Waimea Architect Clemson Lam once designed a house on a beach where there were a lot of coconut palm fronds. “When I had a preliminary plan,” he says, “I went down there and laid out the whole house in coconut palm fronds. I took the clients down there and showed them: Now you’re in your master bedroom….”
When he starts a job, he says, he tries to absorb everything there is about a project – such as what the people are like and how they plan to use the house.
And then he takes it a huge step beyond: Before he does any design work, he goes and camps out on the site.
“I walk around the whole place; sit here, sit there,” he says. “I’m not so much trying to design something yet, I’m just trying to absorb. Like, ‘Wow, look at this spot, there’s a great view from here.’ What happens at night on the site? Where are streetlights? A lot of times the wind is a little different at night, especially here on the Big Island when the cold air from the top of the mountain starts coming down.”
A house doesn’t just sit on land, he says; it sits within the land. “I try to use the land by either modifying it to work with the architecture,” he says, “or siting the architecture in such a way that it makes the best use of the land.”
“One time I camped out at a site at Kohala Ranch and the wind was blowing so hard,” he says, “that the tent was literally down on my face, just flapping away. It actually turned me over in the tent. I was on a little bit of a slope to begin with and the wind must have been 40-50 mph. It just kind of rolled me over.”
Lam started his education at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in Business Administration, he says, because there was no foreign language requirement.
“But after the start of the third year of that, I just said, ‘Whoa, this is not me, man.’ So I dropped out and went to work in construction. And after two or three years of that, I thought, ‘Whoa, I can’t be doing this for the rest of my life. I’d rather be designing these buildings.’”
And that’s how he got into architecture, graduating with a degree in that field in 1980. The day after graduation, he and wife, who’d just been hired as librarian at Waimea’s Samuel Parker Library, moved to the Big Island.
He says that people who plan their house by looking through magazine floor plans are missing half of it. “Floor plans out of a magazine have no relation to what the site has to offer,” he says. “Most people are focused on how the kitchen works with the dining room, but the other part of it is what the site has to offer. Or it’s unfortunate, but the front door opens right into the wind.”
Design really makes a difference, he says. “You pour so much money, time and effort into building a house, that if you put things in the right place – if you take care and recognize what opportunities are there – you can make all those sticks and stones and dry wall and wiring and what not become much better. Just by good design.
”He says he feels very fortunate in his work. “I’m a one-person office,” he says, “so I don’t hand it off at a certain stage to a draftsman or something. I do it from the beginning of the job, to when I first meet the people, to camping out on the site, to the day they move in. So all through construction I’m involved.
“It really is a good way to satisfy my creative yearnings.”
Macario, on Clem:
I’ll tell you a story. Back in ‘97, I took the dogs and we went into Waimanu Valley with some friends. We were there for like nine days, and we did what we do – we looked around the valley to hunt and gather food, and we dove for fish and picked ‘opihi and all that stuff
I didn’t know Clem at the time, but he came into the valley with some of his friends at the same time.
So we’d gone hunting and we caught a pig and had all this meat, so I had gone around to all the different campsites and asked people if they wanted some meat. There was a big church group camping there with like 20, 25 people, and I just walked up and said, “Hey, who’s the cook?”
It was funny; I tried to give some meat to these two ladies and they freaked. They were vegetarians. Here I was holding this big bloody hunk of meat.
Anyway, Clem was going by and I said, “Hey, you want some meat?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll try to cook some.” You know when you’re out there, some guys are friendly and some aren’t. He was friendly. He was more interested than some other people.
He doesn’t remember me, that’s for sure. I was in my hunting clothes. But I remember him. He was eager to take the meat and I remember his face.
When I started working with him, doing photography for him, I kept thinking, “You know, I met this guy somewhere before.” Even after I remembered where I’d seen him, even until today I haven’t told him. When I talk to him next time, I’m going to ask him if he remembers.
After I met him and started working with him, I knew he had these sensitivities. I knew he was an outdoors person. I knew he surfed, because he carries a surfboard in his truck sometimes when he comes to the job. And when I went to his office he had some of his own watercolors on the wall. His office is really together. Everything is in place and it’s clean.
Just from talking to him, I knew he was aware of all the elements. Like the weather, the earth and stuff like that. Like the way the house is situated when you walk onto his properties. And when you walk into the house, it’s comfortable and cool. I noticed that if there’s a stiff breeze, there’s usually a protective wall there so the breeze isn’t whacking you.
Plus he’s a nice guy. He’s involved in the community and in art, and it seems like he’s a pretty active person, and it’s been nice to work with him. His clients love his work. He gets along with people I’ve met that he builds for. They’re all really happy with what he’s done.
You spend all day shooting there at Clem’s houses, and you get to shoot all the different areas of the house, and it’s comfortable. You’ve still got the views, and the places where the air comes through. And the lines of the architecture flow very nicely. He blends the buildings into their surroundings. You can just see that from the photographs. He does a really nice job.
Clem’s different from other architects because he keeps it light. He has this really “up” attitude, a really positive attitude and he doesn’t really get serious, there’s no heaviness, but when you start noticing all those things I’ve mentioned, it’s kind of deep.
I just read this quote. Kumu Nalei Kahakalau said, “The teacher should be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” Clem doesn’t come on like some architects I’ve met who think they’re gods. Like, “I’m the man.”
He keeps it light, but his work is really serious.
“I’m doing a house right now where the space below the floor is 12 feet high; the ground falls away that fast. So we took big columns that go from the ground all the way up to the roof – 18, 19 feet tall. Between them we have big beams that we use for x-bracing, so the structure is really expressed in that. I’ve heard fishermen say they use that as a landmark. It’s noticeable from way out there.
That is a way to use the land, and the way the land slopes; a way to make an architectural expression. The only way you can learn that is to spend some time on the site, and recognize what is available there.” – Clem Lam
Architectural photos by Macario: all others courtesy Clem Lam
Email Clem Lam at firstname.lastname@example.org