Higher Education

Architects are planning Hawaii’s first vertical school, which might be as tall as 10 stories, in the middle of Kakaako

September, 2017

Architects are currently dreaming up designs for the tower of classrooms that will become Hawaii’s first vertical school. It will occupy part of a 10-story, 2.5-acre development on Pohukaina Street that will include stores and mixed-income rental apartments. It will be unlike all the other Hawaii schools that are sprawling one- and two-story buildings usually set apart from the surrounding communities.

At 690 Pohukaina, state Department of Education officials and developers envision an innovative elementary school and community gathering space fronting the newly renovated Mother Waldron Park. They say the project will address the need for a neighborhood public school while helping Kakaako become an urban community in which residents can live, work, learn and play.


“Just imagine a family living in the Kakaako area, and particularly in our future rental community, who will be able to drop their kids off at school and walk or bike to work in the nearby urban core,” says Jon Wallenstrom of Alakai Development, the firm partnering with the DOE to build the project. “It will provide the people of Honolulu with a marvelous lifestyle.”

The school’s projected price tag is $40 million, partially funded by a $16 million appropriation by the state Legislature for planning, design and initial building costs. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019. The site is being designed by WRNS Studio in collaboration with Ben Woo Architects.

The school is expected to serve up to 1,000 students in kindergarten through grade five, according to Cayenne Pea, a principal with Alakai Development who oversees finance and operations.

kid1_CMYK“Things are constantly changing and evolving with this, of course,” Pea says. “Right now, in the renderings that we do have, we are showing the school going up to 10 floors, but that will be vetted during the design process. Nothing is set in stone yet. One thing we do know is it’s not going to be the typical model of just classrooms and a hallway. We are looking at multiuse, communal areas that can be used for studying and music, and we’re thinking about how the way the students get from class to class will be different.”

Early renderings depict a sleek, modern high-rise with a rooftop garden and two-story communal areas that tie together the building’s different levels. The school will also incorporate sustainable energy initiatives, although no specifics have been decided, Pea says.

“What I really like about this project is that it’s chipping away at the housing shortage, but it’s also creating a new community where people can live, play and learn all in the same space. I really think this could be a model that we could replicate elsewhere throughout the state. That’s why we’re really trying to be thoughtful so that we can incorporate best practices of vertical schools on the Mainland and so that we can try to anticipate any concerns parents and teachers will have so that we can incorporate solutions as part of our design process. We’re doing a lot of listening.”

Brainstorming Team

At the UH Community Design Center, architect Cathi Ho Shar led a research project with School of Architecture assistant professor Karla Sierralta and three graduate students. The project was a collaboration with the DOE and the participants spent five weeks this summer unpacking the ins and outs of vertical-school architecture. Their findings have been shared with architects hired to help design the school and Sierralta says she hopes their planning principles will spark discussion among the architects, and perhaps become a framework for the school’s design.

“The first thing we asked ourselves was, ‘What does it really mean to go vertical?’” says Sierralta. “We looked at examples of suburbs transforming into places with high-rise buildings. We looked at vertical farms. I think it’s a world phenomenon – people are looking at how they can be more efficient and more compact and more sustainable by going vertical. For us, looking at a vertical school in Hawaii, this is a whole new typography that we’ve never really considered.”

But the team also discovered you can blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor worlds with large windows, terraces, lanai and rooftop playgrounds.

“We also thought a lot about how the students would move up and down the building,” Sierralta says. “These are children, and they have so much energy. Could they potentially hike the building? That would be so much fun. How can we create a more playful vertical circulation?”

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by Brittany Lyte | illustrations by Chris Danger