-Future Report- Exploration Neo-futristic experimental residential complex

In a corner of an urban area is a huge tree house!?

“What is this. . . a forest?”
Looming large in a corner of the metropolis is a building that looks like it’s living together with trees. Surrounded by office buildings and condominiums, the building stands out prominently.

“Is this an experimental residential complex?”
Not knowing where to go, I just continued looking at the building.
Greeting me at that time was Mr. Toru Shiba of Osaka Gas, who served as my guide.

Toru Shiba Residential Energy Business Unit of Osaka Gas “Welcome to NEXT21.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Shiba. It looks like the building and the forest are blending together.”
“Yes, they are. This building is seen as a demonstration model for a residential complex that harmonizes with the environment. The aim is to promote greening of large-scale buildings.” What is a residential complex that harmonizes with the environment?
What is greening of large-scale buildings?
I’ve never heard of these key phrases. But they sound profound.
First of all, what is NEXT21?
So, I asked Mr. Shiba to explain what this is.

A residential complex that A1:B67 with the environment—a concept taken up by a school textbook

── Did Osaka Gas start the experimental project a half century ago? Isn’t Osaka Gas an energy company? Why did such a company start this project?

Shiba: NEXT21 is an experimental residential complex that has been developed with an eye toward the future. In the near future—10 years or 20 years from now—people’s living styles and their family forms are likely to change. Accordingly, people’s needs for housing are also expected to change. We are interested in knowing how such needs will actually change. The NEXT21 project is verifying what our housing and energy systems should be like when people’s needs for housing change in the near future. The experiment takes the form of people actually living in the experimental housing facility, built in 1993. Back in 1968, Osaka Gas started conducting a similar habitation experiment using a similar facility.

── What is the significance of NEXT21?

Shiba: There are three points I’d like to cite regarding the significance of NEXT21.
Please refer to this chart for details.

The significance of NEXT 21 and the results of the residential experiments

  • PHASE1

    Realize large-scale greening of a building.

    Verify environment-conscious advanced energy systems.

    Verify energy-saving life-style.

  • PHASE2

    Propose environmentally-conscious sustainable housing suitable for an aging society with a declining birth rate, and verify sustainability through a survey of dwellers about the use of their houses.

    Verify architectural systems through renovation projects.

    Experiments to study the formation of community among dwellers.

  • PHASE3

The habitation experiments were conducted in three phases. The first phase1 started in 1994. The current fourth phase4 was launched in 2013. Through the experiments, Osaka Gas has explored what the housing and energy systems should be like. Making housing and energy proposals based on the experiments is a theme that has remained unchanged under the NEXT21 project. Enriched, environment-friendly lifestyles are the aim of this urban multi-unit housing under the fourth-phase4 experiment, which will last until around 2020.

── Are there any other similar experimental housing facilities?

Shiba: No. The one under NEXT21 is the only facility involving a long-term habitation experiment. Since such a facility exists nowhere else, many scholars and corporate researchers visit it for research purposes. NEXT21 has even been taken up by a college textbook.

─ That’s amazing. By the way, I’m wondering who the people are residing in the housing facility?

Shiba: Osaka Gas employees live there for the experiment, which runs for five years for each family. Each time applications for the house are sought, the number of applicants exceeds the number of housing units. Therefore, a lottery is held.

── So many people are interested in residing in the experimental house. There are so many eccentric people.

Shiba: If you go there yourself, you can understand why it is so popular among potential residents. The NEXT21 housing complex is totally different from ordinary condominiums. Let’s take a look at it.

What are planted on the rooftop?

Shiba: I will guide you to the building. First, I will take you to the rooftop.

── This is wonderful. It’s greater than I had imagined, because I had thought there would be just small flowering plants. But there are trees too. It’s a green tract of land.

Shiba: Yes, it is. This is a rooftop green space. Birds come here too. To the north of the building is Osaka Castle Park. To the south is Tennoji Park. This is a midway point between the two parks, which makes it a suitable resting place for birds flying between the two parks.

── There is a farming area too.

Shiba: Residents of the building water vegetables being planted on the field for each season on a rotational basis. Harvested vegetables are shared among the residents. Also, larvae of beetles are released in the soil set up at the green space. Children can catch the beetles here.

── In the middle of this urban area?

Shiba: Yes. This is interesting isn’t it? We are not undertaking these activities only as demonstration events. Through these activities, we want the residents to develop an interest in the green area. Our hope is that they will learn more about biodiversity.

── Beside the green space is an energy-related facility?

Shiba: The facility houses the ENE-FARM system and a storage battery. On the roof of the facility are solar panels, which is part of the smart-house experiment we are conducting to promote renewable energy sources. We will apply the results of the experiment to a residential house in the future.

If the times change, family and housing will change.

Shiba: Let’s go downstairs. It’s a nice day, so let’s go down using the stairs.

── Is this a common space? What a luxurious way of using the space.

