Heritage Homes’ self-described aim is to ‘rescue, relocate, and modernise’ kominka. Nils Wetterlind, founder of Heritage Homes, explained that, in his birth country of Sweden, ‘it is very common to dismantle and move old timber houses, since the lovely old barns and houses are in Lapland but everyone lives in or south of Stockholm. My great-grandfather moved some timber cottages back in the 1920’s, as did my grandad and my dad, and my cousin and I did our first timber house restoration over 25 years ago.’
Three years ago, Nils moved to Japan with his wife, who is originally from the country, and children. When confronted with the conundrum of depopulating rural areas, ageing populations, and the ensuing endangered state of kominka, Nils, with his long-term background in property, ‘immediately knew that this would be my mission for the rest of my life; to restore and revive these amazing old buildings.’
The essence of Heritage Homes is to dismantle, restore and relocate kominka from one part of Japan to another. In the end, these initially dishevelled farmhouses transform into properties ranging from homes to small hotels, restaurants, clubhouses and showrooms. With master craftspeople based in both Gifu and Niigata, the hope is to salvage and restore as much from each kominka as possible and craft any essential replacement parts. The company is also starting to work with miyadaiku - craftspeople specialising in the construction of Japanese shrines and temples, who are renowned for their use of elaborate wooden joints. Located in western Honshu, Heritage Homes is able to draw on the nearby heritage of the renowned villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Both of which have been bestowed with UNESCO status as a result of their distinctive gassho zukuri (steeply arching thatched farmhouses). This gives an insight into why kominka are so alluring not only to Nils and Heritage Homes, but also to people in Japan and the world as a whole.
Having worked on more than two hundred kominka, Nils was able to clearly invoke what such work is like ‘If we find a beautiful kominka and have cash to buy it, we buy it. However, we don’t dismantle and restore it until we have a client in mind for it. The buildings must be carefully dismantled, and the site must be properly sanitised and returned to nature afterwards. You never quite know how much restoration you need to do to the hardwood timber until you’ve laid it all bare, so it’s always a gamble.’
The team at Heritage Homes extends beyond Nils and includes twelve highly skilled carpenters and woodworking experts. One of whom is Nils’ much-esteemed colleague Karl Bengs, Special Advisor for Heritage Homes and seasoned kominka expert. In 2017, Karl and his wife were recognised for their remarkable contribution to preserving Japan’s traditional architecture with the Grand Prize in the Prime Minister’s Awards for Hometown Development.
Across Heritage Homes, the mantra is that ‘it does not make environmental, cultural, or financial sense to lose such beautiful and culturally significant buildings - all the time wasting the Earth’s resources - only to build new, less charming properties’. Yet, this is not to mean that Heritage Homes’ kominka are stuck in the past. Their work includes reconfiguring wooden frames to suit modern necessities, to house proper kitchens and bathrooms, in addition to creating taller ceilings and doorways to accommodate contemporary living in open spaces.
As well as being adjusted for the modern world, Heritage Homes is keenly aware of the environmental impact of their kominka projects. Nils has a strong passion for sustainability, to the extent that he regularly lectures on the topics of sustainable development and ecology at Stockholm School of Business and elsewhere. In turn, Heritage Homes has become one of the few eco-developers in Japan. An indispensable area of their environmentally-conscious process is replacing the walls between the beams and columns, which are made of straw, sand, and plaster, with up-to-date insulation. Other eco-friendly initiatives include triple-glazed windows and utilising natural paints and wood preserves, as well as using geothermal and solar energy where possible.
The latest projects include Shibui House, which is a brand new eco-house based on the kominka philosophy. Shibui means ‘aged with grace’ and being architecturally ‘aligned with nature and without need for adornment’. Frank Lloyd Wright, who frequently visited Japan and was also inspired by the Shibui principles, describes it like this: ‘True ornament is not about prettifying externals. The beauty is already organic with the structure it adorns.’ In recognition of these principles, Shibui House is a modern representation combining ancient hardwood recovered from kominka with highly sustainable standards, including super insulating eco fibre, and contemporary amenities. Heritage Homes adapt the design of Shibui House depending on the owner-to-be, for example having options for sympathetic or traditional façades and a multitude of floor plans.
Other restoration projects include Shiruku House, Yama House, Aki House, and Queen Kominka, each examples of old kominka, some built as early as the 1820s, many using local hardwood timber. Shiruku house is distinguishable by its unusual exterior, one that Heritage Homes plans to polish to a new standard of living so that it can be dwelt in and loved, just as it was when it was first built. Another stand out example of Heritage Homes work is the Queen Kominka – a name that sheds light on the stately appearance of the property, which was originally built in Niigata, before being moved to Toyama and used as a museum until recently. The expansive former farmhouse has as many as five types of timber ranging from oak, and cedar, to cherrywood and rosewood. If you are interested in owning a kominka or kominka-inspired eco-house, you can contact with Heritage Homes here.
In Nils’ words, ‘An ancient building, made of ancient wood, has a soul, a feeling that simply cannot be faked or achieved by a new house. These kominka are made with huge hardwood beams and columns, from trees that would have been over 200 years old when they were felled 150-200 years ago. The character of such ancient timber is simply impossible to replicate or replace.’ Such character is now inherently tied to Japanese culture. By preserving kominka for the generations to come, Heritage Homes is keeping such shibui principles alive.
If you are interested in hearing more about owning one of these stunning kominka, or the projects that Heritage Homes undertake, please contact Nils and the team at email@example.com
Maddie Rose Baker