Best Green Houses

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Like America’s dogtrots, shotguns, Cumberland houses, and log cabins, Japanese vernacular architecture includes a unique house known as minka. The country boasts more than 1 million of these buildings, which vary dramatically according to region: Although a northern Japanese exemplar features steeply sloping roofs to prevent snow buildup, southern houses are raised on pilotis for natural ventilation. What all versions have in common is sensitivity to place evidenced by these climatic adaptations as well as their hand-joined fabrication in local, affordable materials.

“I appreciate the traditional techniques of craftsmanship,” Tokyo-based architect Yasuhiro Yamashita says of minkas’ careful construction. Not everyone agrees. Japan’s diminishing population since a 2006 peak, in combination with urbanization, changing tastes, and other phenomena, has left 13 percent of these houses vacant. “Most of the time the abandoned houses get dismantled or burned, or they rot naturally,” Yamashita notes.

The potential loss of heritage has grown so severe that a nonprofit group has even formed to stem the problem. The Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association was established in 1997. In 2001 it reconstructed an Okazaki City–area minka in London’s Kew Gardens in 2001, in collaboration with British builders, and today it counts 2,000 members.

One saved farmhouse would make little dent in Shimane Prefecture, where as many as 100,000 old houses are abandoned. Yamashita visited this southwestern province four years ago, and there he realized that the empty minkas could be harvested for their parts. Immediately afterward he launched the Old Minka House Project within his 19-year-old firm Atelier Tekuto. “Besides being a way to break through this situation, the Japanese cycle of tree planting and felling is not working presently, and it’s difficult to obtain quality wood materials,” Yamashita adds.

Old Minka House Project is dedicated to reusing vintage houses in whole or part for Atelier Tekuto’s commissions. It is in its early phases, as Yamashita is still archiving minkas worthy of saving. Yet—and despite the roughly $30,000 required to dismantle a minka—the firm has begun storing parts in a warehouse. More related news from Green Source Magazine May 2010