A Piece of Home

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By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
Made of hardy Scottish materials and holding a Japanese heart, this Edinburgh house shows that two architects from disparate cultures can design a home that bridges the gap.

"Japanese on the inside and Scottish on the outside" is how architect Kieran Gaffney describes the house that he and his wife and business partner, Makiko Konishi, built for themselves and their three kids in a quiet corner of Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s an apt description: The building’s shape and materials are the sort you find in a modernist residence in the UK, but it’s the unfussy, Japanese interior that reveals a design tailored to this multicultural family.

"I suppose that’s the problem with Japan seen from the outside," says Gaffney, a Scot, of the nation from which Konishi hails and where their family lived from 2004 to 2007. "To the outside world a Japanese restaurant is just a sushi restaurant." According to him, the same goes for houses. "There is also a stereotype of what a Japanese house or a Japanese garden looks like. But we wanted to make a kind of daily-life, down-to-earth house." No sign here of the shoji screens or meticulously tended bonsai trees that so often suggest Japanese living. Instead, the couple mined the designs of humble, Japanese country homes for details that would afford them the cozy, distinct lifestyle they once had in a small town near the city of Sendai. 

Lots of contemporary architecture takes technology as both an aesthetic and systematic starting point, but the brand of Japanese design that spoke most to Konishi was old-fashioned, and often overlooked. "I’d been living in England for about seven years before going back to Japan," she says. "Leaving Japan and then coming back, I started to appreciate traditional Japanese design."

The home was the first project of their nascent firm, and the couple started working on it while still living in Japan. Once they’d settled on a lot—on an alley behind Gaffney’s cousin’s house—they began to tie a host of architectural ideas to a proper site.

Drawing simultaneously on their time working in the London office of architect Thomas Heatherwick (where they met) and their treasured days spent soaking up the rural life in the Japanese countryside with friends, Konishi and Gaffney created a series of unpretentious spaces that perfectly fit the homey rhythms of their family life.

Local materials, clean lines, and a few dramatic—at least to Western eyes—gestures dominate the house. A low table sunk into the polished concrete floor—building regulators talked them out of the tamped-earth floor they wanted—and a charred wooden post are the main design elements of the living room. A tatami room with a skylight for moon gazing is the biggest statement upstairs.

Now, after a few years of living back in Scotland, the family still finds the traditions they built into their home as nourishing as ever. Granted, lazing in the home’s tatami room may be quickly followed by a mad dash to the soccer pitch, but as a study in cross-cultural design, this house is a perfect fit. "We spend tons of time here at home," Gaffney says, "and in a way I think that the space itself helps Makiko feel less homesick." For this family of modernists, a bit of tradition was the only way to go.

A Piece of Home - Photo 3 of 22 - The back of the house has sliding doors that open far enough to expose the entire livingroom to the families' back yard.

The back of the house has sliding doors that open far enough to expose the entire livingroom to the families' back yard.

Post Modernist

Perhaps the most striking design element of the living room space is the dai koku bashira, the large, central pillar. In rural Japan, such posts serve as a home’s central structural support, and according to the Shinto faith, Daikoku, the god of wealth, resides in the pillar, bringing good fortune to the home’s inhabitants. Konishi and Gaffney had another ritual in mind when they cast the charred post in the floor—to mark their children’s heights. The pillar itself is the trunk of a 100-year-old Scottish oak.

Sous la Table

Though the family inherited Gaffney’sgranny’s old green sofa, the hori kotatsu, or sunken table, figures as the hub of domestic life. In addition to dining at mealtimes, the family gathers here to read or do homework seated on the polished concrete floor. The design is common in older Japanese houses, though the radiant heating Konishi and Gaffney put in the floor obviates the need for the blankets or under-table braziers that typically serve as the only sources of heat in an old-fashioned Japanese home. "When we have Japanese visitors they go right to the table," says Konishi. "It’s only our Scottish guests who make themselves comfortable on the couch."

Neighborhood Joint

"Japanese architecture is quite horizontal," says Gaffney. "But partly because of the tight site, we had more leeway with height than width." Because the house was built in a historically preserved zone—nostalgic Edinburgh is full of them—there are only a few subtle nods to Japanese design on the exterior. The nuri-en overhang leading out to the back garden and the charred wood on the facade are a pair of Japanese grace notes, but the shape and scale of the house hardly differ from what’s next door. The modernist facade is a break with the workers’ cottages in the neighborhood—a perk of being on an alley behind the main street—but the oak cladding and slate roof make this house a great Scot.

Three’s the Crowd

Affording the living room its soaring, double-height ceiling meant that the remaining second level would be rather small. With three children, all younger than eight, in a room of 260 square feet, it’s a miracle that things have worked out so far. Konishi and Gaffney admit that as the kids age they can’t all stay piled in one bedroom forever. The plan is to split the room into two at some point. Though three kids bouncing around one room may seem like a stressful situation for any parent, it’s actually far more sedate than the couple’s orig-inal idea. "The initial plan," Gaffneysays, "was that the whole family would be piled in there with the other ‘master’ bedroom as the guest room." A tightly knit family, indeed.