also tightly packed, with low ceilings and architectural surprises, like hidden drawers and light fixtures. Vittum noted there was a fire extinguisher in every room.
The back yard includes a workshop littered with rusting tools. The workshop has a tree growing up through the middle, straddling an overturned cement mixer.
The bottom floor has a furo (Japanese bath) built into the hillside. Bits of the hillside rockface rock face are incorporated into the structure, becoming steps and bracing. Nakano’s original pencil marks are visible on much of the wood, and he made small decorative additions to nearly every piece. The rooms are measured in the traditional tatami style, each one gridded by the 3-by-4 straw mats.
Despite the Japanese look, Nakano used Western building techniques. Nails are used in the joinery. Instead of paper, he used plastic in the shoji doors. Instead of Japanese white cedar, the entire home is built of redwood.
That redwood, de-nailed and deconstructed, is among the material gathered at Re-Use’s Kakaako warehouse.
Re-Use has use of about 25,000 square feet in a waterfront warehouse on Forrest Avenue. And it’s "getting a little full," Vittum admits. A lot of buildings are being torn down. Customers range from general contractors seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) green points by using salvaged material to DIYers looking for a bargain. The most popular item is tongue-and-groove redwood siding. The warehouse is full of other items as well, ranging from brand-new windows and tile to dozens of doors to appliances to … little decorative constructions by the late Isamu Nakano, built in the Japanese style.
"I still have a lot to complete," Nakano said in 1980, looking forward. "But fortunately, I love working with my hands."