Urban Homes With Small Footprints, Big Heights in Tokyo

THESE WALLS CAN TALK

People who dream of living the big city life in Tokyo may need to temper their expectations. As Tokyo grows in popularity (the city registered its 19th consecutive year of net population increase in 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal), so too does the demand for livable and affordable space. Last year, the price per square foot for land in Tokyo was at an average of $1,000.

Finding accommodation in Tokyo is tricky—some young professionals are living in geki-semaor shared houses, that offer “coffin-sized” apartments for nearly $600 a month. 

Some homeowners are embracing small plots of land—as small as 300 square feet, or even the size of a single parking space—and their tight budgets by building architecturally striking buildings that combine innovative design with a unique aesthetic.  

These properties are known as kyosho jutaku, Japan’s version of the micro home, and architects like Atelier Tekuto and Junpei Nousaku Architects are jumping on the trend and adding new spins on the built environment.

“For me personally, as an architect, designing small homes suggests new directions in the relationship between people and the environment and, on a wider scale, the future of the home,” writes Kengo Kuma, architect and professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, in his foreword for the book “The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space.”

Kuma adds, “The small house is, in a real sense, an experimental laboratory that permits us to pursue the creation of a complementary relationship with our surroundings.”

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For instance, the Lucky Drops house by Atelier Tekuto, a narrow home measuring 29.3 meters deep, took advantage of a tiny plot of land “by ensuring a maximum length of the building; providing a space for fun and structural reinforcement to the building by introducing a slope inside; making the best use of underground space; and turning the entire building into a skin [to let in ample sunlight],” the company said in an interview with ArchDaily

The R Torso C house in Tokyo, also designed by Atelier Tekuto, used a 100 percent recyclable type of concrete (made of volcanic ash) to create a building that embraces the tiny plot of land that it is situated on.  

“The way of building architecture respectfully towards nature and the environment in high-density residential districts in Tokyo is to build towards the sky,” said the firm in an interview with Dazeen. “It is the only direction with a true feeling of the vastness of nature.”

The River Side House in Horinouchi, Tokyo, by Mizuishi Architects Atelier, is built on a narrow triangle site no bigger than 312 square feet and has enough vertical space to house a family of three. Architecture firms like Hideaki Takayanagi Architects & Associates and Fuse-Atelier are becoming “relative experts in maximizing space and small sites,” says Ben Duncan, president and CEO of CBRE in Japan. Finding these kinds of plots, however, is still a challenge in Tokyo.

“The key issue here is the relatively small size of plots in Tokyo and the difficulty of acquiring larger sites,” Duncan adds. “Part of this is culture, as owners are inclined to hold land and residential assets, almost like family heirlooms.” 

Whether Tokyo will one day have its own Antilia, a tall and narrow $1 billion home in Mumbai that stands at 27 stories, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Duncan says, we should expect to see architects in Tokyo maximize space in the narrowest of manners.

“Think of all the ‘pencil’ office buildings with eight to 10 floors, with 200 square feet of net usual space in Tokyo,” says Duncan. “This even extends to the logistics sector. Developers in Japan are leading the world in the design of vertical logistics centers that can accommodate huge volumes and articulated lorries.” 

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