The “Tiny house” is going mainstream. That was one of the main themes at Dwell on Design 2017, held in Los Angeles, CA in June 2017. For practical, financial, philosophical and/or aesthetic reasons, increasing numbers of people are embracing the idea of living small.
What would a “tiny house“ look like in Japan where people have long history of living small due to limited land availability? I visited MUJI’s model home for “木の家 (Wood House)” in Kohoku, Kanagawa (outskirts of Tokyo), Japan. You are able to design your own two-story “Wood house” that comes in floor areas of 880~1350 square feet. MUJI has been offering it since 2004, well before the “tiny house” became a global phenomenon. For MUJI, “living small” is not a fad: it is a natural result of their pursuit to help people design their own life style.
From the outside, you can see minimalist, mildly metallic envelopes finished with Galbarium steel, whose texture is highlighted by fine vertical straight lines. The house has an almost flat roof, deep eaves and tall windows that dominate the sunny side of the wall. As you will find out later, each design detail is carefully conceived to maximize the comfort and usefulness of limited space.
The typical MUJI house owner is a family of three or four – parents in their late 30’s or early 40’s, a child, and another little one considered or expected. But there are various types of owners – singles, couples, couples with kids, and/or their grandparents (and pets, of course). Each family has its unique way to design a life style leveraging 1000 square feet.
Although this article discusses the layout of the Kohoku Model home, it is not the only way you could design your life style with the MUJI house. Employing a “one room house” philosophy, it does not have interior walls that divide the floor into isolated rooms. It’s up to the owners to decide on how to allocate the entire space to various activities (such as living, dining or sleeping) by using loose partitions such as furniture. This flexibility allows owners to edit and re-edit the house as their needs change over time. This is not a house predefined and prescribed by house developers.
When you enter the house, first thing you see is “doma.” It is a small strip and a point of entry to the house, which is slightly lower than the rest of the floor. MUJI finishes it with hard concrete or tiles so as minimum cleaning is needed.
Japanese traditional house has had dirt version of “doma,” which literally means “dirt room.” It’s lower than the actual floor, allowing you to remove your shoes before entering the house proper. Therefore, it’s possible to do semi-outdoor activities in this area.
While people traditionally used the doma as a kitchen or for farming/crafting-related activities, the MUJI house’s smooth doma can be used to park outdoor gear such as bikes, surfboards, or strollers. It is almost like a garage, except that you would bring in important/frequently used items ONLY. Those could be the items that define your life which you want to keep close to you.
Next to the doma is a living room, which occupies about 1/3 of the first floor. It faces tall windows on one side. Due to its compact size, it almost looks like a TV area with a couch.
Next to the living room is a dining space which is connected to a kitchen. Because the MUJI house employs the “one room house” approach, living, dining and kitchen are all connected. Abundant sunlight comes in from tall windows that vertically extend to the second floor. And this is where deep eaves come into play: their depth is determined so that they can shield direct sunlight during summer. But in winter, they can allow mild warmth – coming from the low-hanging Sun – to travel through the middle of the room.
Additionally, the dining space has raised ceilings. Altogether, it gives you the sense of vertical openness, emphasized by fine straight lines embedded in pillars, windows and wooden slabs. Some of them are part of load-bearing structure.
MUJI offers a variety of highly-rated tableware, kitchenware, food products and appliances. When you see them all nested neatly in the kitchen area, you’d immediately feel what MUJI’s philosophy is all about.
As you may know, MUJI’s products, from small to big, are designed based on common metrics so that they can align when used together, which is what many MUJI enthusiasts do. One of the common metrics are “shaku,” a traditional/discontinued Japanese unit for length that corresponds to our “foot.” As is the case with the foot, which is based on the length of our feet to make measurement intuitive, shaku is based on our body size. Products designed based on shaku would naturally fit our body and our living environment.
From shelves, storage baskets, kitchen appliances, dishes, cutlery to soap dispensers, everything MUJI designs speaks a common language on “size.” MUJI does not make a careless assumption that “bigger the better.” In order to offer products that resonate with our body and senses, MUJI pursue the “right size,” (and also the “right amount”) which is the size that can be harmonized with our body – hands, mouths, feet, weight and/or height.
Following the same concept, the stainless steel sink/counter unit comes in a decent size and is strikingly simple. It eliminates any frills or excessive design. The stove top is all-electric, partly to minimize the diffusion of odors and oil to the upper level. (Remember, there are no ceilings to separate kitchen/dining area from the second floor)
Basic functions that require water – the kitchen, bathroom and laundry space – are nested together in one corner of the first floor. The bathroom is right next to the kitchen. You may find this bathroom interesting: Japanese are determined to prioritize the bathtub even when the space is quite limited! They love soaking in hot water so much (well it rains a lot and is humid/sweaty, so why not).
