In the previous article, I identified “small,” “agile,” ”mobile,” and ”temporary” as key aesthetics in next generation architecture.  It is a stark contrast from our current belief that a building or a house could be better when it’s bigger, sturdier and capable of housing more functions and more stuff in it.  For various reasons, those conventional values are losing their appeal to many people, especially to millennials.

Image courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku

And here comes a drama-free, minimalist “hut” offered by MUJI, which is “small,” “agile,” ”mobile,” and ”temporary”.  Coming in at barely 100 square feet and at 3,000,000 Yen (about $30,000 – unfortunately available only in Japan), it is conceived as a temporary dwelling that could be positioned between your daily life and your vacation, or between your permanent residence, such as home or vacation home, and a third-party accommodation you could use when you are traveling.

Because it’s so tiny, simple and minimalist, this hut can be placed pretty much anywhere you’d want (as long as you are abiding by all requirements, just to be sure!). And it quickly dissolves into the environment.

MUJI Hut may have gotten inspiration from “shakkei (借景),” a Japanese traditional landscaping technique.  Meaning “background borrowing,” shakkei incorporates the beauty of the surrounding nature as part of the architecture: Image courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku

This is in sync with the global trend of minimalist and tiny house.  But why did MUJI want to design a hut at this point in time?

“Young people today may want a hut, rather than a car,” says Naoko Yano, project manager of MUJI Hut.

Studies suggest that millennials want to invest more on experiences, rather than on “stuff.”  They are already shifting their focus from buying large fixed assets such as houses and cars.  Now that it’s much easier to work remotely, thanks to advanced mobile technology, they see even less of an incentive to invest a lot of money on their permanent residence, which is becoming increasingly (often prohibitively) expensive, in urban areas.

With emerging offerings such as MUJI Hut, you can split your investments between your permanent and temporary residences.  Because you can work remotely, you may be able alternate where you live, while securing your job.  You no longer have to retire to relax in a natural environment, escaping from the crazy busy urban life style.  This kind of flexibility, mobility or agility could be the definition of the next generation “rich life.”  Rather than showing off luxurious properties in nice neighborhoods, the next generation trend setters may be going nomadic, using permanent and temporary accommodation sensibly.

Image courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku

Design becomes critical for a tiny house, which needs to provide comfort AND dissolve beautifully into the surroundings.  It needs to eliminate any excesses or frills carefully, and leave essential elements only.  So which elements did MUJI leave?  There are a couple of unique details in the MUJI Hut that originated from a traditional Japanese house.

Engawa is a hallway that connects the inside of the house and the surroundings, naturally and seamlessly.  Traditional Japanese houses do not have fixed and sturdy walls all around them.  Instead they have “inner partitions,” or shoji, which consist of a translucent paper over a frame of wood, and “outer walls,” or amado (storm shutters), which are sliding wooden doors.  In between shoji and amado sits the engawa, a strip of wooden floor.  During the daytime, both shoji and amado could be left open to directly connect the inside and outside.  Engawa, covered by extended eaves, is a buffer zone between the inside and outside, which can be used for multiple activities, such as to chat with neighbors, do small chores, read books, sip a cup of tea, watch kids playing outside, or just relax. (Oh, and cats love taking a nap on a sunny engawa.) MUJI Hut has a nice engawa, which will serve for various purposes in a natural setting.

Doma

Doma means “dirt room.”  A traditional Japanese house uses a raised floor, and the doma is located right after the entrance, at the ground level, before the raised area. Back in the old days, the doma was used as a kitchen or a workshop.  Since the floor was dirt and was one level lower than the raised area, it was okay to get messy in the doma.  MUJI Hut leaves a bare mortar floor, just like the doma. It will become handy when a hut is placed by the beach, or if you want to be involved in messy activities.  Of course you have an option to cover the floor with rugs etc, like shown in the picture.

