Tight squeeze: The secrets behind Japan's coolest micro homes

Story highlights

  • Japanese architect Yasuhiro Yamashita has built some of the world's most beautiful micro homes
  • With projects starting at just 182 square feet, Yamashita shares his secrets for building mansions on top of mole hills

(CNN)A tiny scrap of land might not catch your eye.

But to Japanese architect Yasuhiro Yamashita of Atelier Tekuto, there's nothing more beautiful.
    A veteran designer of kyosho jutaku -- or micro homes -- Yamashita has built more than 300 houses, each uniquely shaped and packed full of personality.
    All starkly different, the only thing these homes have in common is their size -- Yamashita's projects start at just 182 square feet.
    Demand for small homes in Japan results partly from land scarcity, property prices and taxes, as well as the impending danger posed by the country's regular earthquakes and typhoons.
    But some residents simply prefer a smaller home, seeking a minimalist lifestyle.
    "In Japan, there's a saying ('tatte hanjo nete ichijo') that you don't need more than half a tatami mat to stand and a full mat to sleep," says Yamashita. "The idea comes from Zen -- and a belief that we don't need more than the fundamentals."
    Of course, the beauty of a well-designed micro home is that it doesn't appear 'fundamental' at all.
    Below, Yamashita divulges 10 strategies to make petite properties feel more spacious.

    Embrace the awkward

    "Asymmetrical pieces of land can often be obtained cheaper than others. And it is an architect's job to work with the land and fulfill the client's request," says Yamashita.
    "'Lucky Drops' -- a house in downtown Tokyo -- is a good example. It was a leftover scrap of land that was less expensive because of its irregular trapezoid shape. We had to be creative, but the result is beautiful. There's a saying in Japanese, that the last drop of wine is considered to be lucky. That's the inspiration."
    Purchased by a couple on a limited budget, Lucky Drops sits on an irregular piece of land. The long, thin site is just 2.5 feet wide as its narrowest, making it a challenging project for Atelier Tekuto.
    This triangular plot of land sat at the intersection of two streets. Atelier Tekuto turned it into a spacious workshop and private home, with strategically placed windows to balance privacy and natural light.

    Build towards the sky

    "When you look at an area in 2D, it might seem very small -- perhaps the plot is just a few meters wide. But thinking in terms of volume, you can build the home higher and create more space. I try to make the house feel like it's extending upwards into the sky, so it's almost like the sky is part of the house. I also build high ceilings, so you don't feel cramped."
    This Tokyo home, designed by Atelier Tekuto, takes the shape of a polyhedron in order to provide an enormous skylight above the living room.
    Aptly named "Framing the Sky," this Atelier Tekuto home was built on a polygon-shaped site. The architects focused on the relationship between nature and people, by incorporating a large skylight to make the home feel like it was extending upwards into the sky.

    Incorporate nature

    "In Japan, about 70% is mountains and forest and 30% of the land is rather flat, making it more suitable for residences and rice farms. Even so, we are not trying to fight against nature -- we're trying to live along with it. You can see this in the homes we design. Most of our homes incorporate natural materials and large windows to let in lots of natural light."
    Home to 16 skylights, Boundary House directly connects its owners with nature. Inside, Atelier Tekuto used cedar wood and natural stone, as well as a few surprising alfresco spaces.
    A combination of a shop and private home, Wakka incorporates lots of natural touches, such as a small stone garden and a series of sliding doors that offer more alfresco space.

    Think outside the box

    "Instead of traditional square corners, I often cut the edges of the house into triangular shapes. This creates more surface area and more room for windows. There's always a corner open to the sky. That way, as the sun moves, the home is always filled with natural light."
    Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site's shape.

    Go monochrome

    "What you see informs 60% of your perception of a space. Imagine that you're inside an eggshell, with the same color and texture all over. There's no real start or finish, no real corners.
    It is a visual effect that will make the space expand. I think that the color white makes spaces look larger, but I prefer to use the natural colors of materials rather than painting."
    Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site's shape.
    The color white can make spaces look larger, but any consistent palette can create a similar effect. Atelier Tekuto often incorporates natural materials and textures rather than painting.

    Use reflective materials

    "To trick the eye, I use polished stainless steel features. They reflect light and make an area seem larger. In 'Reflection of Mineral,' for example, I used stainless steel in the kitchen and in the bathroom to make the space feel more expansive."
    An industrial-style home designed by Atelier Tekuto, Wafers makes use of reinforced concrete, steel and highly reflective windows.

    Hide Storage

    "People tend to accumulate a lot of things over time. I want it all to be hidden away, out of sight, so I build a lot of invisible storage inside the house. If you keep the area wide open and uncluttered, then it's hard for people to really comprehend the size of the space."
    ide Atelier Tekuto's M House, everything has its place. The uncluttered space feels spacious and large, an effect that's accentuated by floor-to-ceiling windows.
    The owner of Cell Bricks, also a designer, requested an "out of the norm" home and Atelier Tekuto delivered. The house has lots of natural storage thanks to the stacked steel-box design, making it functional as well as visually engaging.

    Stay close to home

    "In the 20th century, architecture was meant for the masses, for the general public. Designs and buildings were constructed quickly and economically -- all with the same materials and same appearance. We were in an era of globalization and everyone wanted the same thing.
    But now, people are looking to their own regions, their own local traditions for inspiration. That's where design is moving -- closer to home."
    Using natural materials such as cedar wood and terrazzo floors, Atelier Tekuto created a nature-inspired abode for a Japanese family.

    Invent new solutions

    "I spend a lot of time developing new materials from what other people consider to be 'waste.' I'm like a garbage man. If I find materials that are not commonly used or have been discarded, then I get really excited.
    If I can't find the materials that go along with the structure, then I invent a new one. For example, I was unhappy with the cement used for homes in Japan, so I worked with Tokyo University to develop a new type. Our recyclable Shirasu Cement is made from volcanic ash deposits."
    Two chemists own R Torso C and they specifically requested a concrete design with an eco-friendly approach. Atelier Tekuto set out out to develop a new type of environmentally friendly cement, called Shirashu.

    Personalize your home

    "A few factors affect my designs -- the specificities of the land, the way the light hits the property, the neighborhood, and the client's personal requests. A home is very personal. In 'Reflection of Mineral,' the clients wanted a strong, sharp-looking design. From there, I choose materials based on the design, depending on what would be best for the space."
    Atelier Tekuto approached Reflection of Mineral with an open mind. The clients requested a strong design that would be a memorable piece of architecture while providing the maximum amount of livable space.
    Also an architect, the owner of Layers requested a home that could accommodate multiple generations, as well as feature outdoor courtyards and connecting staircases. By using a mix of materials, Atelier Tekuto achieved a unique yet functional design.