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Sometimes architects have to turn the traditional home upside down

When Renzo Piano completed his Shard of Glass in south London in 2012, it broke records for height and floor space – not to mention audacity. But in reinterpreting the legions of church spires it now dwarfs, the pyramidal tower also bucks an architectural trend. Some 4,600 years after the first pyramids topped out, architects are turning the classic bottom-heavy silhouette on its head.

Top-heavy architecture has been a mainstay of high-profile projects for some years, but as a strategy for residential architects, it is only now coming to the fore. It draws on a recent history of clever cantilevers, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania and He Jingtang's China Pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, whose succession of overhanging eaves earned it the name "the Oriental Crown." But while that pavilion had all the bombast and heavyweight backing of a starchitect, the top-heavy style is more commonly an innovative solution for a tight budget or shortage of space. In big cities, especially, where some of the only ground-up development takes place on residential infill, top-heavy buildings represent freedom from a meagre footprint.

Some of the residual effects of the top-heavy model – privacy, better light and self-shaded gardens – are becoming the prime motivators for architects. Particularly since advancements in precast construction and improvements in load-bearing materials like high-performance reinforced concrete, steel trusses and tension rods have made building cheaper and easier for a new market of style-savvy clients. In pockets of Europe and the Far East, where the middle classes are less prone to nostalgia and architectural upstarts are keen to experiment, upending the traditional home layout is not so much a subversion than common sense. When you can get smashing views from the top floor, why wouldn't you maximize that space and share it. It gets lonely at the top.

We got in touch with a few architects whose recent residential projects caught our eye.

Fujizakura House – maximizes views

In a forested neighbourhood north of Mt. Fuji, Fujizakura House is raised on a pedestal and cantilevered on all sides. The architect, Norio Yokota of Case Design Studio in Tokyo, overcame the sloping site with a design that required no level plane. He says that lifting the house above its concrete anchor meant “limiting the cost of staking into the poor ground soil, and also limiting the footprint.” The resulting structure is graceful and lofty, with views that surmount the neighbouring rooflines and capture only the treetops. The architect says he expects a garden will grow in the recovered ground area.

Juso House – maximizes space

Italian architect Stefano Riva collaborated with Portuguese practice ARX on a house with a tiny, 3,229-square-foot lot in Aldeia de Juso, outside Lisbon. The architects built to the outer limits of the plot, letting the garden eat into the ground floor and benefit from the built-in shade of the overhanging top storey. “We used the heavy top level to indicate the limits,” says Riva. “In this way, we created an occasion to introduce another kind of lighting and spatiality.” They supported the structure with prestressed concrete ring beams and pillars below. As the upper storey extended right to the edges of the property, the architects surrounded it in a private concrete shroud, so it’s like a private suite, with sunlight travelling in from above. Conversely, the lower deck is “like an open space, using the garden as part of the house.”

House in Horinouchi – overcomes development restrictions

Kota Mizuishi, of Mizuishi Architect Atelier, needed special permission to build on this slim triangular plot abutting a canal in central Tokyo. So freeing up extra space for a mini-garden and parking space was a particular challenge. Mizuishi wedged them into the narrowest point of the house and built the spare room into the cantilever. To support the heavier upper floor, he burrowed down deep with concrete reinforcements, and shifted the kitchen and stairwell to the wider base of the triangle. The ground floor incorporates a private bedroom that doesn’t require the same quality of light as the living spaces and loft playroom, which benefit from skylights.

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