Blaine Brownell is an author, co-director of the architecture program at the University of Minnesota, and founder of Transtudio—a design and research firm focused on emergent and sustainable building advances. He also has a particular affinity for Japanese architecture and looks to the country’s inventive ethos for the latest in cutting-edge materials. “What we see in Japanese residential construction is a keen sense of optimizing resources,” Brownell says. “They import 80 percent of their goods, so architects are really thinking about how to get the most of less material and land.”

That scarcity of space and raw materials is pushing Japan’s home building industry to produce thinner walls in order to maximize square footage. The country that introduced paper shoji screens already has an acceptance of slim partitions. In addition, Asia’s long tradition of heating the person through radiant floors instead of the entire space through forced air allows for less room insulation.

One such example of slender walls is the use of plate steel coated with insulating ceramic paint, resulting in elevations that are only a few millimeters thick. That’s an extreme application, but the use of insulating paint on houses—a technique normally reserved for ships and spacecraft—is becoming more commonplace. “Japan has transferred knowledge of ship building and auto mass production into housing,” Brownell says. The paint doesn’t add much in the way of R-value, according to Brownell, but it does significantly reduce solar heat gain.

“The creation of modules or panels that do several things is also predominant in Japanese home building,” he adds. Packing multiple functions into a compact package also has roots in the island nation’s ship-building history. Atelier Tekuto’s Cell Bricks house demonstrates that creative approach of using something that’s not considered a building material and imbuing it with several functions.

Custom steel boxes measuring 18 inches high by 35 inches wide with a depth of 24 inches act as the house’s structure, exterior finish, and interior storage. Glazing inserted between the staggered boxes produces dappled light without compromising privacy within the 914-square-foot house. The boxes are stacked in such a way as to provide seismic resistance as well as load-bearing support.

Glass is another material being taken to extreme forms and functions. Small, irregular lot sizes plus close quarters don’t leave much room for big yards. Instead, architects incorporate transparency into house design to make interiors feel like outdoor spaces. Brownell is seeing frequent use of glass roof tiles, for example.

“Glazed roof tiles are being used as a way to bring light inside,” he explains, “but they are more easily replaced or maintained than skylights.” The tiles also can be layered over existing roofs as added insulation. “Japanese clients can appreciate pushing material to extremes,” Brownell adds, “even if taken aback by them.”

Resources Insulating Paint: Hy-Tec;Super Therm; Steel Blocks: Atelier Tekuto; Glass Roof Tiles: SolTech Energy; Charred wood: Shou-Sugi-Ban