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Onjuku Beach House

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Onjuku is a popular seaside resort and fishing town on Chiba's Pacific coast, about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo. The beach house is sited behind a bluff, 300 meters from Onjuku's famous white sand beach. Built for an international couple—the husband is a lifelong surfer—who live and work in Tokyo, this weekend getaway may become a permanent residence once they reach retirement.

The home's concealed entrance is served by a Japanese genkan, separating the home proper from a built-in shed for stashing surfboards and bicycles. This tunnel-like outer porch connects the gated rear entryway and the wooden deck which incorporates a built-in seat and planter. Timber shutters slide across the entire southern eave, securely locking-down the home to protect it from seasonal typhoons.

From the road, the home maintains an intentionally low profile. Its austere stained tongue and groove cladding is sourced from native Japanese cedar. Returning from the beach, a private outdoor shower leads directly into the tiled bathroom. An intimate garden provides
a tranquil backdrop to the sunken bathtub.

The home's dark exterior skin contrasts with its light and airy interior. The double-height living space is occupied by a spruce-clad box that supports a loft space above and contains the master bedroom, WC, and bathroom below. Careful detailing has incorporated the staircase and doors that close flush to conceal these private rooms.

Sitting at the built-in desk upstairs, one can gaze out the sea for inspiration. The shallow pitched roof is accessible via a ladder extending into a large pivoting skylight. Since the home is intended for casual entertaining, the loft spaces and a timber-lined lower study double as occasional guest rooms.

The home is predicated on passive design principles. Generous south-oriented glazing is shaded by the eaves in summer. Cross ventilation captures cool sea breezes. Slotted perforations milled into the wooden balustrade promote air circulation and cleanly conceal mechanical air conditioning units. In winter, the wood-burning stove provides renewable heat energy.

Design Background:

In September 2010 we were approached by a couple seeking to build a small beach house in the seaside town of Onjuku on Chiba's Pacific coast. The Australian husband -- a keen surfer with sea salt in his blood -- and his Japanese wife wanted a weekend escape from their daily grind in Tokyo.

Onjuku boasts one of Chiba's best white sand beaches. Surfers dot its shoreline year-round, and in summer crowds flock to the wonderful beach.

The fishing town is an odd juxtaposition of bubble-era high-rise condos towering over an eclectic community of fishermen's houses and holiday homes.

Lately, new houses have started popping up. They're a promising sign of the town’s modest rejuvenation, mainly by mature surfers opting for the slow life by the sea over the concrete and clamor of the capital city just a couple hours away by train.

The most important part of the design process is expressing and understanding our clients' needs and desires. It's not as easy as you might think.

Initially, the couple had a very modest dwelling in mind, but their expectations grew once we showed them models and sketches of the small home this would entail. A larger house offered better value since many costs -- the bathroom and kitchen, for example -- are largely fixed regardless of whether the house is 90 square meters or 150.

By spending time with them we learned about their lifestyle together and their comparative motivations. He is a gregarious wine enthusiast with a penchant for entertaining, while his more reserved wife is a talented cook who favors the quite life.

He envisioned a rustic retreat where he can throw parties on deck. She wanted a high-spec kitchen, a luxurious bath with a view, and her own hobby room for sewing projects. We developed a compact design to accommodate their varied interests with the flexibility to informally sleep five or six guests.

The husband was adamant that this be a sustainable home. We adopted passive design principles from the outset. To maximize solar exposure, the glazed facade is angled south, shaded by a projecting eave during hot summer months.

Cross ventilation captures cool sea breezes, making the air conditioning uncesseary on all but the hottest days. A wood-burning stove keeps the home snug in winter.

Unfortunately, the local government offers no incentives to use green technology. Photovoltaics and heat-recovery mechanisms had to be abandoned because the home will not be used year-round, thus the additional investment would not be cost-effective in the long-term.

Thinking about the future, this 130-square-meter house might eventually become a place to live and work for extended periods. One day it may even become a permanent home. So, a second-story loft was added to provide views out to sea from a home office that can double as a guest room.

With careful attention to detail, we designed concealed doors to sit flush within the spruce-paneled walls that will line the living room. These fold open to reveal a small hobby/guest room and the master bedroom.

A cedar exterior siding was selected because it is naturally weather-resistant and grown locally in Japan. The roof can be accessed by ladder through a large pivoting skylight -- an excellent spot for stargazing and watching the annual summer fireworks display.

The beach house will likely remain empty for parts of the year and gets exposed to some serious storms. Concealed wooden shutters slide across and lock to protect the ground floor from these and other threats.

The home's genkan entry porch also functions as a conduit between the rear of the house and the deck.

Like most Japanese homes, the house has a genkan for receiving visitors and removing shoes. This entry porch is situated within a tunnel connecting the deck and rear entrance. Next to the genkan, we've integrated a storage shed for stashing surf boards and bicycles.

Another distinctly Japanese feature is the bath -- or ofuro -- inside the wet room. Sitting within their sunken bath, our clients can gaze out the full-height window into a private miniature garden (tsubo niwa). This is connected to an outdoor shower and shrouded behind a tall fence.

By early March 2011, the design was finalized and our excited clients were ready to instruct their builder to start work. Then, days later, the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Luckily, in Onjuku the tidal wave did not come any higher than the beach. But scenes of devastation from further north -- not to mention the menace of seaborne nuclear contamination -- undermined everyone's confidence.

However, our clients had already bought and committed to building a house on their plot next to the sea.

The difficult discussions that followed focused our thinking about the ever-present risks when building in Japan. Of course, we had designed the house to withstand strong earthquakes and typhoons. But to withstand the forces like those unleashed upon Tohoku? It might be possible, but at what cost?

We suggested some alternatives: for instance, we could raise the house on 2-3 meter high concrete piers. After much handwringing, our clients stuck steadfastly to their original plan.

Preparation saved lives in Tohoku and they feel that a well-drilled evacuation plan is the key to safety in the event of another tsunami further south. The husband reflected, “if anything the tsunami confirmed and strengthened my awe of ocean.”
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