Shiba: This type of design would be impossible for an ordinary condominium. This is as spacious as one room. This kind of space set aside for as common area makes it easier for interaction between residents. This is a good example where people-to-people connections become possible even in a condominium. This is an element that’s likely to become necessary in such housing in the future. Let’s use this connecting passageway to go to the other side.

── We can overlook the entire area from here. Here we can sense the other residents. Now, I am beginning to understand why so many people want to live in this experimental condo. I am curious to know how the residential space has been designed.

Shiba: Let’s take a look at one condo unit that is open for visitors. The room number is “303,” which is nicknamed “a house for independent-minded family.” Please enter here.

── Do I enter here? This is a bedroom, isn’t it?

Shiba: This housing unit is a bit unordinary. The unit is for a family of four. One room is designated for each family member and is connected to the outside. The living room is allotted at the far end. Each individual room has one entrance door. Five entrance doors have been installed. Four are for individual rooms and one is a back door.

── Very unordinary.

Shiba: Please go in. This is the living room.

── It is very spacious.

Shiba: The walls between individual rooms and the living room are movable. By pulling each wall up, one big space can be created for each family member. He or she can use the individual room and the living room as one big-size room.

── That’s interesting. Isn’t the theme of this housing complex “a house for independent-minded family”?

Shiba: Yes, that’s right. Recently, the tendency to respect individual privacy has grown strong among the general public. An increasing number of people think of the family as a group of individuals, each with their own personality. Under these circumstances, what we did was to review the relationship between the main room of a residence and rooms set aside for individual family members. A residence is where the connection among family members and each family member’s individuality must be realized simultaneously. To make these mutually conflicting concepts compatible, we proposed linkage between a new common space, individual rooms, and outer space.

── I understand the purpose of the experiment. But the residential complex used for this experiment is so different from ordinary condominiums, which likely make living a comfortable life more difficult.

Shiba: People living in the experimental condo under the NEXT21 project are periodically interviewed. Some of them—those living under the experiment’s phase1—had positive comments about the housing unit’s design, saying they can feel as if they can change themselves by moving between the private space and public space. According to them, they were able to deepen communication among family members more than when they had lived in an ordinary 3LDK condo. Living in a NEXT21 condo seems to be enjoyable for them.

What’s behind too free design and renovation?

── Are you saying that each housing unit has four entrance doors?

Shiba: Of course, that’s not true. <laughs> Each unit has a different floor plan and design based on the different concept of each resident. For example, house number 403, called “Resilient House,” was designed with the concept of enabling cooking-class sessions. If its ceiling-to-floor window is opened, the kitchen is directly connected to an outside balcony where people can enjoy eating food they have just cooked while sitting in chairs.

── Unit 403 has a floor plan that is totally different from unit 303.

Shiba: Another example is unit number 501, called “Plus One House,” whose concept is for “1.5 families” to lead a condo life while sharing the same space. Dividing the entire unit in the center is a concrete tile corridor. One side of the corridor is for one family, a husband and wife. The other side of the corridor is for “a 0.5 family,” their unmarried son or daughter. Family compositions change over time. “Plus One House” can flexibly respond to such changes.

── Having a concrete tile corridor in the center is a unique idea. According to this pamphlet, the “Plus One House” is part of the fourth phase experiment. Does this mean that unit 501 was renovated from a unit with a totally different design? Renovation of this magnitude is impossible for an ordinary condo, isn’t it?

Shiba: Yet. But this is what we want to emphasize most about NEXT21, which was designed as a residential complex used for 100 years. One century is so long that people’s lives and family forms change during the period. Therefore, a house should be flexible enough to respond to such changes. What we have come up with under such an idea uses the skeleton-infill construction.

── What is the skeleton-infill construction?

Shiba: This method divides a construction system into two parts—the durable “skeleton” (framework and walls of a building) and the changeable “infill,” (interior). Under the NEXT21 experiment, each phase has had a different theme. If the theme varies, our housing proposal changes too. Under each theme, each housing unit’s floor plan and interior design should drastically change. A solution to this challenge is the skeleton-infill construction, in which drastic renovation according to the resident’s choice is possible without damaging the framework.

── This is a wonderful system. What about the water supply system or plumbing system? Do these systems work under the skeleton-infill construction?

Shiba: I’ll show you the secret. Please look at this.

── Underneath the corridor is a piping system?

Shiba: Yes. The space just below the corridor is designated for the piping system. Using that space enables the location of the water supply system to be drastically changed, which is impossible for an ordinary condominium. When some officials working at condo development companies visited this building, they told us that this kind of plumbing system is too costly for them.

Our experiment will continue proposing people’s future lifestyles.

── Thank you so much for inviting me to this experimental residential complex. I found everything very interesting. Finally, can you explain the vision you have for NEXT21?

Shiba: Our society will age further while the childbirth rate is expected to decline further. If these trends continue, our concept of a family will likely change while people’s awareness of the need to save energy will increase. Osaka Gas is ready to address these challenges by putting forward various housing and energy proposals. I believe that effectively using and verifying the results of the NEXT21 experiment is important to achieve the goals.

── I hope Osaka Gas will continue conducting such a unique experiment. Thank you very much.
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