The exterior of the hut is finished with sho sugi ban, which has been trending lately.  It is a traditional technique to burn the surface of cedar wood, to add strength, resilience and unique texture.  It is believed that people were already using sho sugi ban to make ships in the Middle Ages.  It was then adapted to house walls, and was practiced in Western part of Japan.  While it has almost been forgotten in modern society, it’s making a surprising comeback at a global scale.  MUJI Hut uses sho sugi ban (it’s actually called “yaki sugi” in Japanese) with an oil stain finish.

There’s another interesting story about MUJI Hut. The first batch of its offerings, which will be ready by Fall 2017, and will be located at Shirahama Kosha, in Shirahama, Chiba.

Shirahama is a small beach town on the coast facing the vast Pacific Ocean, which is loved by surfers.  It is about 2 hours from Tokyo.  Although it’s rich in natural endowments, local communities are suffering from a shrinking and aging population.  Like many other Japanese, or any rural town in many parts of the world that couldn’t win global competition of efficiency, Shirahama is declining because it failed to attract large-scale industrial, commercial or agricultural investments. Younger generations cannot stay because there are not enough jobs.

But it does not mean that Shirahama has nothing to offer.  Actually it’s the opposite: its proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area and its abundant nature are very valuable – at least the people who are making efforts to revitalize Shirahama believe so.

The reason why MUJI Hut’s location is called “Shirahama Kosha” is because it’s part of the property of an old elementary school, which had to shut down when there were no longer enough kids attending school.  The closing of a school is painful for local communities, both emotionally and financially, because kids are always their hope and future, and also because a large property like a school costs substantially even more after it’s closed – keep it or demolish it.

So, the local government solicited proposals to transform the closed school into an enterprise as part of the revitalization project, and the venture company called WOULD has won the bid.  WOULD, founded by an entrepreneur Tomoaki Tada, who moved to Shirahama seven years ago, is currently renovating the school properties (literally old classrooms, baseball field etc.) into a farm house with guest rooms, rental offices and a café.  Their ambition is to expand it to a full-fledged “aurberge” (restaurant with accommodations). It will be run entirely by the local community, which will also grow harvest and process food and drinks served at the aurberge.

The first batch of MUJI huts will be built on the field of the Shirahama School House.

The role MUJI is playing for Shirahama Kosha and the local community will be invaluable: it will provide much-needed advertisement through the powerful MUJI channel.  It will bring in groups of people (as MUJI Hut owners or visitors) from urban areas who appreciate the abundance brought about by a decentralized, localized, nature-appreciating and hand-made hospitality, which seems to align very well with MUJI’s philosophy.

MUJI – Shirahama Kosha project is much like other emerging projects, such as MUJI’s Tanada Terrace Office, AirBnb’s Yoshino Ceder House, or even Zappos’ Downtown Las Vegas revitalizing project, which aim to revitalize rural/declining areas through the direct collaboration of businesses and local communities.

While each project is unique, they all try to reinvigorate distressed communities in an unconventional way.  They won’t pursue the traditional “revitalization” approach, which is to invite investments to build (or re-build) industrial or commercial centers.  Then how much investment would it require to make them shine again in the market of economic efficiency, which has already labeled them as “inefficient?” It sounds daunting.  What will such an investments’ ROI be?

The projects like MUJI – Shirahama Kosha does not resort to economic efficiency to advertise the value of local communities.  Instead they re-discover their long-standing, unique values such as the power of traditional heritage, local culture, the beauty of nature and the people who have been working directly with nature for years and years.  None of those values have to do with efficiency, and that’s exactly why they couldn’t shine in a market that judges everything based on efficiency. But of course it’s not their fault. It’s just that the markets failed to recognize their unique values.

So, the future auberge run bay Shirahama Kosha will not be attracting visitors because it’s a good deal: price competitiveness or functional efficiency won’t be what they will be selling. Instead it may become a center for visitors and local people to mingle, enjoy carefully grown, sensible food and drinks together, and co-learn about agriculture, cuisine, wine making and local culture.

And there is another reason why tiny houses, like MUJI Hut, really comes in handy. When rural, distressed communities are only two hours away from urban areas where you work, you can acquire your second house in such communities, and become part of a new revitalization process, enjoying nature, hidden local treasures and new experiences.  Mobility and agility of the MUJI Hut can open up new opportunities and purposes to your life.