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Japanese Contemporary Small Houses

Updated: May 4, 2021

Credit: Bri, AGD
Small Houses Contemporary Japanese Dwellings Claudia Hildner
Source: Small Houses: Contemporary Japanese Dwellings, Claudia Hildner

Roots of Japanese Residential Architecture

Many of the same factors that influence American residential architecture influence Japanese residential architecture. One of the main influences is seen in the reflection of the country’s traditions and social relations. Most Japanese houses in urban areas have a short, but useful life. Rather than remodeling, or adding on, most homeowners opt to tear down and rebuild their homes. The lots in Japan, especially in urban city centers like Tokyo, are extremely small, very limited and exceedingly expensive. However, great value is placed on owning private land no matter the cost.

Building codes, which are far less than in the U.S. also influence the design of these single family dwellings. Most building codes are used to regulate the blocking of light throughout the city and as such, building height is determined by the width of the street.

Lastly, the climate plays an important role in the design of small dwellings in Japan. The Japanese climate is quite mild year-round and many homes are not well-insulated. The Japanese, however, focus on regulating personal body temperature rather than the overall temperature of the home. This notion has allowed for very few regulations on energy consumption which can be seen in stark contrast to the United States.

Japanese hallway
Credit: Bri, AGD

Privacy and Publicness

One design feature that is especially important is the idea of public and private. Japanese homes often screen their entire lot from their neighbors and many homes have very few street-facing windows. Instead there is an emphasis on openness and light with the use of skylights. The driving factor that creates almost bunker-like structures is that of familial value. There is vast importance placed on protecting the family from outdoor influences, but very little emphasis placed on privacy within the home and there are very few sectioned off rooms.

Culture Shaped by Wood

Japan’s number one building material is wood. Many of the earliest residential buildings are made of wood and many continue to stand. Homes are generally constructed of wood joint structure and raised plank flooring. The most notable aspect of raised plank flooring is that it often communicates what should be done within the space without the use of walls and doors. The floors are raised and lowered based on activity and can tell the user where shoes should be worn, taken off, and where slippers should be worn instead. The subtlety in change of elevation and material communicates threshold and entry without the use of walls.

Space Without Space

Japanese architecture, especially residential architecture, places a heavy emphasis on the concept of ma (間) which means, “in-between” and is interpreted as an interval of time and/or space. The idea within the scope of architecture is to design with the “absence of space” and the perception of space allows one to see additional and transformative spaces within the home to utilize the maximum amount of space within these small dwellings. For example, “the traditional residential forms since antiquity nearly always feature the so-called engawa: a kind of veranda which could often be closed with amado, wooden folding or sliding shutters, transforming it into an interior space” (Small Houses: Contemporary Japanese Dwellings, Claudia Hildner).

Credit: Bri, AGD

Garden as a Part of Architecture

Japanese architecture has always recognized the importance of green space within their homes and gardens are almost always incorporated in some way into the home, even in vast urban areas.

Case Study: Ainokura Village, Gokayama, Nanto, Japan

One of the most interesting looks at traditional, ephemeral Japanese architecture is the gassho-zukuri homes located in a secluded mountain village of Ainokura. These vernacular homes utilize a tatami mat floor plan (a floor plan determined by the size and shape of tatami mats) and/or wood column spacing (often times, one influences the other), large roof made of locally harvested straw that are continually dried and replaced as the seasons change. Many homes also have a main hearth, an open pit used to cook dinner, keep the home warm and make tea. Ainokura has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been said to survive due to its incredibly secluded location.

Credit: Bri, AGD

There is a lot of Japanese architecture and Japanese residential architecture that could be translated into American architecture. There is a very romantic notion to housing and an inherent spirituality in its design. I have always been drawn to the Japanese ideals of beauty and ephemerality. The Japanese cultivation of fleeting moments and openness in design is something that I aspire to.

Written by Brianna Stelfox


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