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.
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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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."