micro compact home © Richard Horden

Micro Compact Home

The micro compact home (m-ch) is a new kind of compact living space, currently being developed by Micro Compact Home Ltd, a company evolved from Horden Cherry Lee Architects. Having developed from a design project led by Professor Richard Horden at the Technical University Munich, the m-ch has taken on various influences from its collaborative teams working in Munich and Tokyo. Classic Japanese tea house architecture, prefabrication concepts and technologies from Europe and Japan all played a part in defining the project’s features. PingMag talks with Claudia Hertrich of Horden Cherry Lee Architects about this unique approach to living spaces

Interview by Jon

So many architectural projects these days are all about creating things bigger, flashier and more expensive than the last – what inspired you to create the m-ch?

Richard Horden Associates and Horden Cherry Lee Architects have a history of what we call micro architecture. We try to touch the earth lightly, only using the tiniest of interventions in locations that require to be treated with respect, for example SkiHaus. This design approach is also applied in the m-ch, pronouncing it a universal habitat regardless of place. Its compact dimensions fit anywhere, its design and fit out compliment modern lifestyle, its structure touches the earth lightly.

We believe in the symbiosis of architecture and product design. The m-ch is such a hybrid: a perfect product designed to fulfil today’s needs in everyday life. In this sense, it is a personal (under-)statement of its occupant, in the same sense a modern car, say a BMW, would be. We call this ‘short stay smart living’.

Europe doesn’t strike me as being very space-starved, unlike countries such as Japan. What kind of circumstances will the m-ch be most useful for in Europe? What kind of person do you see needing an m-ch?

We are currently constructing the m-ch in a student housing configuration – a series of cubes on different levels, creating interaction and private spaces.

For private use, the m-ch would possibly be a weekend retreat in the countryside or the mountains, a mobile birdwatching point, or simply a teenager’s first own apartment in their parents’ back garden. As property prices are on the rise in European cities as well, the m-ch is also a solution to use a small plot of land effectively for a pied-a-terre or a weekday apartment.

For business use, the m-ch could for example function as short-stay accommodation for business people, like a hotel or serviced apartments allocated to one company.

Tokyo Institute of Technology was involved in the project – what was their role?

The project started off as a student design assignment at Technical University Munich where Richard Horden is professor of architecture and product design.

A vertical cluster of m-ch units

Brainstorming with the Japanese team at Tokyo Institute of Technology

In these early stages, we conducted a workshop with Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yagi Koji Laboratory, investigating ways of spatial layering, integration of functions within the framework of an overall design for a cube of 2.6 by 2.6 by 2.6 metres. Video conferencing with the students who worked on the same assignment in Munich made the ‘tokyo26′, as it was called then, a truly international project, and many of the ideas gathered in Japan were eventually realised in the final product.

These early stages of collaboration were also published in the Shinkenchiku Juutaku Tokushuu (a modern architecture magazine focusing on housing) in March 2002.

Did you notice any differences in the design approaches between the German team and the Japanese team? In terms of the final product, what aspects of the design do you feel are European-influenced and what aspects are Japanese-influenced?

The enthusiasm of teachers, assistants and students for this project was equally high from the very beginning at both universities – a ‘can do’ attitude that very much helped to develop the project to what it is today. As studies at post-graduate level in Japanese universities usually tend to be very theoretical, the design assignment was much appreciated by the Japanese master students. The fourteen Tokyo students were very perceptive with an immediate understanding of the scale issue and approached the project seriously but with humour and creative freshness. Visits to micro bars and restaurants in the vicinity of Tokyo Institute of Technology supported the understanding of the project, its perception and the speed of design development.

The parallel design progress of both groups was presented several times during video conferences between Tokyo and Munich – the time difference made this an early breakfast start for the German students and a late night affair for the Japanese team. Design, presentation and model making was excellent and of similar quality at both universities – the basics of architectural design have become universal standards, and contemporary trends convey an international architectural language.

The design gives off a minimalist, modern Japanese aesthetic – was that intentional?

The minimalist aesthetic has become quite popular nowadays, probably as a reaction to our fast, technology-oriented, cluttered lifestyles. With the m-ch, we try to take this aesthetic one step further and offer minimalism not only as a surface but as a solution to live in, stripping the unnecessary from everyday needs and thus creating a stimulating, focussing environment to work and live in.

The layering of functions on a ‘clean slate’ and their arrangement, as established in the classic Japanese tea house and often cited in contemporary Japanese architecture, was one of the basic inspirations for the m-ch.

