Could You Live in a House Without Walls?

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Inside Shigeru Ban's Wall-less House, 1997

Interior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan
Interior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan. Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai, Shigeru Ban Architects courtesy

Look closely. Way down there at the end of the...hallway? Is that a bathroom? I see a toilet and bathtub, so it must be a bathroom—but there is no room. It's the last open space to the right.

In a house without walls, vocabulary must change. There is no bath-room, no bed-room, no living-room. The wall-less design informs the room-less language.

Where's the bathroom in a wall-less house? Right out in the open. No door, no hallway, no walls.

Pritzker Laureate Shigeru Ban created this private home in Nagano, Japan, a year before the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. Although it appears to have no walls, noticeable grooves on the floor and ceiling indicate the tracks for moveable dividers, panels that can slide into place to create walls—especially, it seems, around the bathroom area.

So, why do we build open areas only to compartmentalize the interior space, creating walls and rooms in which to live? Sociologists may explain the phenomenon as part of human evolution—walking away from the cave to explore open areas, but returning to the safety of the enclosed space. Psychotherapists may suggest it's arrested development—the unconscious desire to return to the womb. Social scientists might say that categorizing space is similar to the roots of prejudice, that we form stereotypes and compartmentalize to organize information and make sense of the world around us.

Dr. Toby Israel would say it's all about Design Psychology.

Design Psychology:

As environmental psychologist Toby Israel explains it, design psychology is "The practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principal design tool." Why do some people prefer an open floor plan, but for others the design creates anxiety? Dr. Israel might suggest that it has something to do with your past memories, and it's better to be self-aware before you begin to live in a place. She claims that "we have this past history of place, and it unconsciously effects us."

Dr. Israel has developed a "Design Psychology Toolbox," a series of nine exercises that examine a person's (or couple's) past, present, and future. One of the exercises is to construct an "environmental family tree" of the spaces we've lived. Your environmental autobiography may determine how comfortable you feel with certain interior designs. She says:

" When I work with healthcare places to help them design the hall waiting room or space, I get them to think about what's the personal space, what's the private space, what's the semi-private space, what's the group space so families can meet and that kind of thing. Really the human factors that go into the space."

The organization of space is not only a personal preference, but also a cultural and societal learned behavior. An open floor plan—even a wall-less bathroom—may be more acceptable if you're sharing the space with the one you love. Better yet, if you're living alone, an open space becomes like a loft apartment, a studio, or a dormitory room. For many of us, walls of separation may imply a socio-economic move up the ladder from one-room spaces.

More Examples of Open Floor Plans:

  • The Rietveld Schröder House, built in the Netherlands in 1924, is an iconic example of De Stijl Style architecture. Dutch building codes forced architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld to create rooms on the first floor, but the second floor is open, with sliding panels like Shigeru Ban's house in Nagano.
  • The "open school" model of school architecture in the 1960s and 1970s theorized that the one-room schoolhouse had a lot going for it. The theory of open learning seemed like a good idea, but the wall-less architecture created an unstructured environment in larger rooms; folding walls, half walls, and strategically placed furniture returned open spaces to classroom-like spaces.
  • Today's largest use of the open floor plan is in office buildings. Open spaces can enhance a team approach to projects, most notably in professions such as architecture. The rise of the cubicle, however, has created prefabricated rooms within the larger "office farm" space.
  • The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is known for designing residences with open floor plans. His Architecture of Interior Space is derived from the open-nature of the Prairie.

Learn More About Design Psychology:

  • Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places by Toby Israel, 2010
    Buy on Amazon
  • Environmental Psychology for Design by DAK Kopec, 2012
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Design Psychology, Toby Israel Consulting, Inc [accessed July 20, 2014]; Interview with Toby Israel: Getting Your Money's Worth with Judith West [accessed July 21, 2014]

NEXT: Exterior of Shigeru Ban's Wall-less House >>

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Exterior of Shigeru Ban's Wall-less House, 1997

Exterior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan
Exterior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan. Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai, Shigeru Ban Architects courtesy, modified by cropping

This Shigeru Ban-designed house in Japan not only has an open interior floor plan, but it also has a limited number of exterior walls. My immediate thought is how dirty the floors must get, but I suppose if you can afford a custom-designed house by a Pritzker Laureate, you also can afford a regular housekeeping staff.

If your home's location is all about the view, why separate living areas from the surrounding environment? Sliding glass wall products such as NanaWall Systems make permanent exterior walls obsolete in most cases.

Three Good Reasons for a House Without Walls:

  • Designing For Dementia: Exterior walls may be necessary for houses with children and people with memory loss. However, interior walls often confuse people who are dealing with progressive dementia.
  • Space Clearing: The Feng Shui Expert suggests that space clearing is necessary when energy accumulates to unhealthy levels. "In feng shui," the Expert says, "the right location of walls can promote a good flow of energy and enhance the positive feelings in a home."
  • Cost Savings: Interior walls may add to construction costs and certainly add to interior decorating costs. Depending on the design, engineering, and materials, a home without interior walls may be less expensive than conventional design.

Architect's Statement:

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban describes the design for his 1997 wall-less house in Nagano, Japan:

"The house is built on a sloping site, and in order to minimize the excavation work the rear half of the house is dug into the ground, the excavated earth being used as fill for the front half, creating a level floor. The floor surface at the embedded rear part of the house curls up to meet the roof, naturally absorbing the imposed load of the earth. The roof is flat and is fixed rigidly to the upturned slab freeing the 3 columns at the front from any horizontal loads. As a result of bearing only vertical loads these columns could be reduced to a minimum 55 mm in diameter. In order to express the structural concept as purely as possible all the walls and mullions have been purged leaving only sliding panels. Spatially, the house consists of a 'universal floor' on which the kitchen, bathroom and toilet are all placed without enclosure, but which can be flexibly partitioned by the sliding doors."

Shigeru Ban won architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2014.

Learn More About Shigeru Ban:

Source: WALL-LESS HOUSE - Nagano, Japan, 1997, WORKS - Houses and Housings, Shigeru Ban Architects

Another Look: Where's the bathroom in a house without walls? >>