Sumu Japan’s Regenerative Architecture: Building in Harmony with Nature
As concerns grow about the immense environmental impacts of the built environment, there is increasing focus on the concept of regenerative architecture. Regenerative design aims to create buildings and infrastructure that go beyond simply having a low impact; they actively support and enhance the health of surrounding ecosystems. An inspirational new project in Japan provides an example of how regeneration principles can be applied beautifully in practice.
The Sumu project, built northwest of Tokyo using local Japanese cedar trees, takes an innovative approach to working in harmony with nature. Rather than disrupting the forest site with construction, the buildings enhance the woodland. The structures are designed to benefit both human inhabitants and the non-human species living interdependently in the ecosystem.
Building with Local Wood
The buildings are constructed using framing of untreated Japanese cedar combined with plaster walls and clay tile roofing. The timber used was sustainably forested from nearby Nagano Prefecture. Using local wood minimizes the carbon emissions associated with transport while supporting regional industry. It also helps the buildings blend aesthetically into the lush forest setting.
The architects worked closely with local carpenters and foresters during design and construction. This sharing of generational knowledge about local materials and ecosystems exemplifies the holistic thinking underpinning regenerative principles.
Promoting Soil and Root Health
An amazing hidden element of the project is the way soil health has been fostered under the buildings themselves. Beneath the foundations, contractors buried charred logs to help stimulate deep root growth and healthy fungal activity.
The biochar releases nutrients that boost microbial life in the soil. This spurs extensive growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. The fungi help roots access more nutrients and water, thereby making the trees stronger.
Promoting robust underground root structures and fungal networks fundamentally supports the whole forest ecosystem. The charred wood will remain working to improve soil ecology for decades to come.
Designing for Resilience
Thinking about buildings as living systems, not isolated structures, is central to regeneration. The architects designed the homes with natural ventilation, locally sourced timber construction and minimal site impact. By integrating living systems like forest floors and symbiotic fungi, the health of the whole habitat is supported.
This approach creates architecture intrinsically adapted to its surroundings. The mutually beneficial relationship between home and forest makes the development resilient and able to withstand natural shocks like storms or drought. This harmonizes with the essence of traditional Japanese architecture, which seeks to blend buildings into nature.
A Model for Regenerative Building
Sumu demonstrates how human projects can actually contribute to the health of the environments they occupy. Some key principles from the project applicable across sites include:
- Prioritize local materials to minimize transport emissions
- Design for passive heating, cooling and ventilation
- Work with local builders sharing generational knowledge
- Avoid disrupting ecosystems and enhance underground health
- Consider mutualism – how built elements can benefit surrounding species
- Emphasize resilience to natural events
The project architects describe Sumu as “architecture which nurtures the cycles of nature.” This ethos of nourishing rather than extracting from nature is at the heart of regeneration.
Regeneration for Urban Areas Too
While Sumu is set within an intact forest landscape, regenerative principles can be brought into urban settings too. Cities face immense challenges from climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and resource consumption. Urban projects like parkland restoration, green rooftops, floodwater gardens and greywater recycling can all support ecosystem regeneration and community resilience.
When we consider our built environment as part of nature rather than separate from it, enormous potential opens up. Creatively designed projects can nurture nature, enhance wellbeing, and build social cohesion. Regenerative design transcends the idea of simply minimizing harm from construction to actively foster flourishing habitats.
The path to a sustainable future requires rethinking humanity’s relationship with nature. Projects like Sumu provide an aspirational model of architects, builders and communities working together in harmony with local ecosystems.