During our workshop in Tokyo, we were able to travel extensively in Japan, visiting cities as Kyoto and Osaka as well as rural areas. Inspirations came from a variety of spaces – from tiny alleyway bars in Tokyo to the Osaka Sony Building, from visits to the prefabrication industry to classic ryokans.

Compact living spaces are a fact of life of living in a Japanese city. The 1K (an apartment that is simply one room and a basic kitchen) and the Capsule Hotel – are these concepts you are familiar with? Did they influence the design process in any way?

Many apartments in Tokyo take this form – the so-called “1K” (1 room + a kitchen)

Tiny coffin-like capsules in a Japanese capsule hotel

We are familiar with this current development in dense cities like Tokyo. I lived in Tokyo myself for two years, in a 1 room apartment in a building that was only 1.60m wide and comprised of only 10 m2 including kitchen and bathroom. During their stay in Tokyo, Professor Horden and his assistants had the chance to experience this small space and were surprised by its qualities.

We visited the Nakagin Capsule Tower and had the chance not only to see the exhibition unit on the ground but also a fully functional, inhabited unit on one of the upper floors. We are also familiar with the extremely short-stay, male-only, coffin-like capsule hotels and hope that we are achieving a different kind of quality!

When creating such a small living space, you have to think a lot about how people live – what are the priorities, what can you cut out etc. Can you explain how you made some of these design decisions?

In our recent application we are designing for students – and their primary need is a space that accommodates living and working / studying at the same time e.g. leaving their work on the desk during the night. We had to find a configuration that allows physical and visual separation of working and sleeping areas which is also important from a psychological view.

The easily-adaptable interior of an m-ch

The arrangement in the m-ch with its fold-up double bed and the generous working / dining table below which slides into the wall gives a sense of two completely independent areas, both complemented with access to the kitchen zone at different levels, and with their own separate communication and media units. This variety of spatial experience helps establish the feeling of generosity within every dedicated space while propagating the layering of functions. This concept will also play a major role for short or longer term accommodation use.

I’m impressed with the level of thought that has gone into m-ch – would you care to expand on why from a psychological viewpoint the separation of working and sleeping areas is important? Is it bad to have a working area visible from the bed?

Compact environments rely on multi-functionality with all everyday requirements integrated within limited space. But it is dedicated space that appeals to us as dwellers: a clean surface to work on, a kitchen linked with a table to serve guests, a sleeping area – a retreat to recover from a day’s work.

Spatial and temporal clarity influence the successful execution of tasks and routines. Thus, the layering of functions in the micro compact home required careful evaluation so zones could be combined or physically and visually separated.

Within the frame of personal preferences, daily routines are established rather than meddled: The separation of work and sleeping zones allocates dedicated work and relaxation areas, assisted by the ancillary multi-level layout of the kitchen. Similarly, the overlay of the less frequented areas of entrance and hygiene zone allows one environment to be perceived in two completely different ways – a passing zone upon entering, similar to a genkan, and a dedicated hygiene zone, a very private space with few visual reminders of its double function.

A “village” of m-chs is being built as student dormitories at Munich-Freimann and will be completed in October. What advantages would the [m-ch] have over more conventional types of student housing?

The O2 Student Village, sponsored by telecommunications company O2 Germany, offers flexibility in the allocation of student housing and easily adapts to increase in demand. It is currently designed especially for short-term lets, such as for foreign exchange students whose number varies from year to year and who thus aren’t easily accommodated in conventional long-term dormitories. The arrangement of public and private spaces promotes communication among the students. One of the units will be occupied by Professor Horden himself.

Currently, the m-ch is a “short stay” unit. Do you think one day it will be necessary for people to live permanently in spaces this compact? What kind of design considerations would be necessary to make a more “permanent” compact home? I think Japan is almost there, judging by the size of my tiny apartment!

With urban areas becoming more dense and property prices rising steadily, the need for small, mobile and low-impact housing is evident. It may not cater to the whole of the population but will be a step towards a more focussed, centered lifestyle. For long-term accommodation, the general facilities for sleeping, working, dining and hygiene are sufficient, however there may be a need for increase in storage space. A dedicated storage cube, like a ‘walk-in-closet’, maybe shared between several units, could solve this problem. We are working on a variety of arrangements, including a tower version with up to 30 units around a central circulation core, with ground floor parking under the frames and a communal cube to enhance neighbourhood communication.

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Claudia!

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