A Ficus Tree Grows Through This Sun-Soaked House in Kyoto
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A Ficus Tree Grows Through This Sun-Soaked House in Kyoto

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By Lucy Wang
Infused with traditional materials and aesthetics, this open-plan home in Japan strengthens the bond a young family has to nature and to each other.

Since starting his design studio 07BEACH in 2011, architect Joe Chikamori has focused on designing and building commercial interiors across Japan and Southeast Asia. Yet, when his close friends called on him to step outside of his comfort zone and design a house for them in northern Kyoto, he couldn’t say no to the challenge.

"This was my first experience designing a new-built residential house from scratch," says Chikamori, who believes that his clients, a young couple with children, chose to work with him because of his staunch work ethic and their years-long friendship.

"The column-less, double-height living room is unusually big and open compared to most Japanese houses," says Chikamori. "It's thanks to the structural engineers, who are experts on a relatively new technique for building wooden, rigid-frame structures."

"The column-less, double-height living room is unusually big and open compared to most Japanese houses," says Chikamori. "It's thanks to the structural engineers, who are experts on a relatively new technique for building wooden, rigid-frame structures."

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In placing their faith in Chikamori, the couple gave the architect freedom to experiment with different designs. The only early requirement was that the home have a traditional Japanese aesthetic.

Named the House in Kyoto after its location, the residence for a family of five is located in a dense yet quiet residential neighborhood.

Named the House in Kyoto after its location, the residence for a family of five is located in a dense yet quiet residential neighborhood.

After wading through complex housing regulations and developing a variety of floor plan options, Chikamori and the couple decided on a simple and open-plan design with a double-height living room as the home's heart. Since the compact site and programming left little room for a backyard garden, the living area was developed as an interior courtyard situated around an indoor tree.

Since the house is edged in by homes on the east, west, and south sides, the architect punctuated the gabled roof with large skylights to bring daylight into the home.

Since the house is edged in by homes on the east, west, and south sides, the architect punctuated the gabled roof with large skylights to bring daylight into the home.

"Although I was optimistic at the beginning, planting a tree was a challenge," admits Chikamori, who struggled to find a supplier with enough confidence to take on the assignment. "The conditions a tree needs and the ones humans need are almost the opposite. " After much research, he chose a ficus tree for its glossy leaves and evergreen nature.

Over time as the tree grows taller, the walkway next to the tatami room will feel like a veranda or balcony with a garden view.

Over time as the tree grows taller, the walkway next to the tatami room will feel like a veranda or balcony with a garden view.

The leafy tree, along with the abundance of sunlight that pours through the skylights, makes dining and relaxing in the central living area feel like a "picnic in a park," says Chikamori, who often visits the home with his family. While the adults are hanging out on the first floor, the children are always in sight as they run and play on the second floor.

The view from the children's room: the couple with their three children, two boys and a girl.

The view from the children's room: the couple with their three children, two boys and a girl.

"It is expected that the tree will strengthen the relationship between the family and the house, as if the tree is another member of the family," says Chikamori.

"It is expected that the tree will strengthen the relationship between the family and the house, as if the tree is another member of the family," says Chikamori.

"A tight connection between family members was welcomed more than privacy," says Chikamori on the clients’ decision for an open layout. "This way, the wife can observe the children and do housework at the same time. The open connection between each room around the spacious living room can be felt as one space. They preferred it this way over partitioned rooms."

The bathroom was positioned to face the living room so that the family could enjoy an "open-air bath" with view of the tree. "I wanted to see a combination of two greens," explains Chikamori. "One is the central tree as a living creature and another is manmade green on the bathroom wall. They emphasize each other's charm."

The bathroom was positioned to face the living room so that the family could enjoy an "open-air bath" with view of the tree. "I wanted to see a combination of two greens," explains Chikamori. "One is the central tree as a living creature and another is manmade green on the bathroom wall. They emphasize each other's charm."

Vibrant mosaic tile laid by a local craftsman cover the bathroom walls. Made from six different shades of green, the forest-like mural is another way the home brings nature indoors.

Vibrant mosaic tile laid by a local craftsman cover the bathroom walls. Made from six different shades of green, the forest-like mural is another way the home brings nature indoors.

