Muji makes room for style in award-winning Vertical House

The energy-efficient three-storey homes cost HK$1.5m and take three months to assemble

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2014, 7:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2014, 7:26am

Tokyo residents have long responded to the city's notoriously expensive real estate with ultra-compact homes that maximise every inch of space. Until recently, however, these efforts often sacrificed style and design in order to provide functionality and efficiency.

That is until Japanese retailer Muji turned its eye to designing urban homes as covetable as its famously minimalist household products.

"Muji already has more than 7,000 products that we use in our daily life. We thought we needed a house as a container of our life," says Mamori Honda, who leads Muji House's in-house design team.

The separate division, set up in 2000 to focus on architecture, initially offered two models of prefabricated houses - Window House, designed by Kengo Kuma and Wooden House by Kazuhiko Namba. More than 1,000 have already been built in Japan.

The most recent model, Vertical House, unveiled this year, was created specifically to offer style-conscious urbanites in Tokyo modern accommodation in the capital's torturously narrow plots of land, which can be as small as 30 square metres.

"On narrow sites like we find in Tokyo, we had to consider how our home makes our life rich. That answer is a split-level layout that gives us a sense of a light, airy, large space," says Honda.

The three-storey home, which costs 23 million yen (HK$1.5 million) and takes three months to assemble, encapsulates the company's trademark focus on simplicity.

An inventive layout avoids partitions like walls, ceilings and doors, using a central open staircase to provide access to each split-level floor while flooding the interiors with sunlight and maximising ventilation across all three levels. The lack of partitions offers a clear field of vision through the structure, adding to the sense of space.

The energy-efficient design incorporates double-rooftop insulation and a high performance wood fibre-insulated facade that aids sound absorption. There is just one air conditioner in the whole house, on the top floor, designed for the bedrooms. Windows throughout feature a honeycomb screen that creates an insulating double layer of air.

The ground-floor front door of the 3.185-metre wide house, with total floor area of 108.46 sq metres, opens on to an entrance, complete with a compact utility and storage space, along with a bathroom.

The next floor houses the dining room (large enough for a table seating four) and living room complete with large window that reinforces the impression of a larger bright space.

The Vertical House design, developed in collaboration with the Tohoku University of Arts and Design, pays particularly close attention to integrating and connecting the internal environment, placing storage, related functions and programmes close to each other. Even the centrally located stair hall accommodates shelving.

A combination of soft white and cedar wood walls and floors throughout adds to the airy feeling. Decor is kept to a minimum, with sliding doors and window screens and blinds instead of bulky curtains.

Storage is Muji's speciality and it is showcased in the bedrooms and kitchen with simple white cupboards and shelving.

The success of the house owes much to Muji's philosophy of kanketsu (simplicity). The company was founded in the 1980s supplying products for Japan's Seiyu supermarket chain but emerged in the 1990s at the forefront of the trend towards natural and simple lifestyle designs that conserve resources and reduce waste.

A key factor in transferring this trend to living quarters is incorporating flexibility for residents to adapt the space to meet their individual requirements. Although the Vertical House is prefabricated, with a simple vertical facade clad with natural cedar wood boards, the interiors may be adapted with a combination of partitions and furniture to create a distinctive personal aesthetic. The placement and sizing of windows may also be fine-tuned according to orientation and land conditions to capture sunlight, while a rooftop skylight is available as an extra.

The house design recently received the ultimate stamp of approval in Japan, having won the country's Good Design Award "Best 100" 2014. This year, all entries, from products to architecture, were evaluated in terms of how well they achieved kokochi, or a sense of comfort that looks beyond physical elements and usefulness to include the quality of interaction with the object or product.

"Muji Vertical House stood out … especially when it came to a sense of comfort," says architect and Waseda University professor Nobuaki Furuya, who led the team evaluating housing, living space and construction method entries. "It was the balance between flexibility and functionality while still retaining a sense of identity even while being a mass product."