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Tomoya and Naomi Sato, looking to buy a home in one of the world’s most expensive cities, bought a tiny plot of land in a crowded residential neighborhood in central Tokyo. The land was steps from a street lined with mom-and-pop shops and across from an elementary school.
The couple hired an architect known for building small city homes with bold designs: 38-year-old Osamu Nishida of ON Design Partners. Still, when they received a building plan, they were flabbergasted.
Naomi and Tomoya Sato in the main part of their two-section home designed by ON Design Partners in Tokyo. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT
“Even after the skeleton went up, we were still worried if it would really work,” says Mr. Sato, 38, an engineer for a medical-equipment company.
For the plot measuring just 12 feet wide and 27 feet deep and sandwiched between the walls of neighboring homes, Mr. Nishida proposed constructing two narrow structures with a gap in-between. The main section—just five feet wide—houses living quarters on its three floors. The narrower section contains the stairs.
To move from one room to another, the homeowners have to go outside, take one step over a short bridge to the other interior, climb stairs and then go back out and inside again. “When there is a rainstorm, we get wet,” says Mr. Sato, laughing.
That gap is there to guide light and air into the home built for the couple and their cat, explains Mr. Nishida. “It’s a space to let the laundry dry and allow the residents to sit on the bench and enjoy fresh air,” he says. “The house internalizes the surroundings of a densely populated neighborhood.”
The gap can’t be covered, even with a glass ceiling, as a building rule requires 40% of the plot to be left as outdoor space.
The house—in Bunkyo Ward, three subway stops from Tokyo’s main financial district—has 550 square feet of living space. Its main section is only wide enough to fit snugly a queen-size mattress. Yet a high ceiling for the eat-in kitchen on the ground floor and large windows in the living room on the top floor provide a sense of space.
The total cost of the home was just under ¥50 million, or $418,000, with a bit more than half spent on the land.
Mirroring the trend in big American cities, more young families and couples in Tokyo are choosing small homes near the city center over bigger suburban homes. Working parents appreciate shorter commuting time. Some enjoy the wealth of cultural attractions and restaurants only available in the city.
The small home of Minami and Koutoku Egawa, designed by Go Hasegawa, has slat floors on the second level to let in light and air. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT
For a metropolis so crowded and expensive, much of Tokyo is surprisingly flat. In recent years, however, advancement in earthquake-resistant technology, accompanied by easing of building codes, brought a boom in the construction of high-rise apartment buildings in central Tokyo. Families who want to live in stand-alone homes can find small plots of land here and there to have custom-made homes built.
These houses become landmarks and “add contrast and variety in urbanism,” says Jeremie Souteyrat, a Tokyo-based French photographer who features photographs of small homes in the city, including the Satos’ house, in his recent book, “Tokyo No Ie,” or “Tokyo Houses” (Le Lézard Noir).
Homeowners can tap into a rich pool of architects who know how to make small contemporary homes comfortable while offering innovative, dramatic designs. To maintain privacy, some homes have few external windows and instead take in light through inner courtyards or skylights. Others have numerous small windows.
“To live in a small home, you have to give up a lot because you can’t squeeze everything in it,” Mr. Nishida says. “But that helps you realize what’s really important to you.”
For Minami and Koutoku Egawa, it was important to have a convenient location near central Tokyo and a sense of openness. The most unusual external feature of their 650-square-foot home is an expansive window that floats halfway up the flat facade of a cabinlike house.
The house, also included in Mr. Souteyrat’s book, is in a quiet residential neighborhood, but sits directly on a street that gets heavy foot traffic because of a nearby park. The window is high enough that passersby can’t peek inside, but large enough to offer a view of the greenery across the street and invite in plenty of light. In the summer, it opens up completely to let in cool breezes.
The Egawa cabinlike home has a high window to maintain privacy in an area with heavy foot traffic. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT
“We really wanted to live close to the city center. That meant we couldn’t afford a large plot of land,” says Mr. Egawa, a 39-year-old system engineer who commutes to work by bicycle.
Inside, the house for the family of three has two main rooms. The living-dining room with a 13-foot ceiling is on the ground floor, along with a shallow kitchen hidden behind a cabinet door. On the second floor is a study, with closet-like bedrooms for the couple and their 9-year-old daughter, and a bathroom hiding behind sliding doors.
The floor of the study consists of wooden slats. It’s hard to walk on until you get used to it, but it lets light in from the big window downstairs.
“Once Grandpa dropped his cellphone and it went straight downstairs,” says Mrs. Egawa, 36, who does planning for a printing company. “Fortunately, it fell on the seat of the lounge chair.”
The floor of the living room of the wooden house has large, square stone tiles. They symbolize the continuity from the street and the town beyond. The total cost of the home was about $585,000, including $375,000 for the land—roughly the cost of an apartment of a similar size in the same area.
“Japanese homes have become isolated from the cityscape as too much emphasis has been put on privacy and security,” says Go Hasegawa, the 37-year-old architect of the home in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward. “I wanted to build a house that offers distinctive public space, as well as private space for the family members.”
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