Sou Fujimoto Architects - House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (Photo by Iwan Baan)

    Five ways to make the most of tiny spaces

    11 April 2017

    Our houses are shrinking. The average floor space of a house built in the UK before 1919 is 102 square metres. These days a new build covers just 76 square metres – and with city populations booming it’s not likely to increase. We will have to downsize even further.

    Is this bad news? Take a look around the Barbican’s new exhibition, The Japanese House, and it would seem not. The Japanese have made small space living something to be coveted. After the devastation of the Second World War, the country’s government focussed much of the redevelopment programme on building detached family houses. This tradition, combined with enormous pressure on ground space thanks to eye-wateringly dense urbanisation, and later financial crises that provoked spikes in demand for land, means that the Japanese have had mastered the art of maximising humble homes, following some or all of the following principles…

    Make space flexible
    In Japan this concept has a name all its own: garando, ‘expanding emptiness’. It is about making a space that can host numerous everyday happenings. Traditionally the Japanese have not divided homes into rooms in the same way that we do in the West. A space that can be dined, lounged and slept in (part of the joy of Japanese tatami matting) is far more practicable when square metres are limited.

    Keep everything light
    In a small room, only light will give the true impression of space. Steel-framed furniture (with thin but strong legs) is common in Japan. You may even see steel walls, too. Such a strong material can be made to incredibly thin. Kazuyo Sejima’s House in a Plum Grove in Tokyo, featured in the Barbican show, has steel walls just 16mm thick that support near floor-to-ceiling windows.

    Small is beautiful: an exhibit in the Barbican show (Miles Willis/Getty Images)

    Stick with white
    It seems obvious but few houses in Japan are awash with colour. Using one shade keeps continuity between rooms (with the unexpected benefit of bringing the household together. If you feel you are all part of the same space, you will likely all feel part of the same unit). White will also reflect light around the house creating impressions of rooms greater in scale than they really are.

    Think multipurpose
    At the extreme end this is manifested in House NA by Sou Fujimoto, also featured in the exhibition. It looks like a complex stack of offset boxes but its off-kilter stacking means that the floor of one box/room can be a chair or a desk for an adjacent lower one. On a smaller scale, consider foldaway furniture, stacking bookcases on coasters or even a bench that becomes a connecting passage, as in another Japanese House exhibit, Atelier Bow-Wow’s tiny house in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

    Use screens and reflections
    Think of a Japanese house and likely you will envisage (whether thanks to The Last Samurai or no) a place divided by sliding paper screens. Not only is this practical – a door opening through 90 degrees takes that amount of space out of a room before you even start – it is also communal. A door shuts people out, a light screen means that you are always connected, even if only by sound and shadow, to the people with whom you live.

    The Japanese House runs at the Barbican until June 25