New architecture book explores nuances of eco living in Japanese design

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 5:22pm

Japanese houses seem to have a close connection with nature. Yet when architecture historian Deanna MacDonald was researching for her book on sustainable design in Japan, she found homes to profile surprisingly hard to locate.

“There’s lip service paid, but scratch the surface and it’s just as unsustainable as any other type of building,” says the Canadian academic, now living in Tokyo. Her book, Eco Living in Japan (Tuttle Publishing) – inspired by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami - focuses on architects in Japan “who are doing seriously sustainable work”.

“I was looking for people really trying to make a difference – not just [designing] another wow building, but homes that still have wow, but substance to as well,” said MacDonald.

Architect Kengo Kuma (of Kengo Kuma and Associates) gets a guernsey for his approach to combining the traditions of sustainable architecture, in a contemporary way. For his Meme Meadows project in Hokkaido – a climate known for its icy winters – Kuma reworked the native Ainu people’s technique of using thick layers of soil and dried grass as thermal insulation in their homes, and a central fire pit that radiated heat. Writes the author: “By mixing hi-tech materials and traditional know-how, [the architect] was able to produce an energy-efficient contemporary Ainu chise [house] that would not look out of place on the cover of a design magazine”.

Miwa Mori, an architect with Key Architects, created an impression by bringing ideas of passive design from her studies in Germany. “She has been a kind of one-woman force in the Japanese market,” says MacDonald. Mori makes houses that are fully insulated, and use the passive properties of nature - which MacDonald says “sounds quite logical but oddly, most Japanese houses do not do this”.

Established architect Edward Suzuki (Edward Suzuki Associates) is featured for his House of Maple Leaves in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. Suzuki follows the notion of “borrowing space” from the surrounding landscape to enlarge and enrich a compact living environment. “There is a wealth of design vocabulary from the past that we could learn from and apply in modern design,” says Suzuki.

“Borrowing” the landscape to achieve a sustainable, healthy and comfortable home is doable even in a crowded city, he said. “Even a pocket garden of 1 square metre can bring in natural light and breezes, while pleasing the soul.”

American architect James Lambiasi (Lambiasi + Hayashi Architects) did have space – and budget – constraints on his Mini Step House, a 120 square metre family home in Ibaraki Prefecture. “Although space was limited, the owners wanted to create a feeling of openness,” said Lambiasi. The interior is laid out as a series of four floor planes connected by mini steps, each space leading to the next. The sustainability elements, says the architect, are in the home’s southerly orientation (enabling passive energy savings), and in its principles of mottainai, a Japanese term meaning it is a shame to be wasteful.

Not all of the homes featured are new builds. Chapter 4 is devoted to people saving and reusing older houses, resisting Japan’s “scrap and build” habit where houses have a lifespan of only about 30 years.

“There were some absolutely gorgeous houses I looked at but in the end had to reject - because they were not built to last,” she explained.

Typically, as a property is passed down through a family, each generation pulls the house down and builds anew. Kazuiuki Igawa (Igawa Architects) is showcased for turning a ramshackle farmhouse in Ibaraki Prefecture into an elegant modern residence.

“Igawa is one of the more inspiring people I met – passionate about saving traditional architecture, and keeping some of the historic built environment through reuse and recycling,” MacDonald said.

A chapter dedicated to Japanese-inspired architecture elsewhere in the world includes The A1 House in Prague, home and studio of two young Czech architects, Lenka Kremenova and David Ma. After studying the work of celebrated Japanese architect/historian Terunobu Fujimori, renowned for his whimsical teahouses, the couple returned to reinterpret the genre’s inherent qualities – rustic simplicity and frugal elegance – in a 200-year-old European house achieving, in the author’s words, “a sort of modern, Bohemian wabi sabi style”.

Kremenova says the principle of Japanese architecture – the closeness of nature and dwelling - was not recognised in the West until the 20th century. Now, it is regarded as a very contemporary way of living. “These concepts are perfectly applicable when architects respect the local context and nature. It is universal, just the character of the landscape shape of the house differs.”