Japan: Micro-Homes in the Big City

Houses designed to fit on postage-stamp-sized plots offer Japanese an affordable way to live in bustling, crowded, and hugely expensive downtown areas

Small has always been beautiful in Japan, whether you think of the mini-component audio systems the country pioneered in the 1970s, its cultural love affair with miniaturized potted plants known as bonsai, or the current rage for small-engine mini-cars. Now you can add to the list the current home-design craze: ultra-compact micro-homes on plots so small they could fit into the garage space of your typical, sprawling McMansion in the U.S.

Living small is in, especially among younger Japanese with modest budgets who no longer want to cope with the grueling commutes by train from far-off suburbs outside Tokyo as their parents did. Demand for ultra-compact homes, known as kyo-sho-jutaku in Japanese, is likely a small portion right now of the $1.2 billion Japanese currently spend on homes designed by architects.

Staying Close to Top Schools

But architects, home design magazines, and even some major Japanese companies are starting to take notice of the trend. It is being driven by the surprising fact that, despite Japan's already astronomical (by international standards) land prices, the four prefectures that comprise the Tokyo metropolitan area are among the fastest-growing nationally.

Suitable land for housing in Tokyo is incredibly scarce, however. So some families are hiring architects to build the tiniest homes imaginable to live closer to the cultural amenities and excellent school systems available in Tokyo. "Recently, an increasing number of people, especially in their 30s and early 40s, desire to live in central Tokyo," says Shigeru Kimura, an independent real estate agent who specializes in micro-homes. "And more people are thinking of how to live on a small plot of land."

Others are already based in Tokyo, clinging to a tiny patch of land, and want to replace decades-old wooden homes with new ones, but for the lowest cost possible. Take the case of Mayumi Takayanagi, an electronics company engineer who had lived with her parents for about 30 years in a two-story wooden house in the central Tokyo district of Sumida.

"This Was the Tiniest"

The thought of leaving her lively and thriving downtown neighborhood with her parents for cheaper and far more spacious housing in the soulless, strip-mall-festooned outlying suburbs of Tokyo just wasn't an option. So she turned to architect Satoshi Kurosaki, 36, to design a new home for no more than $170,000 on a plot that measured only 32 square meters (or 344 sq. ft.). "I'd worked on compact houses before, but this was the tiniest," says Kurosaki.

It wasn't easy but he came up with a design for a three-level home, constructed with light-gauge steel, that was finished in 2004. It features a simple but sturdy spiral staircase that runs up the center of the home and has no dead space. Kurosaki managed to free up enough room to design a living space for Takayanagi's father on the ground floor and a living room, kitchen, and bedroom on the second for her mother. The top floor is where she sleeps, and there is access to a wood deck.

Kurosaki also designed this tiny structure with big windows on the front of the home to maximize sunlight exposure. Make no mistake: The home is incredibly narrow and would seem claustrophobic to some. But for Takayanagi, the new digs are just fine. "We get sunshine all the time, which is great," she says.

Catering to the Trend

Kurosaki used to work for Japan's biggest homebuilder, Sekisui House, and started catering to the "living small" crowd back in the late 1990s. One of his first compact homes involved building an abode on a 249 sq. ft. site that was basically a large parking space in Tokyo's central Jimbocho neighborhood. A 27-year-old woman had inherited the small patch of land, and Kurosaki managed to design a five-story home on the site. These days he gets about 50 inquiries a year, mostly from younger couples looking for new homes to sit on small parcels of land.

Other home design firms and even some major Japanese companies are starting to take notice of the less-is-more trend in the Japanese housing market. A Japanese factory automation equipment maker called SUS has developed aluminum, cube-like frames called tsubomi that can be arranged into stand-alone homes or used as attachments to existing houses. A 27 cubic meter (952 cu. ft.) attachment costs $17,000 and can be assembled in a single day.

Yamaha, the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments, for the last two years has been selling soundproof rooms that can fit into existing homes or be added to an abode's exterior. The standard-size unit (1.4 meters wide, 1.8 meters in depth, 2 meters high) goes for $3,700.

Design for Irregular Lots

Yasuyuki Okazaki is founder of Tokyo-based Commdesign, which sells custom-designed homes over the Internet that can work on tiny plots of land measuring about 320 sq. ft. "Hitherto, a house designed by architects was up-market" and expensive, he says. He and his team of architects have also designed slightly larger homes for oddly shaped strips of land, not unusual in land-scarce Tokyo.

One home design is called unagi (as in "eel") that works on long but narrow strips of land. Another is called kado (or "corner") for a triangular and small plot. The price of Commdesign homes ranges from $171,000 to $214,000. (Those who need to buy land, however, will need to spend two or even three times as much above the cost of home construction.)

Securing affordable housing likely will remain a colossal headache in Tokyo, but micro-homes are an option for those willing to sacrifice space for the convenience and amenities of city life. "Compact houses can meet people's fundamental living needs," says architect Kurosaki. It may not be for everyone, but plenty of younger Japanese seem to be warming up to the idea.

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