On cloud nine
This New Zealand architect borrowed a Japanese compact house concept for his own small home, achieving an uplifting living space in a mere 50 square metres.
With a footprint of just 30 square metres and a mezzanine of a further 20, the Nine Tsubo House is a size many people would consider more suited to a quick weekend getaway than a permanent home. But architect Andrew Simpson, his partner Krysty Peebles and their two dogs have been living here happily for the past six years.
The initial impetus for their small house project was a common one: cost. “When we started looking around for a house to buy, it became pretty clear that we couldn’t afford anything much in Wellington, so we started looking at the idea of building a really small place,” says Andrew. “We had previously lived in a couple of quite small architecturally designed rental houses – one was just 36 square metres. So we knew that we were comfortable living in compact, well-designed spaces. Building small was what we could afford, but also what we were used to; it wasn’t a compromise.”
The couple lucked into a steep site with sweeping north-west valley views in Island Bay, a southern suburb of Wellington. The house Andrew designed, after many iterations, consists of a kitchen, lounge area, den and bathroom/laundry downstairs. Upstairs there’s a mezzanine bedroom and study overlooking a double-height space with 4.5 metre high glazed doors opening onto a deck jutting into space above the slope.
The whole house fits into a cube with 5.5 metre sides, a constraint Andrew chose based on the “nine-tsubo house” family home design concept developed by Japanese architect Makoto Masuzawa in the 1950s. (A ‘tsubo’ is a traditional unit of area measurement equivalent to two tatami floor mats: about 3.3 square metres.) Having spent time in Japan as an architecture student, Andrew found that designing his own nine-tsubo house gave the whole project more meaning. “Personally it linked me to that story and my own history in that country.
“Japan in the 1950s was very economically constrained,” he goes on, “and at the time we were feeling rather like that ourselves. The nine-tsubo approach is a sensible, economical way of building a house, and of course there is also a sustainability aspect to it – I think from an environmental impact point of view the single biggest thing you can do when building a house is build it small.”
The house is timber framed with a metal roof and profiled steel cladding. Though it’s small, the organisation of the spaces means that it’s not claustrophobic. Andrew explains how he ensured this. “It’s not exactly open plan, but each space borrows visual space from the others. For example, the bedroom shares space with the study and the void, with views out the full-height doors to the valley. Though the floor area is small, the feeling is of being in a much larger space, of lightness and airiness rather than a cramped feeling.”
Not unexpectedly, the topic of storage comes up. Although Andrew took care to include storage wherever possible – under the stair treads, and in extensive open shelving around the mezzanine and in the den – “it’s an issue, and we had to compromise,” he says. “But there is quite a bit of space under the house, and we have a shed for things like bikes and camping gear.” It also helps that having lived in small houses for years before moving into their own, they were used to avoiding accumulating ‘stuff’.
With highly insulated roof, walls and floor, well-thought-out cross ventilation and double glazing throughout, the house requires minimal active heating and no active cooling and is very cheap to run. But most importantly for Andrew and Krysty, “it’s an uplifting space to be in. It’s very private – we’re in a bush setting and because we built small we didn’t have to clear much land. With the long view to the other side of the valley, it’s like being in a treehouse. It’s very much a sanctuary.”