Hefty inheritance taxes and natural disasters are just a few of the reasons why forever homes are rare in Japan. Instead, there’s a "scrap-and-build" design culture where homes are often torn down and rebuilt after 30 years rather than being renovated to meet shifting seismic codes.
So, when architects Fumio Hirakawa and Marina Topunova of 24d-Studio opted to turn a 35-year-old wooden post-and-beam home in Hirawakwa’s hometown of Kobe into a live/work space, you can imagine just how radical the project seemed.
The land originally belonged to Hirakawa’s grandfather, and it was the site of a residential building that included rental units and his own home. Eventually, the property was passed down to Hirakawa’s father with an agreement that the existing apartment building would be scrapped to build a house where Hirakawa’s father could establish his own business and home, along with three residential rental units.
Like most of Kobe, the home was affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. "But to our surprise, it was one of the few houses in the neighborhood that was not classified as ‘totally destroyed’ or ‘partially destroyed,’" Hirakawa explains. "There were several cracks on the facade, but the structure and roofing tiles were all intact."
However, the home suffered from the renovation that it received following the earthquake. The rental units were removed to make room for Hirakawa’s parents to expand their business, and the result was a large, open-plan live/work space with structural reinforcements that no longer complied with current building codes.
When Hirakawa’s parents decided that they were ready to retire and downsize, the home was passed down to the next generation. Hirakawa, who remembers living in the house as a child, decided to preserve the structure’s original shell and structural beams. This decision was both sentimental and practical, as it helped the firm stay within their budget.
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The structure needed significant updates to improve its seismic rating and comply with current building codes. "We invested in structural reinforcement, resolving the lack of natural light throughout and the lack of ventilation," says Hirakawa. "Also, the insulation system was not up to par, which is a problematic issue in [many] typical Japanese houses."
To solve these issues, the firm came up with a design defined by arched walls. "Demolishing the existing walls would have created an ideal open space full of light and free airflow, but with the consequences of weakening the overall structure and making it vulnerable in both shear and lateral condition," explains Hirakawa. "We carefully analyzed the existing structural system, which was quite complex due to the previous renovation processes. We carefully omitted unnecessary structural elements and added load-bearing walls with openings—that happened to be arches rather than doors, for structural reasons—and that optimized our desired spatial organization."
The inspiration for the use of color came from a few sources, including the couple’s passion for snowboarding. "We were intrigued by the expressive, colorful outfits of snowboarders moving around in nature on a white, snowy background," says Hirakawa. "Rather than keeping with a traditional, minimalist white-walled interior, adding colors to the intrados was our way of expressing our playful nature in the design."
He also adds the color palette (which skews pastel) might have something to do with the influence of Japan’s kawaii culture—on a conscious or a subconscious level. A cozy, pink desk nook references Japan’s beloved cherry blossoms that bloom every spring.
The lower level of the 2,264-square-foot house, which is now known as the House of Many Arches, serves as 24d-Studio’s office space. The colorful arches are the architects’ favorite part of the project. Hexagonal windows lined with color now divide the space, which features a floor-to-ceiling bookcase along one wall, large conference tables, and concrete floors that add a slightly industrial tone. The studio is illuminated by natural light and pendants from the firm’s in-house collection (which they sell on their website).
The couple’s private living areas are located on the upstairs level, which features an open floor plan with high ceilings and exposed original structural beams.
"The log beams were intact and were surprisingly in great condition, says Hirakawa. "This was one of the reasons why we did not want to scrap the entire building. By breaking the ceiling surface, not only did we increase the ceiling height and allow more free air circulation, but we also revealed the history of the home. Preserving that element was our way of showing respect to the carpenters who [originally] built this house."
The front of the house features a sunny yellow balcony—a statement that the architects say contrasts with the "monotonous and dull color palette" of traditional Japanese neighborhoods. "We also want the home to be a place that makes us smile, and for that feeling to be brought to everyone who passes by," says Hirakawa. "We believe that architecture can influence people in a positive manner. Even if the people passing by may not understand our intent, we hope that our design can spark some joy and some curiosity—and give them the chance to experience architecture from a different perspective."
Architect of Record: Yamamoto Koumuten
Builder/General Contractor: Yamamoto Koumuten
Structural Engineer: TSMD (Takashi Manda Structural Engineering)
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