Akinori Sagane is a man with a mission, an architect with an idealistic vision of how humans can live in greater harmony with the natural environment.

As a leading member of the Ecological Housing Network, a group of like-minded builders, architects and researchers, Sagane has been in the news with two large new projects.

One, a condominium of 14 units in Hino on the western edge of Tokyo, will feature rooftop gardens and communal composting. This project, due for completion in November, aims to use 99 percent natural materials, and the building has been carefully designed with an internal garden space to maximize the flow of air to all units and avoid the need for air-conditioning.

The other project, in Minami Ashigara near Odawara, will comprise 10 individual units built from timber recycled from traditional Japanese houses, together with wood from locally grown trees.

In both places wind and solar power generation will be used for communal lighting and to pump rainwater from storage tanks to the gardens and to biotopes, which they plan to use as an experiment to try to restore the local ecosystem by reintroducing various plant and insect species.

Public interest in these projects is not limited to environmentally minded people. Sagane and his colleagues are providing a great service for another group, those who suffer from “sick building syndrome,” a growing problem which has attracted a lot of media attention.

The main cause of sick building syndrome is thought to be the chemicals used in modern building materials, such as plywood, vinyl chloride piping, adhesives, paints and varnishes, and in anti-mold and house-pest treatments. These can cause acute allergic symptoms such as rashes, eye irritation and breathing difficulties. In some extreme cases people have found themselves unable to move into a newly built home due to the severity of their reactions. New schools and public buildings have also caused these allergic problems.

To deal with this issue four government ministries set up a joint study group, which issued guidelines in March 1998 setting recommended limits for various chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene and xylene, the main offenders.

Now many large construction companies and producers of building materials are riding an “eco-wave” of “green homes” on the back of the guidelines, but Sagane is not impressed. The government safety levels are designed to lower the amounts of the problem chemicals, but do not outlaw them entirely. To Sagane, this is tinkering with cosmetic solutions and far from the radical rethinking that is needed.

“The problem has its roots 30 years back,” he explains, “when traditional wood-frame buildings were first made more weather-tight with the use of aluminum window frames.”

Chemical solutions to the resultant increase in mites and mold, the chemical treatment of timber, and the introduction of air conditioning and vinyl wall coverings have all played their part.

“Many innovations have served the needs of the industry rather than the end user,” says Sagane, who is highly critical of Japan’s mass-production construction industry that focuses on maximum profitability, achieved, as he sees it, at the expense of people’s real needs.

His career started with a student job disposing of industrial waste which “opened my eyes and made me start thinking.” After being “a tiny cog in a huge enterprise,” a change of direction from industrial to house design and frustration with the dictates of the marketplace finally led him to establish his own company, Ambiex, 10 years ago. Since then, he has worked to realize his ideal of “inner and outer harmony” in homes that contribute to a peaceful and balanced life for the client, the community and the environment.

According to Sagane, designing a healthy home is nothing more than letting natural harmony prevail. In a balanced environment, irritation and stress simply do not arise.

A house designed by Sagane is an interesting combination of traditional and new elements. Plaster (shikkui) interior walls in relaxing natural hues, achieved with the use of vegetable dyes, give a country feel. Shoji screens over the aluminum-frame windows use specially produced getto paper from Okinawa, giving a streamlined modern look. Real wood is used throughout, not the veneer seen so much in modern Japanese homes and furniture.

Michiko Shimizu, whose Meguro home in a cooperative housing complex was designed by Sagane two years ago, says, “This house has improved over time, whereas many modern homes I’ve seen seem to become shabby very quickly. It is very easy to take care of, and one of the best things is that we don’t need to use an air conditioner at all. Thanks to the careful placement of windows, the air circulates well. In summer we are cooler and in winter warmer than before.” The veranda of Shimizu’s third floor unit is a mass of plants, a little oasis of city greenery.

To cope effectively with the humidity of Japan’s summers, Sagane has designed an air circulation system for storage closets. Charcoal is used underneath tatami mats to keep them dry, and a layer of cork in the center of the mats also helps guard against humidity and mites.

As Tokyo loses more and more of its greenery due to rebuilding and redevelopment, there is growing interest in the possibility of similar projects more centrally located in the metropolitan area. Tokyo’s government is now pressing for rooftop gardens on large buildings to absorb CO2 and offset the effects of global warming. According to Sagane, Tokyo’s summer temperatures are predicted to reach 40 C by the year 2010. While good house design incorporating the use of plants can help keep indoor temperatures at more comfortable levels, this trend cannot be arrested, he warns, without sustained government commitment.

Sagane and his staff take time out to visit forest areas for research, and have traveled overseas to look at projects in Germany and the United States. Creating community is another important theme for Sagane, and he has been pleased by the beginnings of community in the Hino project, where a total of 50 adults, children and friends got together at the end of the year to explore their new neighborhood. They discussed which species of trees to plant, and even talked of starting a communal rice paddy.

“New styles of community can help to change society’s values by setting a positive example,” he says. Many of the people involved in his work are educators, and Sagane believes that learning by doing in this kind of cooperative venture can lead people toward a healthier society where wisdom (chie) is valued more than mere knowledge (chishiki).

“However, there is nothing compulsory about this kind of community,” he insists. “It is important to balance community and individual privacy. The traditional Japanese chonaikai [neighborhood associations] had negative as well as positive aspects, but I see this as a kind of modern-day chonaikai, which can meet modern-day needs.”

At a time when Japan is facing many disturbing problems in family, school and community life, this vision offers an optimistic view of a new style of community in which the different generations can live together in a caring and connected way.