Building a designer beach home in Japan

Building a designer beach home in Japan

How one Tokyo couple is creating a perfect weekend getaway on the Chiba coast

Building a designer beach home in JapanBakoko's renders gave the homebuilders a clear vision of what to expect.

Architect Alastair Townsend runs the Tokyo-based practice BAKOKO. Over the coming months his company will be building a modern beach house in Chiba. Here he reveals more about the process -- and future articles will provide updates on just how a designer beach home comes to life:

Last September we were approached by a couple wanting to build a small beach house in the seaside town of Onjuku on Chiba's Pacific coast. The Australian husband -- a keen surfer with sea salt in his blood -- and his Japanese wife wanted a weekend escape from their daily grind in Tokyo.

Onjuku boasts one of Chiba's best white sand beaches. Surfers dot its shoreline year-round and in summer crowds flock to the wonderful beach.

The fishing town is an odd juxtaposition of bubble-era high-rise condos towering over an eclectic community of fishermen's houses and holiday homes. Lately, new houses have started popping up.

They're a promising sign of the town’s rejuvenation, mainly by surfers opting for the slow life by the sea over the concrete and clamor of the capital city.

A concise brief

Building a designer beach home in JapanThe kitchen interior will be spacious and airy, as befits a beach-side home.

The most important part of the design process is understanding our clients' needs and desires. It's not as easy as you might think.

Initially, the couple had a very modest dwelling in mind, but their expectations grew once we showed them models and sketches of the small home this would entail. A larger house offered better value since many costs -- the bathroom and kitchen, for example -- are fixed regardless of whether the house is 90 square meters or 150.

By spending time with them we learned about their lifestyle together and their comparative motivations. He is a gregarious wine enthusiast with a penchant for entertaining, while his more reserved wife is a talented cook who favors the quite life.

He envisioned a rustic retreat where he can throw parties on deck. She wanted a high-spec kitchen, a luxurious bath with a view, and her own hobby room for sewing projects. We developed a compact design to accommodate their varied interests with the flexibility to informally sleep five or six guests.

The husband was adamant that this be a sustainable home. We adopted passive design principles from the outset. To maximize solar exposure, the glazed facade is angled south, shaded by a projecting eave during hot summer months.

Building a designer beach home in JapanThe solar diagram shows how exposure to the sun is managed in winter and summer.

Cross ventilation will help to capture cool sea breezes, while a wood-burning stove will keep the home snug in winter. Unfortunately, the local government offers no incentives to use green technology.

Photovoltaics and heat-recovery mechanisms had to be abandoned because the home will not be used year-round, thus the additional investment would not be cost-effective in the long-term.

Japanese at its core

Thinking about the future, this 130-square-meter house might eventually become a place to live and work for extended periods. One day it may even become a permanent home. So, a second-story loft was added to provide views out to sea from a home office that can double as a guest room.

With careful attention to detail, we designed concealed doors to sit flush within the spruce-paneled walls that will line the living room. These fold open to reveal a small hobby/guest room and the master bedroom.

A cedar exterior siding was selected because it is naturally weather-resistant and grown locally in Japan. The wooden skin wraps over the top to provide a roof deck accessed by ladder through a large pivoting skylight.

Not only does this provide an excellent spot for stargazing, the timber will shade the steel roof below from the sun and help protect it from corrosive sea breezes.

The house will likely remain empty for parts of the year and could also be exposed to some serious storms. Concealed wooden shutters will slide across and lock to protect the ground floor from these threats.

Building a designer beach home in JapanThe home's genkan entry porch will also function as a conduit between the rear of the house and the deck.Like most Japanese homes, the house has a genkan for receiving visitors and removing shoes. This entry porch is situated within a tunnel connecting the deck and rear entrance. Next to the genkan, we've integrated a storage shed for stashing surf boards and bicycles.

Another distinctly Japanese feature is the bath, or ofuro. This will be a custom-made wet room. Sitting in their sunken bath, our clients can gaze out the full-height window into a private miniature garden (tsubo niwa). This is connected to an outdoor shower and shrouded behind a tall fence.

Threat of tsunami

By March, the design was finalized and our excited clients were ready to instruct their builder to start work. Then the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Luckily, in Onjuku the tidal wave did not come any higher than the beach. But scenes of devastation from further north -- not to mention the menace of seaborne nuclear contamination -- undermined everyone's confidence.

However, our clients had already bought and committed to building a house on their plot next to the sea.

The difficult discussions that followed focused our thinking about the ever-present risks when building in Japan. Of course, we had designed the house to withstand strong earthquakes and typhoons. But to withstand the forces like those unleashed upon Tohoku? It might be possible, but at what cost?

We suggested some alternatives: for instance, we could raise the house on 2-3 meter high concrete piers. After much handwringing, our clients are steadfastly sticking to their original plan.

Preparation saved lives in Tohoku and they feel that a well-drilled evacuation plan is the key to safety in the event of another tsunami further south. The husband reflected, “if anything the tsunami confirmed and strengthened my awe of ocean.”

Under construction

Building is now underway. It's been quite a ride so far and we hope it will be smooth sailing for our little surf shack from here on in. We’ll keep you posted on progress toward the dream house later in the year.

Alastair Townsend is an architect and runs the Tokyo-based practice BAKOKO. Before establishing his design studio with Japanese partner Kayoko Ohtsuki he worked and studied in London, graduating from the Architectural Association (the AA) in 2003.


Read more about Alastair Townsend