Yamada Architecture designed a complete renovation of a run-down 90+ year old row house (machiya) on a narrow pedestrian alleyway (roji) just a short walk from Takano river, Kyoto.
Japan is known for its “scrap and build” practice, but old houses on roji such as this project site are likely to just remain since the building code does not permit new construction on roji plots. As such, a roji machiya’s property value is relatively low. But on the flip side, it could be a bargain of near century-old architectural charm.
Roji has a positive side as well. It is a safe, intimately-scaled common outdoor space often personalized by the neighbors’ potted plants. It defies isolation among the neighbors.
The issue, though, is once the resident vacates a roji machiya, it is likely to remain unoccupied, eventually falling into disrepair. Often lacking a bath, a roji machiya is not a comfortable housing option by today’s standards. Its low property value also discourages the owner from renovation.
Such was the case with this project site. The existing house had severe structural issues caused by many years of neglect. In response to the new owner’s request for a fresh, comfortable, contemporary rental home, Yamada Architecture designed a full renovation that is akin to building a new modern house nearly from the ground up inside the existing machiya’s exterior shell.
The existing house had no bath, no garden, and was too small for today’s family. In the renovation design, the lifestyle of a single person or a couple was addressed by the new open floor plans that include a home office and a compact bathroom.
As an essential part of machiya architecture, tsuboniwa, the small courtyard garden was revived in the back of the property. The new open floor plan makes the tsuboniwa viewable from throughout the downstairs including the kitchen and entryway. The idea was to maximize the tsuboniwa experience.
The overall design is about creation of airy space for “life with the garden & natural light.” The double-height dining space allows natural light from the upstairs windows to permeate the downstairs. It also makes the garden visible from the upstairs hallway. The bathroom is naturally lit by its transom window and clerestory windows.
On the upstairs, the new vault ceiling creates an airy open plan feel. The east-facing gable window provides daylight as well as a framed view of the sky which comes into sight every time the resident comes upstairs. Airiness of all spaces is heightened by the simple finish palette that let the light bounce.
While nearly everything in the interior space is new, the original crooked log roof framing and several downstairs old beams give the interior space a sense of history.
The arched corners of the wall openings were designed to accommodate seismic dampers. The whole structure except the old exterior walls now stands on the new slab-on-grade foundation. The old exterior walls were furred out on the inside to enclose insulation which-along with the new dual glazed windows- provides thermal comfort equal to a contemporary house.
This renovation was intended to turn the neglected roji machiya into a well-made, neighborhood-friendly housing option that lasts for generations to come.
Addtitional note: The challenges of this renovation were mainly in working with the deformed geometry of the existing structure. Traditional wood-framed buildings require a greater cracking tolerance of finish materials. As such, for the interior wall finish, vinyl wall coverings were selected over paint.