The albizia saman tree—with its natural gift for self-cooling—was one of HOK's design inspirations for the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center, the new home for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Hawaii. These broad-canopied trees, which thrive near the building site on Ford Island, off Oahu's coast, capture water vapor as their leaves open and close with changing light. It's hard to imagine a better design influence for a federal agency with a focus on weather and climate.
With NOAA's mission spanning from oceans to skies, its Ford Island facility needed to bring together diverse entities—from the National Weather Service Pacific Region Headquarters and Tsunami Warning Center to national centers for environmental satellites and data, marine fisheries and sanctuaries, oceanic and atmospheric research, and others. 'But NOAA's complexity was just part of the story,' says HOK design principal Paul Woolford. 'We also needed to address the historic site and its existing structures.' Ford Island, today a National Historic Landmark at Pearl Harbor, was a sacred locus for ancient Hawaiian fertility rites before it became the U.S. Navy strategic operations base that the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941.
The twin hangars that now anchor the Inouye Center narrowly escaped devastation as planes on the tarmac were hit and, nearby, the USS Utah was sunk. The hangars, designed by Detroit-based Albert Kahn, were completed just months before the attack and remained intact. But by 2005, when HOK began exploring ways of repurposing them for NOAA, they were derelict—with smashed windows and leaky roofs. With the airfield inactive for decades, these great sheds stood abandoned. An historic review at the project's onset, though, ensured their survival, with exteriors untouched.
NOAA had come onboard with the goal of consolidating departments, offices, and labs scattered across Oahu. Accommodating 800 employees, HOK's scheme links the historic hangars with a central entry structure, echoing the industrial aesthetic and rectilinear rhythms of the original buildings while distinguishing old from new. Now themes of ocean and air draw you into the 300,000-square-foot build-ing through the new recessed entry bay, with views straight to the water behind, where NOAA's research vessels are moored.
Critical to NOAA's mission is sustainability, and the center—on track for LEED Gold—is particularly innovative in its cooling system. Evoking the albizia samans, it draws on passive means to self-modulate temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Rooftop scoops capture prevailing trade winds, channeling them across point-chilled coils of water from geothermal undersea wells. The heavier, cooled air forms downdrafts, dropping into vertical supply chimneys, while buoyant warmer air rises to exhaust vents. When outside temperatures dip below 65 degrees, the system reverses itself, assisted by heating, instead of cooling, coils. With natural stack and venturi effects, no mechanical fans are needed, though the point-chilling does require conventionally generated energy. As condensation on the coils feeds a graywater system and the roof funnels rainfall into bioswales, no gray- or stormwater leaves the site.
Favoring native materials, HOK paved the forecourt in Hawaiian basalt, leading from a parking lot still studded with aircraft tie-downs from its days as a runway. The volcanic pavers continue into the soaring, skylit, triple-height lobby, alongside ohia, a local hardwood. This central space does double duty for gathering and exhibitions, with displays including live NOAA satellite feeds. Within the flanking hangars, HOK inserted two additional floor levels, reusing the original steel structure, with open work areas, walkways, and stairs overlooking the lobby. Ohia screens—reminiscent of Hawaiian lanais, or porches—veil the glassed-in work floors. Throughout the building, rooftop diffusers, translucent partitions, and multi-height spaces bring daylight deep inside, illuminating a vast footprint of 730 by 270 feet.
Casual communal spaces, generous circulation routes, and clear sight lines—plus an auditorium, library, airy cafeteria, and outdoor deck—foster employee collaboration. 'Geographic proximity is everything,' says site manager Steven Gallagher. 'Pantries are positioned for sharing among departments. Adjacencies lead to interaction without a trip across town.' Now marine-mammal and fisheries teams abut each other; research vessels dock near related labs; and a repurposed aircraft shed houses rehab tanks for endangered monk seals and Hawaiian sea turtles.
Though preservationists were relieved that the hangars survived, the size and prominence of the wind scoops, resembling conventional rooftop HVAC penthouses, have drawn some criticism. Nonetheless, much was saved, revived, and creatively integrated, including original hangar pocket doors, now partially drawn like massive curtains outside new double-glazed facades.
Hawaiian Senator Inouye, who was dedicated to educating children about the ocean, played a key role in realizing this $135 million project. When he died before its completion, it was named in his honor and has already fulfilled such aspirations of his as science and ocean camps for students. 'Many things are possible here that we could never do before, and this design anticipates growth,' says Gallagher. 'Now NOAA is talking about importing this model—for sustainable design, adaptive reuse, and consolidation—to all its centers.'
Client: Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC)
Owner: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record: HOK
Associate architect(s): Ferraro Choi & Associates
Principal-in-Charge: Joseph Ferraro
Interior designer: HOK
Sustainability: Brightworks Sustainability
Acoustical: Shen Milsom Wilke
General contractor: Walsh Construction
300,000 square feet
Metal Panels: Metal Sales Manufacturing Corporation
Metal/glass curtain wall: PAC Glazing Solutions, Pacific Aluminum
Wood: Ohia, Big Island Wood Products
Moisture barrier: W.R. Grace, American Hydrotech, Henrys
Curtain wall: PAC Glazing Solutions, Pacific Aluminum
Other cladding unique to this project: Cast-in-place concrete
Metal: Metal Sales Manufacturing Corporation
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing: Sunpal
Metal doors: Hope’s, Ceco Door, ASSA Abloy, Security Metal Products, Eliason
Wood doors: VT Industries
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Raynor
Closers: LCN, Norton
Exit devices: DCI
Pulls: Forms + Surfaces
Suspension grid: Armstrong
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Concept Millwork
Paints and stains: PPG
Wall coverings: Carnegie/Xorel
Paneling: Geometrik, Wall Technology
Plastic laminate: Nevamar
Solid surfacing: Thermo Scientific Epoxyn Products, Ceasarstone, Dupon Zodiaqt
Floor and wall tile: Daltile- core and kitchen, Crossville- core, Spec Ceramics- basalt stone in lobby and public spaces.
Resilient flooring: Burke Flooring, Armstrong
Carpet: Bentley, Tandus
Raised flooring: Tate
Special interior finishes unique to this project: 3-Form
Fixed seating: American Seating Company
Upholstery: Spinney Beck, Momentum, Arc Com, Pallas, Sina Parson, Carnegie
Downlights: Lightolier, Gammalux
Task lighting: Gammalux
Exterior: Kim Lighting, Tokistar Lighting, Visa Lighting, Bega, Exceline, Architectural Area Lighting
Dimming System or other lighting controls: Lutron, Fisher Pierce, Philips, Watt Stopper
Photovoltaic system: Solar Thermal system: Spower, Hanson Tanks, Advanced Mechanical Technologies, Tyfocor/ Sentinel
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Skylight Diffusers: 3Form, Project Management Inc.