The clients' two sons helped assemble the mosaic tile for the bathroom walls.

The clients' two sons helped assemble the mosaic tile for the bathroom walls.

To meet the husband’s request for a Japanese-style design, Chikamori used hinoki—a native cypress that’s revered in Japan for its beauty, cultural significance, and fragrance—as the primary interior material. The house structure was also built from wood.

"The husband preferred hinoki for its calm, plain grain, and bright color," explains the architect. "I agreed not only because of its appearance, but also because of its functionality. Hinoki is one of the lightest timbers&nbsp;<span style="font-family: Theinhardt, -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, &quot;Segoe UI&quot;, Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, &quot;Helvetica Neue&quot;, sans-serif;">and has great heat insulation properties</span><span style="font-family: Theinhardt, -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, &quot;Segoe UI&quot;, Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, &quot;Helvetica Neue&quot;, sans-serif;">. It is also very soft and comfortable to walk on barefoot ."</span>

"The husband preferred hinoki for its calm, plain grain, and bright color," explains the architect. "I agreed not only because of its appearance, but also because of its functionality. Hinoki is one of the lightest timbers and has great heat insulation properties. It is also very soft and comfortable to walk on barefoot ."

The hinoki is left in its natural state save for a transparent natural wax seal that allows the wood’s natural fragrance to come through. The floors, ceilings, and walls are all built of hinoki, including the handrails and the slatted doors.

The hinoki is left in its natural state save for a transparent natural wax seal that allows the wood’s natural fragrance to come through. The floors, ceilings, and walls are all built of hinoki, including the handrails and the slatted doors.

In completing the project, Chikamori not only created a stunning home for his long-time friends, but he also learned a lot in the process. 

"In commercial projects, the timeline is much faster and clients often leave me alone with the design because the main goal is to create a place of business," says Chikamori, who spent nearly three years designing the House in Kyoto and another ten months on construction. "But in a residential project, the clients and I had to work more closely to achieve each goal. A house is a place for living so I worked with the homeowners every step of the way to help them find the answers to what they want. The process was a new and worthwhile experience for me."

Artificial white marble by Panasonic lines the backsplash and countertops in the kitchen. The open-plan layout lets the wife keep an eye on her children at all times.

Artificial white marble by Panasonic lines the backsplash and countertops in the kitchen. The open-plan layout lets the wife keep an eye on her children at all times.

The children's room is located directly above the kitchen so that they get to experience the full expanse of the house every time they descend to the ground-floor living area.

The children's room is located directly above the kitchen so that they get to experience the full expanse of the house every time they descend to the ground-floor living area.

A sloped walkway connects the tatami room to the children’s bedrooms. "The level change gives the kids more of a sense of transition from one place to another," explains Chikamori. "It also gives more height to the downstairs kitchen, which should be bright and spacious for the wife. In contrast, the height of the master bedroom under the tatami room is kept lower because that room is only used for sleeping."

A sloped walkway connects the tatami room to the children’s bedrooms. "The level change gives the kids more of a sense of transition from one place to another," explains Chikamori. "It also gives more height to the downstairs kitchen, which should be bright and spacious for the wife. In contrast, the height of the master bedroom under the tatami room is kept lower because that room is only used for sleeping."

A pair of DAIKO LED pendant lamps are located in the tatami room.

A pair of DAIKO LED pendant lamps are located in the tatami room.

The dark tiles that line the bathroom floor and part of the living area ties the interior with the outdoor carport's tiled floor.

The dark tiles that line the bathroom floor and part of the living area ties the interior with the outdoor carport's tiled floor.

The House in Kyoto illuminated with select lighting at night.

The House in Kyoto illuminated with select lighting at night.

House in Kyoto floor plans

House in Kyoto floor plans

House in Kyoto section

House in Kyoto section

House in Kyoto model

House in Kyoto model

 Project Credits:

Architect of Record: 07BEACH / @architecture_studio_07beach

Builder/ General Contractor: Kyuma Sekkei Komu 

Structural Engineer: STROOG

Lighting Design: DAIKO

Tree Supplier/Expert: Iwama Zouen