In the U. S., too often we focus on size when evaluating the dwellings we inhabit. Whether downsizing or upsizing, we regularly conceptualize homes in terms of price per square foot, thus linking size with the livability of a given location. How else could we compare dwellings in areas as varied as downtown San Francisco and suburban Atlanta? Yet in Japan, where kyosho jutaku, or micro-dwellings, are built on lots only slightly larger than a typical parking space, it’s less about their size and more about the quality of the spaces they provide. According to Japanese architect Denso Sugiura, comfortable spaces are those in which a person is “surrounded by their favorite things and can feel nature appeal to their human senses — it is not simply about the size of the space.”
Through interviews and tours of small housing projects in Tokyo, I witnessed the role micro-sized spaces play in enriching the lives of people in the world’s most populous urban area. While it’s easy to assume such a complex, dense city environment would result in cramped and uncomfortable conditions, Tokyo architects are leading the way in creating innovative, small dwellings which carefully attend to the ways people live. As urban areas like Seattle continue to grapple with increased population and density, there is much to learn from Tokyo’s micro-sized dwellings.
A variety of sociocultural and geographic factors account for the prevalence of innovative and small dwellings in Tokyo. Declining birth rates reduce the necessity for larger homes, diverse lifestyles require individualized houses, and families increasingly inhabit the city to reduce commute times. Small lots, irregularly shaped from continual subdivision, are readily purchased by those who desire an urban lifestyle and embraced by architects as challenging opportunities to generate and test new ideas.
As architect Kengo Kuma says, “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.” When designing these small urban homes, innovative strategies that address space constraints often provide catalysts for project concepts, informing the designs of entire structures. For instance, when designing the R · torso · C house, architect Yasuhiro Yamashita of Atelier Tekuto addressed a site’s space limitations by building upwards and carving away building corners. Both design moves not only provided a more expansive interior feel but also formed a strong connection with the sky and nature. The result was a house designed to meet all the needs of its future residents on a lot of under 60 square meters.
Rather than desiring bigger homes with more amenities, Tokyo residents view such excesses as burdens to their urban lifestyles. Accordingly, Japanese architects use a minimalist approach, focusing on absolute necessities while subtracting noncritical elements. Makoto Koizumi describes this as the careful addition of essential materials and functions to create a form that is “just enough.” Similarly, Denso Sugiura employs his principle of omission to expand the feel of a space by removing nonessential sections of wall and floor.
Since people engage with more architectural elements when maneuvering through small spaces, when designing kyosho jutaku, Japanese architects greatly consider the human scale. This manifests in high levels of craft and detail. For example, within the R · torso · C house, Yamashita closely attended to the form and materials of door handles as well as how floor transitions feel to the naked foot, emphasizing the importance of how architectural components engage with the body.
Multifunctionality and a relationship with nature also play major roles in the livability of small Japanese dwellings. In traditional Japanese-style rooms, tatami mats cover the floor and create multipurpose spaces for living and sleeping. Building on this cultural heritage, contemporary architects design spaces to perform several different functions, often with a focus on connecting inhabitants with nature. For instance, for one home Sugiura designed a structure’s entrance to also serve as a garden. Even on lots of less than 50 square meters, architects bring light, air and an association with the outside world into these spaces.
By embracing minimalism, considering the human scale, emphasizing multifunctionality, and connecting with nature, innovative dwellings in Tokyo create a level of comfort and spaciousness unquantifiable by square feet. Rather than focusing on the negatives of small spaces, many in Tokyo embrace the idea of living in kyosho jutaku because they provide “just enough.” Well designed spaces include areas for inhabitants to engage in their desired activities, and this, not size alone, leads to comfort.
Small, kyosho jutaku–like dwellings could be just the thing for US cities grappling with growth if we can recognize the design potential of small dwellings. Living small can be a positive experience that provides greater access to urban, amenity rich environments if we embrace it.