Building Better Barns: Two Innovative Japanese Designs

In a quiet field on the wild northern island of Hokkaido in Japan, two groups of scientists, architects and urban planners are performing two side-by-side green building experiments that attempt to merge conventional barn designs with the rhythms of nature.

One of these barn-like houses, by the Co+Labo Radović urban design laboratory of Tokyo’s Keio University, is concerned with the merging of the animal and human environments. The other, designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates, seeks to use natural building materials and ancient techniques to capture and retain heat. Both are located a few feet apart on the same Memu Meadows farm in Taiki-cho, on the south end of Hokkaido, known for its brutally cold winters.

The experimental Même "House of the Future" (left) and sustainable Barn House concept sit side by side on a Hokkaido field. Image via co+labo.

The experimental Même “House of the Future” (left) and sustainable Barn House concept sit side by side in a Hokkaido field. Image via Co+Labo.

The Co+Labo “Barn House” project was conceived in the spring of 2012, with the help of Japanese home furnishings company Lixil and several other design universities. The prototype, which researchers are calling the “next generation sustainable house,” uses a combination of passive solar design and all-natural fuels that come from biological sources — namely horses.

The Barn House co-habitation experiment places humans and horses in the same built environment. Image via co+labo.

The Barn House co-habitation experiment places humans and horses in the same built environment. Image via Co+Labo.

Because Taiki-cho has long been associated with an ancient horse culture, the Co+Labo researchers decided to incorporate horses, literally, into the house design. Since November 2012, two researchers have shared the small, two-story barn-like structure with two horses; the humans mostly take up two rooms in the upper loft.

Through heat exchangers and passive design elements, the Barn House, manages to stay warm for man and beast in the winter. Image via co+labo.

Through heat exchangers and passive design elements, the Barn House, manages to stay warm for man and beast in the winter. Image via Co+Labo.

The horses are free to roam the wide property and have their own hay-lined stables on the ground floor, but they do more than just add to the pastoral beauty. The manure they produce is collected by the researchers and composted for use not only as fertilizer for the grounds but also as fuel. By mixing in sawdust from a nearby wood-cutting operation and the urine from the horses, the researchers can create a natural charcoal that is dried in the sun and burned to heat the structure.

Diagram showing the various technologies used to keep the test barn warm. Image via co+labo.

Diagram showing the various technologies used to keep the test barn warm. Image via Co+Labo.

In addition, heat that is produced naturally by microbes in during the decomposition process in the compost room is also captured by heat exchangers in the walls. This heat is then radiated through the concrete foundation to warm both man and beast within the entire structure.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.