IKEA’s “Better Shelter” has been awarded the Beazley Design of the Year award, presented by the Design Museum in London. It was designed to support millions of refugees living under poor conditions. It shares a lot in common with the Pritzker Award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s “Open house with condensed core” exhibited at House Vision 2016.

Open house with condensed core designed by Shigeru Ban and LIXIL, exhibited at House Vision 2016. Its minimalist structure and smallness stands out.

Both stand out in their simple, yet beautiful structures.  And that minimalist structure is the result of hands-on efforts to provide maximum comfort from minimal resources for people who tragically lost their sweet home.

Much like Better Shelter, which has been deployed under partnership with UNCHR (UN Refugee Agency), Ban has worked with UNCHR to provide shelters for refugees in Rwanda in the 90’s.  Ever since, he has been working extensively to provide shelters to displaced people, mostly in regions hit hard by natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. (Read more about Ban’s tireless efforts to provide disaster victims with comfortable shelters)

Although the issue of refugees sounds like a crisis happening far away, the risk of losing your home is starting to loom all of us, including those who do not live in politically unstable areas.

Aftermath of  M9 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami that hit northern Japan on 3.11.2011. It was a wake-up call for many Japanese to re-think “living” and housing.

The tectonic plates are becoming very active.  Large earthquakes keep rattling various areas of the world.  The climate is changing.   Extreme weather such as floods, landslides and wildfires are washing away and burning down many homes, and are intensifying.  In addition to that, the global population keeps growing exponentially, inviting increased conflicts over limited resources.  There are more people on Earth, which is becoming increasingly volatile.  Temporary housing and shelters will only increase its importance.

Architects work in-between the threats posed by nature and humans. They may be the first ones to sense intensifying risks, and Better Shelter and Ban’s works might be the materialization of their keen sensitivities towards such risks.

Our house is considered one of the largest economic investments for us.  We spend 5 or 6 times of our annual salary, and tend to think it’s the money we must forego.  But exactly because we spend so much money for something that’s fixed on land with a rigid structure and hard walls, we become stuck with it.  It’s not something we can edit flexibly, or something that can cope with emergencies resiliently.  Soon, disadvantages caused by that rigidness of our sweet home may start exceeding the benefits achieved by its stability.  Things are starting to look uncertain.

So when Ban imagined the “future of living” for House Vision 2016, one of his priorities was to free a house from such disadvantages, while maintaining comfort, functionalities and aesthetics.

Some of his vision for future house:

  1. Easy to build
  2. Low-cost
  3. Flexibility, editability and agility

 “Open house with condensed core” at the exhibition was built to accommodate two people, and is about 500 square feet.  It’s tiny.  He believes it could be built for as low as $50,000, because it applies some revolutionary ideas.  First, it bundles water-related activities (bathroom and kitchen) as a “core” of living.   This core system has been developed by LIXIL, a leading housing solution provider in Japan.  The bundle can sit anywhere in the house because the water pipes are installed in the attic.  This is game-changing because water pipes are now free from the structure.  At any point of construction (even after construction), the bundles can be installed anywhere the owner would like.

A bit like MUJI house,  Ban’s house consists of a skeleton and infill.  There are no partitions.  Ban received some inspiration from the iconic Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to site “core” unit.   With Farnsworth House, a minimalist rectangular house, Mies van der Rohe placed his “core” units slightly off from the center.  This “slightly off” is very important aesthetically, says Ban, because it creates spaces with different focuses and different purposes without explicit partitions.  Ban hoped that the owners of “open house with condensed core” would be able to choose their own spacing based on their needs.

The outlook is also very unique. This house puts clothes on.  After the structure is built, sturdy but flexible plastic fabric with zippers will cover the house.  The cover could be changed once in a while.  The framework is rows of slabs made of paper tubes sandwiched by plywood.  Very simple structure and easy to build.  It takes only two days to build this house, says Ban.

These features make this house really agile.  It does not require complicated techniques.  It does not require skilled builders.  It does not require a lot of money.  It can be built anywhere.  Actually, some of the units were scheduled to be used by the victims of Kumamoto Earthquake, a M 6.5 disaster that hit the southern part of Japan in April 2016.  Having worked for many disaster relief programs,  he never misses the opportunity to help displaced people with agile yet comfortable and beautiful houses.

While it seeks a minimalist approach for many elements, this house’s culmination is the device that connects the inside with the outside: a window.  It is thick, heavy glass that occupies one entire side of the wall.  It is controlled electrically and opens up and slides smoothly. When it’s nice outside, you can remove the entire wall, get on the terrace and enjoy a nice breeze.  (It can slide off  to the side wall, if needed)

Ban’s tiny and minimalist house does not try to address every single need that each owner may have.  Instead, it offers flexibility and editability, and places great emphasis on the windows.  Windows work as a device to connect an otherwise tiny house to the vast world by dissolving the boundaries of the house.  Ban’s “open house” shows us that smallness does not mean limited potential; actually it’s the opposite when we can take advantage of its agility.  Having worked in various parts of the world, Ban understands that living conditions are not good, and are even worsening in many areas. He believes that housing industry has to change to cope with the reality.  For example, we could develop manufacturing centers for tiny, agile houses in developing countries to address local housing needs.  And once emergency occurs, the units could be exported to serve as temporary shelters.

Yes a tiny house is hot now, and there are so many good reason to go for it.  Future house could be something that can be moved and deployed quickly, to deliver comfort to many people living in an increasingly volatile world.  Smallness and agility are the key.

Reference:     http://archiscape.lixil.co.jp/feature/vol19/