In order to maximize the joy of soaking in a limited space, MUJI tweaks the so-called “unit bath” system. The unit bath is a cost-efficient package geared towards large-scale production. It combines a tub, a shower and washing area, mainly using enhanced plastic. It’s been widely used in apartment complexes with limited spaces as a compact and easy solution.
MUJI has made it strikingly white and eliminated any excess frills, and added some advanced functionalities instead. For example, the tub is good at keeping water warm and the shower head is water-efficient.
The laundry room is a compact area next to the bathroom. It comes with a small washing machine and a sink, and looks pretty bare. But this is the place that can become pretty messy in real life, so decluttering can start here: what is the right amount of clothes and other fabric products you could possibly process here without overwhelming the capacity? You couldn’t expect a lot. Own only what you can process.
This is a “one room house.” There are no ceilings that completely separate the first floor from the second. Instead, the two floors are connected by a staircase which also functions as an effective accent to the entire presentation. As you could tell from the images, the “Wood House” is defined by fine straight lines that climb up vertically. Then the staircase provides short horizontal lines in the middle of the house: it stratifies the entire space and makes it feel less monotonous and more vivid.
The staircase leads to the second floor – or a nice, extended loft – that surrounds the passageways that occupy the center of the floor.
The master bedroom is right above the living room. This is probably the most “private” area, half shielded by partitions, and made partially inaccessible by passageways.
This room will most likely be occupied by the parents. It has a decent-sized double bed, a sofa and a table. (Just so as you know, the bed and the sofa used in the Kohoku model home were designed by Naoto Fukasawa. The furniture helps establish a tranquil atmosphere while adding much-needed versatility to maximize the usefulness in limited space. For example, the bed has a headboard angled just right to read books, as if you are sitting in a chair.)
The master bedroom has a good-sized closet that looks neat and tidy. Actually, it felt larger than its real size. Here again, since every MUJI product is designed based on the same scale, things in the closet sit next to each other in harmony. When you live in a tiny house, it becomes critical as to which products to choose and buy, and how to store them. You are obliged to make a series of conscious choices so as you don’t overwhelm the place with stuff. But it could be a daunting task: none of us learn how to do that. With the MUJI house, you would be letting out a big sigh of relief because the design of the storage space and storage methods are packaged together with the house itself. You are already ahead in the game of the fight against clutter! You now can focus on the advantage of small living, rather than suffering from its disadvantages.
A small study room sits above the bath/laundry room. It is tiny, but full of light (there are two windows in this model home). Book shelves are used to partition this pace from the second bedroom.
The second bedroom could be used by children when furnished with a small single bed (or two), especially since it is next to the study room. (The closet is placed against the book self in the study room to function as room dividers.) This room is also connected to a small balcony.
A bathroom sits in between the study room/second bedroom and master bedroom, functioning as an implicit divider. An interesting aspect of this room is that there is no head jamb above the door.
Almost all doors we know are defined by three frame members: two side jambs and one horizontal head jamb. And above the head jamb is a small space – wall-space leftover – that sits in between the door and the ceiling. According to MUJI, the same space could look much more open and expansive if we can eliminate this small piece.
One of the characteristics of the MUJI wood house is the fact – despite its smallness of only about 1000 square feet – that there are multiple points of view: high, eye-level, and low, both when you are on the first floor or second floor. Amazingly, it helps stratify the sense of space: you feel substantially less stress coming from the smallness of the living area. It reminds me of the “NA House” designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto.
The NA House is a hotly-talked small house built in Tokyo, whose walls are almost exclusively made of glass (yes, transparent glass). But you can secure your privacy pretty easily, says Fujimoto. And the key is the “active” floors: they are a series of small floors that come in slightly different levels. Connected together, they form a vibrant environment that almost looks like you have a variety of tree houses inside your house. As is the case with the MUJI house, stairs play pivotal rules in the NA House to give you different view levels.
The idea of having multiple points of view could come up against the question of how to design a barrier-free house. But still, it is an idea worth exploring because it has significant potential to invigorate a tiny house.
In this small house, windows play critical roles. They are the gateways through which the house is subtly connected to the surrounding environment. The MUJI house does not draw impermeable boundaries between inside and outside. Instead, it uses windows as a device to “keep the family posted” about what’s going on outside.
In order to do that, MUJI uses high-insulating triple-layered windows. They are good at cutting off unwanted heat/radiation in the summer, but also very effective at conserving warmth in the winter. Without this level of efficiency, tall, wall-wide windows would have made the indoor temperature either too hot or too cold to live comfortably.
Windows are carefully placed throughout the house to incorporate the outside landscape as part of the background for living, to maximize the joy of natural light and warmth, and to give sense of openness.
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