Self Build Homes on Small Urban Plots: Book Review

self build homes on small urban plots

“The Japanese House Reinvented” by Philip Jodidio is the latest addition to our library of design books. It was the only book about self build homes on small urban plots that enticed me at the end of my visit to “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” exhibition at the Barbican. A must-see exhibition if self build homes or housing in general is of interest.  On my initial flick through, I thought the book had struck a good balance between beautiful architectural photography, plans and sections as well as text to explain the features a camera cannot reach. Too many architecture & design books include stunning photography but lack drawings or text to explain what is really going on beyond the one or two shots. All the houses included in the book have been designed by renowned Japanese architects and there is a theme of experimentation and inventiveness, especially in the projects built either in Tokyo or other dense urban cities in Japan. I wondered whether there were lessons to learn from how Japanese architects and their clients have optimised self build homes on small urban plots often acquired at a premium.

“No space, architecturally, is a space unless it has natural light.” Louis Khan

A quote taken from the book perhaps best sums up the importance of natural light in all the houses even when some can appear impenetrable from the outside. To maintain privacy in crowded urban areas, architects have used various methods that range from external walls with no openings to metal-mesh screens that restrict the gaze into interior spaces. By contrast, the interiors are open with very few partitions, sparsely furnished and filled with natural light. LDK, a space combining living, dining and kitchen, is common throughout the book taking up less space than if separated into different rooms. Many of the houses can be described as flows of continuous space through changing floor levels, stairs and mezzanines. Little separation exists along this continuous space opening up the possibility for different uses to overlap and as a result making the interiors of these self build homes on small urban plots seem more generous than they actually are.

The materiality of the houses shown in the book are expressed through the dichotomy of heavy and light. Concrete exerts the will to anchor the houses down to the earth whilst remaining undisturbed in the occurrence of an earthquake, which is common in Japan. Whilst some steel framed houses give the feeling of lightness or the readiness to float in the occurrence of a storm, which perhaps has connections to traditional Japanese architecture. The book’s introduction aptly titled “Houses at the Edge” provides the context by which to understand the design challenges and principles that have influenced contemporary Japanese houses. The influence of environmental conditions can also been seen in how houses sit on their individual plots of land where setbacks from neighbouring buildings are created so that houses do not share structural walls. Built into Japan’s building regulations, the gap between houses ensures that in the event of an earthquake, a chain reaction is minimised.

Internally, the interiors often combine white painted walls or grey concrete with light wood to provide some warmth. Whilst exteriors appear impenetrable from the outside, slit spaces (a space neither fully outside nor inside, skylights, openings at higher levels and screens allow light to penetrate inside. The connection with nature is achieved less through green vegetation but more through the movement of the sky, the sun, the clouds and the wind. The houses defy their small urban plots with their generous, light and airy interiors.

With much written and debated about the London housing crisis and the prohibitive costs of acquiring land, I think the inventive ways the architects featured in the book have designed self build homes on small urban plots in Tokyo and in other cities in Japan is worth taking note. As new models for building affordable homes in London become mainstream, such as building smaller finished units or building less in materials terms with unfinished units, lots of inspiration can be drawn from architecturally designed Japanese houses. Words like small and sparse could also sit alongside words like generous, light and airy when we describe these new models.

If you are planning a self build home on a small urban plot, I would say “The Japanese House Reinvented” is worth picking up for some inspiration.

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