Long-Distance Design

They live in different states and different time zones, separated by 2,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean, but that doesn’t stop architects Paul Bleck and Dave Sanders from creating some of the most sought-after homes on Hawaii’s Big Island

The $1.2 million Chiou Residence is one of many Hawaiian luxury homes that Paul Bleck and Dave Sanders have designed together remotely. Bleck does the groundwork on the island, and Sanders designs from California.

Mr. and Mrs. Chiou, a Taiwanese doctor-and-artist couple living in New York, want to build their retirement home in Hawaii. They search the Internet and find Paul Bleck, who is based in Hawaii and specializes in luxury homes on the Big Island. Bleck calls his partner, David Sanders, who starts working on a design from his office in California. The architects, who met at a blueprint shop in California more than 25 years ago, spend a few days emailing photos and drawings to discuss via phone. Bleck sends info on topography and weather, Sanders performs a virtual flyby with Google Earth, and the clients e-mail in their design notes. Sanders designs a house he won’t see until the next time he visits Hawaii—which he only does once every few years.

Paul Bleck & Dave Sanders / Shrimp Improvement SystemsShrimp Improvement
Systems’ Hawaii facility

Though Bleck and Sanders specialize in luxury Hawaiian homes, they sometimes venture into other sectors. Such was the case when they were tapped to complete a complex $8 million, 7,000-square-foot addition to a commercial breeding facility meant to send shrimp to aqua farmers around the world. The project required the architects to corral a sizeable team to complete four types of buildings—including a wooden-framed office, steel shrimp-maturation buildings, prefab greenhouses, and Quonset structures—on a satellite site. Bleck and Sanders managed the cumbersome workflow of the project by isolating each building in its own building-information-modeling (BIM) file and hot-linking each one in a master site plan so that consultants could work on specific areas.

The team actually wrote small computer programs to describe building components to BIM software so that prefabbed and Quonset parts could be properly assembled. The programs also generated realistic images for client presentations and construction direction. By modeling in ArchiCAD, Bleck and Sanders achieved an accuracy for the multifaceted project that would have been unheard of a decade ago, and all construction vehicles drove through cleansing baths to and from the bio-secure site during the build.

This accuracy and care was especially important to the biologists who will use the site to selectively pair and breed shrimp with specialized tanks, measured lighting, and controlled environments using undisturbed water piped from 4,000 feet below.

Bleck and Sanders aren’t fazed by the 2,500 miles that separate their offices. They’ve both worked remotely, and Sanders has completed residential projects in Mexico, Israel, and Russia that he’s only seen in photographs. “We talk on the phone while staring at a screen, so it’s not that different from if we were standing in the same office anyway,” Sanders says, adding that he has such a familiarity with Bleck after a quarter century of working together that, once they’ve hit what Sanders calls “a Eureka moment,” the pair usually agree immediately without any further discussion.

Bleck is a “Fullerite,” subscribing to the Buckminster Fuller school of thought. Sanders, a student of architectural history, admires Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright. He likes regionalism and focuses on well-planned designs that serve functionality. Together, they are creating modern-tropical fusion homes that blend early 20th century styles with heavy lithic massing. While technology is enabling their long-distance work today, there was a time when the pair worked side by side. Bleck, 65, moved to Orange County, California, as an infant and drew his first building at age 15. In 1985, he started his own firm, Synergy Architects, in San Clemente, California, and hired Sanders after their first chance encounter. “[Dave] was young, smart, talented, and ambitious,” Bleck recalls. “We saw early on that we could really turn him loose.” When a recession hit in the 1990s, though, Bleck laid off employees one at a time until he decided to leave the mainland for Hawaii, where the economy was still booming.

Sanders, now 46, stayed behind and continued working for Bleck as jobs came in. He came to the industry out of high school, quickly landing a job as a grunt draftsman and becoming hooked. As a young architect, he found his time at Synergy formative. “It was a real boot camp,” he says. “We were a six-man shop pumping out a couple dozen projects per year with lots of all-nighters and tight deadlines. Collaborative design was the rule.” In those days, each project—whether a luxury home, a spec house, a tract home, a commercial building, or an apartment complex—was drawn by hand.

Now, Bleck lives in Kailua-Kona where he accepts each new piece of work as its architect of record. He develops the program with the owners, gets surveys, takes photos, commissions studies, and packages all the info to send to Sanders electronically. Sanders says the key to this kind of communication is to “put a date on everything.” He and Bleck work together on approximately 25 percent of Bleck’s projects. “We work well together because he spent years learning from me and now I learn from him,” Bleck says. “Together, [we] make something different than [what] we would make alone.” The Big Island’s topography can often guide design decisions, but Bleck and Sanders work to accommodate requests for ocean views, volcano views, gardens, waterfalls, torreys, gazebos, lanais, and even raked-sand entryways.


Paul Bleck and Dave Sanders

“We work well together because he spent years learning from me and now I learn from him. We have our own way of working together to make something different than we would make alone.”

—Paul Bleck, Owner of Paul Bleck AIA Ltd.


Their residence for the Chious—a $1.2 million project with 4,400 square feet under roof and 2,900 square feet of living space—sits atop an oceanfront hill. It’s a flowing, monolithic structure with layered, high-performance building systems, and it’s the first of Bleck and Sanders’s tropical-fusion homes that blends modern and ancient touches. An airy great room concept fronts a covered lanai, and a patented sliding pocket-door system by David Whitehill unites the indoor and outdoor spaces by glass panels that disappear into the wall on a recessed track. Natural-stone floors and pitched wooden ceilings connect the structure with its island surroundings, and ponds, spas, and lush landscaping are visible from nearly every corner inside the home.

The home responds to each of the clients’ special requirements, e-mailed throughout the design process. And now, new clients are using the Chiou Residence as inspiration for their own Hawaiian getaways.

Paul Bleck & Dave Sanders / Chiou Residence
Massive pocket doors, designed by David Whitehill, open up the interior of the Chiou Residence to the elements and to spectacular hilltop views of the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Ethan Tweedie)

Paul Bleck & Dave Sanders / Chiou Residence

Paul Bleck & Dave Sanders / Chiou Residence

Paul Bleck & Dave Sanders / Chiou Residence