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Living in Grass Houses

Japan Quarterly, July/September 1999

In most areas of rural Japan, where the thatched house is the prominent vernacular form, the burden of preservation is on the owner. Why should we bother to halt their decline? Edward S. Morse wrote in 1885 "The thatched roof is picturesque and warm, and makes a good rain-shed." Japanese architect and folk architecture expert Kawashima Chuji praised thatch for its light weight and insulation (R value of 80, twice conventional 'modern' materials), and also that thatch muffles the sound of rain, hardly an insignificant point, since Japan gets between 1,000 and 2,500 millimeters of rain a year. Thatch is ecological, recyclable, renewable and non-polluting. Karl Bengs, German-born, Japan-based architect, says, "Like a child, an old building must be looked after, cared for, nurtured." And like the mother who bore us, she must be respected--not buried alive in a tin casket--nor left alone to die.