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House of the Issue> Idea Office
LA architects work with a local engineer to design an earthquake-resistant house in suburban Tokyo.
The dark facade of Idea Office's house in suburban Tokyo is lit from deep within.
Kouichi Torimura


When the earthquake hit, a house in suburban Tokyo by two LA architects stood its ground thanks to a close collaboration with a local engineer. Eric Kahn and Russell Thomsen of LA firm Idea Office recently completed the 1,050 square foot home for a couple in Saitama, Japan, a northern suburb of Tokyo. Neighbors came around to look at the construction site on a regular basis, not just intrigued with its foreign architects, but with the very contemporary design that clearly stood out from the rest of the street, whose homes—unlike common conceptions of Japanese architecture—were mostly traditional.

The biggest challenge for Kahn and Thomsen was to accomplish tasks that seemed to be in direct opposition: to make the house feel open but private; make it feel big while being small; to avoid harsh sun but fill it with light; and to make it stand out but fit into the neighborhood.

House in Japan by Idea Office   House in Japan by Idea Office.
The open kitchen and main stair (left) and a floating stair continues to the lower level (right).
[+ Click to enlarge.]

While other houses in the neighborhood are set back from the street with small, basically ornamental, gardens in front, the architects built a steel-framed house that folds out at the entrance, containing a grassy courtyard inside mounted with hovering steel benches and angled walls that unobtrusively provide extra bracing. The fold out increases the sense of space inside the house and provides privacy for the family.

House in Japan by Idea Office.   House in Japan by Idea Office  
The dark metallic skin on Idea Office's house is structural (left) and a balcony is integrated into the structural facade (right).
[+ Click to enlarge.]

“We brought a California idea to Japan,” said Kahn, of the garden and terrace, not to mention the feeling of breeziness.

To maintain a sense of openness inside, the insulated metal panel skin has both punched openings on one side and sliding glass doors on the other. Kahn said that the building likes to “leak” light, but receives no harsh direct sunlight.

A large steel brise-soleil and a steel mesh screen wall provide more sun protection and privacy. Polycarbonate panels on the lower level further enforce the effect of glowing sunlight matched with privacy; they also make the house appear to float. Meanwhile, the location of living areas on the second and third floors of the house at the rear of the site help the family maintain privacy; rounding out what is a densely packed, highly efficient volume.

House in Japan by Idea Office.   House in Japan by Idea Office.   House in Japan by Idea Office
Left to right: Diagonal bracing at the roofline provides bracing against earthquakes; an open courtyard at the core of the house; and the entrance awning.
[+ Click to enlarge.]

Taking advantage of a culture where contractors take utmost pride in their work, the architects were able to build this small but complex structure in just eight months; there were no fees for changes, and the architects and contractors were on the same page the whole time, say Kahn and Thomsen. The house’s braced steel frame structure on a foundation of 24 concrete friction piles fortunately held up well in the country’s recent earthquake, which was centered about two hours north of Saitama.

The structural steel skin is dark, helping the project recede, but its dramatic folding entrance is also a large draw for the neighborhood. In fact, the same neighbors who were once leery of the project now bring friends by constantly, as the do the project’s workers, who come regularly with their families to show off their work.

Sam Lubell