Recycling Houses and Revitalising Culture
An association that helps people buy or adopt and repair old houses using traditional methods and materials, fostering mutual aid through a volunteer network of shared skills and tools


In many parts of the world, low-cost housing built with cheap, imported, carbon-intensive materials undercuts more expensive housing and repair options that often derive from local materials and practices. This is the case in Japan, where housing has been built abundantly by unscrupulous developers to serve a vast and predominantly urban population. New housing in rural and urban areas of Japan now tends to favour mass-produced concrete, imported timber and plastic construction, and energy-intensive practices of disassembly. Demolitions are common.1For more on timber usage in Japan see Harvard Graduate School of Design. ‘Architectural Ethnography: Atelier Bow-Wow’ <https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/exhibition/architectural-ethnography-by-atelier-bow-wow/> [accessed 5 November 2023]. See also Nuijsink, Cathelijne, and Momoyo Kaijima. ‘Timber Behaviorology’. Architectural Theory Review 25, no. 1–2 (4 May 2021): 136–51 <https://doi.org/10.1080/13264826.2021.1971832>. Dotted around the countryside, meanwhile, lie clusters of wooden farmhouses that were once homes to large families who grew rice, forest mushrooms, and vegetables, and used their steep attics for sericulture and drying persimmons. With such cottage industries less common, these houses (minka, in Japanese—literally folk houses) are left empty, though their construction was intended for long lifespans. Family structures have atomised, younger generations have sought urban employment, and birth-rates continue to decline, further reducing opportunities for mutual aid in the maintenance of these houses, communities, and craft skills for their upkeep.


Despite the steep decline in rural populations, some villages have maintained their minka and, with them, social infrastructures of mutual aid. These villages are preserved by law as important cultural properties.2They are classified as Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings under a 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. The law both restricts and protects. Before any alteration to material or organisational patterns can be made in the village, careful communal consideration is required. Many villages have not fared well and have become “ghost villages”. In response, and in the face of the Japanese building industry’s demolition-prone norms, a movement for passing on dwellings and their embedded knowledges to the next generation has emerged, in part through the establishment of The Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association (JMRA) in 1997.3‚日本民家再生協会’ / Japan Minka Revival Association <https://minka.or.jp/english> [accessed 5 November 2023].

JMRA is a non-profit organisation that promotes the careful upkeep of minka across Japan. With its promotion of reuse and recycling comes the preservation of local knowledge, skills, and natural materials. Minka and the existing Minka knowledges vary from region to region, reflecting situated building techniques that are appropriate to respective microclimates. Steep roofs deflect precipitation in rainy Toyama, and heavy snowfall in Shirakawa, for instance. The steep roofs also channel smoke from centrally placed fireplaces into their eaves where it dries the thatch and deters insects. Bamboo grows in abundance in Shizuoka, meanwhile, so minka there feature lots of it, while straw is more common in Gifu.

Because Minka are clustered in groups and need to be re-thatched or otherwise repaired by teams of skilled people, their spatial presence requires a social presence. Social infrastructure has a deeply rooted tradition in Japan. Some of the earliest existing minka date to the 11th century, and a feudal agrarian context in which close-knit communities of multi-generational families lived in clusters and supported each other through mutual aid (sougo-fujo), repairing their homes, harvesting together, or patrolling villages as fire brigades. Echoing this social provision, JMRA’s promotion of repair and recycling includes a Minka Bank that helps owners transfer their minka to people who want them, and a Kozai Network to circulate old wooden building materials (kozai) amongst house owners. Specialists work with JMRA to advise owners on conservation practices and how to source local materials, including bamboo, wood, straw, and clay. Traditional construction techniques, such as the twining of roof structures to allow for movement during high winds or earthquakes, continue to provide the best solutions for the local climate, and make use of local knowledges and skills.

Minka are built in ways that allow for their easy dismantling, which has enabled some owners to transport them to new locations. While transportation incurs a cost to the environment, and could exacerbate rural population decline, it does ensure that minka materials can find a second or even third life elsewhere. These days, minka are often reused as guesthouses and social facilities, and some companies use minka as co-working office spaces. Though many minka are owned by individuals who can afford their upkeep, their considerable size could be an invitation for architects and developers to consider co-housing models of occupation. Given Japan’s ageing population, re-introducing multi-generational dwelling practices could help address the isolation of the elderly.

Minka provide an exemplary model for thinking about architectural practice in the face of climate breakdown by foregrounding the recycling of materials and the preservation of ancient technologies and skills that are attuned to climate. While comprising materials that are found nearby and are completely biodegradable and therefore have a very small ecological footprint, and being constructed for longevity and in ways that allow for disassembly and reconstruction, minka have the potential to be used for co-housing and for reducing household emissions by pooling resources under one roof.

Practices of mutual aid and locally sourced skills and materials occur across the world, from the Harambee tradition of collective work in Kenya to Pumasi communal labour in South Korea’s kimchi and rice production sectors. What is important is that such practices are supported, publicised, amplified, scaled, adapted, replicated, trialled, and experienced elsewhere. Using local materials, knowledges, and labour challenges extractivist practices that prioritise cheapness over fairness. The minka that sways in the wind but stays strong is a metaphor for the idea that architecture is climate, demonstrating that architecture is vulnerable to climate conditions and works best when designed responsively to and for these conditions.


External links

Harambee—tradition of collective work in Kenya  

Pumasicommunal labour in South Korea