One fundamental premise of architecture is to cope with climate. This statement is not only intimately connected to contemporary technological advances but intrinsically continuing the knowledge of ancient practices. One year ago in the town of Taiki-cho, north of the Japanese archipelago, a remarkable story to experiment with such ideas materialized through the construction of a prototype house designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
The village, located in Hokkaido, hosts the Meme Meadows Centre for Research of Environmental Technologies, which used to be a facility to breed race-horses before. Founded by LIXIL JS Foundation, the aim is to contribute improving people's comfort and lifestyles within long span projects of radical ecological concepts. Kuma's experimental house is the first in the Meme Meadows series of innovative residential design solutions for extreme climate conditions. The house belongs to a series of interventions by the Japanese architect in a few existing facilities, including the renovation of a restaurant, a lodge and multipurpose space.
Unlike the hot, humid summers and mild, warm winters of Japan's main island Honshu, Hokkaido is known for cool, dry summers and icy winters. The severe climate of northern Japan fostered the Ainu, the island's first inhabitants, to create dwelling typologies that are distinctively different from central Japan's traditional post and beam wooden construction, conceived mainly for hot and humid summer conditions. Kuma took this information as an opportunity to reinterpret the traditional Ainu chise house. Chise, which literally translates as "house" or "home" in the Ainu language, signifies a domestic metaphor of welcoming. The chise is both a "grass house" and an "earth house", entirely enveloped with a thick layer of dried grass for thermal insulation, and flooring mats laid directly on the ground. Its effectiveness in an extremely cold climate resides on accumulating the heat radiated from a central ever burning fireplace — which organizes a singular space around it — and the thick layering of materials.
Conventional construction methods for extremely cold conditions generally employ thick, embracing walls. The initial idea for this project, as Kengo Kuma & Associates architect in charge Takumi Saikawa explains, was rather to devise a whole translucent illuminated dwelling, which at first seemed challenging in such a climate. The result was a collaborative research with the Tomonari Yashiro Laboratory at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science.
The basic constructive and performative principle of Meme experimental house is the layering of materials. The main structure is made of a locally harvested Japanese larch wooden frame, clad in a fluorocarbon coated polyester fabric membrane on the outside and with a removable glass fibre fabric membrane on the inside. Both membranes are translucent, alongside a polyester fibre thermal insulation layer made from recycled PET bottles and inserted between the larch structure, thus attaining the special light atmosphere intended by designers.
Kengo Kuma proposed to use the ground as a thermal insulator and hot water-filled pipes under the floor for heat generation. Takumi Saikawa clarifies that the idea was also to test the innovative thermal performance of the material composition, where not only the dimensions of the insulation are important, but also accumulation and flow of warm air. Just as the dried grass of Ainu house retains warmth, heat mass in between the wall membranes circulates and ascends until the roof, keeping the whole building continuously warm. The house is partitioned with minimum of dividing walls and curtains. Hence, the singular fluidity of space allows air convection currents from the fireplace and floor to radiate easily into living spaces. Interior space is seamlessly divided into three parts — the entrance and bathroom facilities at one side of the house, and a bedroom combined with a study at the opposite side are interconnected through an open central living and dining area. Resembling Isamu Noguchi's light sculptures, the house incorporates subtlety and subdued illumination through fluorescent tubes running along within the lower contour of the perimeter wall. Other light fixtures are absent in the house, as they may create sharp shadows into the delicate and nuanced light atmosphere.
The work of Kengo Kuma is characterized in many of his recent designs by the inclusion of traditional Japanese techniques and craftsmanship combined with advanced material experimentation. The Meme experimental house is one of his most radical proposals, aiming for an extreme performance in the residential spectrum. Kuma's house in the Hokkaido meadows echoes the experimental houses made a century ago by Frank Lloyd Wright in American prairies, where the location of the fireplace was the key for spatial organization. Meme Meadows facilities begun their own new story with the inclusion of Kengo Kuma, and this project is already a relevant monitoring platform for further ecological developments in northern Japan. Rafael A. Balboa, Ilze Paklone
The authors would like to express their sincere thanks to Takumi Saikawa from Kengo Kuma Architects & Associates for providing all materials and information.
Kengo Kuma: Meme Experimental House
Facility name: Memu Meadows
Project name: Meme Experimental House
Design: Kengo Kuma & Associates / Kengo Kuma, Takumi Saikawa
Technical collaboration: Tomonari Yashiro Laboratory at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science / Bumpei Magori
Location: 158-1 Memu, Taikicho, Hirogun, Hokkaido, Japan
Main use: Experimental residence
Floor area: 79,50 square metres
Structure: conventional wooden frame
Completion date: June 2011