This Small House in Tokyo Is Designed Around a Compact Footprint

In between the regulatory grey zone of tiny houses and problematic monster mansions, there are the often overlooked virtues of the small house—dwellings that sit in the approximate range between 400 to 1,500 square feet. There are some who want to downsize from a big house, but who might be leery of squeezing into a tiny home.

On the other hand, these are exactly the types who might be more likely to consider a small house instead. In the end, it depends on one’s needs, budget, and tastes, but it’s clear that smaller homes are less carbon-intensive to build and maintain—and that also applies to older small homes that get refurbished.

But for urban dwellers in big cities like Tokyo, Japan, smaller homes on small plots of land are the norm to start with, not the exception. In creating a new home for a couple in their 40s, Tokyo-based Unemori Architects managed to make the most of the tiny 280-square-foot plot of land by building up vertically and doing some strategic rearrangement of the home’s spatial volumes to bring in more sunlight and ventilation.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects exterior
Kai Nakamura 

As the firm’s founder and principal architect Hiroyuki Unemori explains on Dwell:

“In Tokyo, tiny plots of land are the standard. Houses in the city have to be compact and cleverly structured. With House Tokyo, we reacted to the challenge by designing the house as stacked, interlinked cubes with a very open floor plan.”

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects exterior
Kai Nakamura

In stacking and manipulating the volumes, which are wrapped with corrugated galvanized steel, the home feels less hemmed in by the neighboring buildings. In addition, the new multipurpose outdoor terrace that has been created on top of one of the volumes helps to compensate for the absence of a backyard in this small house, which is located in a densely packed urban neighborhood. The clients’ busy urban lifestyle means that they are also out of the house often, making the most of what this cosmopolitan city has to offer.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects standing at entry
Kai Nakamura

Inside the home’s split-level design, the traces of these volumetric maneuvers have been left visible via the exposed wooden structural framework, while the differences in height between the various interconnected floor levels offer interesting views from one area to another, explains Unemori:

“While each floor is assigned a function, the spaces are connected through open floor plans and offset levels, which enlarge the space and counter the smallness of the house.”

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects entry
Kai Nakamura

Most importantly, the differential stacking produces gaps that allow for the diverse placement of windows, which is beneficial in many ways, says Unemori:

“The small gap between the neighboring houses brings a view to the sky, wind circulation, and of course, sunlight.”

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects interior view
Kai Nakamura

A large kitchen and dining area occupy the main level, and it seems to be also a lounging area integrated here too, with a sofa suspended from the platform above, facing a television screen mounted on the far wall. There is plenty of storage here to be found in the long row of cabinets, some of which stretch over the entry hall, thus bridging the two spaces.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects kitchen and dining room
Kai Nakamura 

Thanks to the interplay of volumes here, the ceiling height here extends far up, creating a greater sense of spaciousness. In addition, heating and cooling are made more efficient with the installation of a ventilation duct here that directs warm air from the upper area back down to the living zones during the winter. Conversely, during the summer, one can flip a switch to bring warm air outside, so that the air conditioner operates more efficiently.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects dining
Kai Nakamura

Below the main level is the bedroom, which is tucked away in the half-basement. Here it is darker and quieter—perfect for a bedroom. As it is equipped with two sliding door entries, the space here can also be potentially divided into two separate rooms, to accommodate the clients’ wishes that they might move out someday and have their house rented out to tenants instead.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects bedroom
Kai Nakamura

In either one of two hallways leading out of the bedroom’s two doorways, we have a small washroom and toilet, and a separate shower room, in addition to various storag

e spaces and a washing machine that is tucked away underneath the bent metal stairs.

House Tokyo by Unemori Architects bathroom
Kai Nakamura

With so little land to work with, the architects’ intriguing design strategy has allowed them to create a series of unique spaces and interior views that are ultimately connected together enough to create a unified whole that feels big, despite its small size. Ultimately, it’ll be creative strategies like this that will help to make the small house typology more appealing and livable for a wider audience.

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