Public Works: High-Density Living in Japan's "Share Houses"
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Public Works: High-Density Living in Japan’s “Share Houses”

Could the communal living trend take off in Toronto? History suggests it's possible.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The LT Josai share house in Nagoya-shi, Japan. Photo by Masao Nishikawa.

When it comes to sustainable city-building, high density is where it’s at. Urban innovators are always on the lookout for ways to fight sprawl.

In Japan, a country long resigned to dense living, young urbanites are glomming onto the “share house”—an architectural trend that involves strangers living communally, sharing most of their home’s spaces and basic amenities. It’s not a new concept. Much like the denizens of old-fashioned boarding houses, occupants of a share house typically rent a small bedroom for themselves and share access to larger spaces like the kitchen, dining room, and sitting room. Unlike traditional boarding houses, though, which are often stigmatized as dingy hovels, Japan’s shared dwellings are becoming models of architectural efficiency.

The new face of Japanese communal living is Share House LT Josai, a high-profile project in the city of Nagoya. Built in 2013, LT Josai looks like an Ikea showroom designed by M.C. Escher. As its architects explain, “a special technique… becomes necessary for complete strangers to naturally share spaces with one another.”

Designed on a multi-level grid, the house features 13 12.4-square-metre private bedrooms, and a variety of shared areas, each tailored to suit a specific type of housemate interaction. The atrium and dining room are meant for large gatherings, the “rug space” lounge is for two or three people to hang out in, and small living room nooks are best for alone time.

Lingering “rooming house” zoning bylaws aside, could the share house become a reasonable and respectable housing option here in Toronto?

The Introduction to Sociology 1A answer is “no,” because while Japan has traditionally been a collectivist society, we here in North America have built a pretty individualistic one. And for all its modernity and diversity, Toronto is still a pretty straitlaced individualistic town, where “communal living” is often understood as “rutting with hippies until Roger Sterling comes to drag you home.”

But the less reductive answer is “maybe one day,” because Torontonians are already buying into the “sharing economy” in less drastic ways. We now make ample use of car share, bike share, tool share, and kitchen appliance share systems. And, fine, maybe you aren’t about to live communally with a dozen strangers—I’m not either. But our grandfathers wouldn’t have shared their screwdriver set with anyone, except maybe the next-door neighbour. (The one he trusted. Not the Mancinis, who borrowed the lawnmower in 1962 and returned it with a ding in the blade and are probably communists, besides).

And yet, look at us now. We’ve adapted and developed our social practices according to evolving environmental concerns, economic concerns, and, yes, space availability concerns. So who knows what solutions we’ll warm to as apartment and condo sizes continue to shrink, rent continues to rise, and living space continues to come at a premium?

There’s a kind of corny idea many people have about Japan—that it’s perpetually 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. This share house thing may prove the theory right.