Best International Design 2019: National Park Meets Senior Living in Large Tokyo Community

If location is everything, then Tokyo’s Sun City Tachikawa Showa Kinen Koen has it all.

The nearly 600-unit community sits at the edge of Showa Memorial Park, a public park in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa that opened in 1983 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Japanese Emperor Showa. Situated on the park’s edge, Sun City Tachikawa seems to flow directly into the abundant greenery next door.

Inside the community, residents can mingle in modern-looking spaces that promote interaction and active living while evoking a feeling of exclusivity. Amenities include a concert hall and meeting space that can serve as a venue for other events; a library; aquatic center and spa; spaces for karaoke, billiards and mahjong; dining and tea rooms; and art studios. And, the building’s design has plenty of windows with unobstructed views, furthering its connection to Showa Memorial Park.

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The high-end, forward-thinking project won the “Best International” category in the 2019 Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards.

The concept

The original purpose of the Sun City Tachikawa project was to develop a site that the ownership of Healthcare Japan had possessed since the 1940s. Originally, the property held one-story homes that were rented to occupying U.S. servicemen. At the time, the land that now holds Showa Memorial Park was a U.S. airbase.

The rental neighborhood was among the first income-generating properties for the ownership of Healthcare Japan, making it a significant site, according to Richard Beard, who helped design the project with his firm Richard Beard Architects. Beard also completed portions of the work while he was principal at BAR Architects.​

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“This property had been in the hands of the owner’s family since right after World War Two,” Beard told Senior Housing News. “It turned out to be a great asset, because how many times do you get to do something that immediately abuts a significant park?”

The design process kicked off in 2007, when Healthcare Japan held a competition to attract a multitude of concepts in developing the site for its Sun City senior housing brand. The winning design was a community from a design team consisting of Beard and two others: BAMO Principal Gerry Jue, who handled interior design; and SWA Group Principal John Loomis, who led the project’s landscape design.

The Bay Area-based group has worked together for over two decades. During that time, they’ve worked with Healthcare Japan on other projects, including Sun City Kobe Tower, which won two Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards in 2017.

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“The Kobe project and the Tachikawa project are an interesting study in contrasts,” Beard said. “Kobe was in an urban setting … [and] Tachikawa is literally surrounded by a significant national park.”

The overall vision behind the design for Sun City Tachikawa was to capitalize on the national park next door. To achieve that, the concept relied on a Japanese garden design technique called shakkei, which is the principle of incorporating nearby or distant scenery into the composition of a space.

For Sun City Tachikawa, the project’s designers “borrowed” the adjacent Showa Memorial Park by incorporating into the final product views of the park and design elements inspired by it. The community also has green spaces that lack a physical barrier between the two adjacent plots of land.

“You’re actually looking over the dividing line between this property and the park, but you’re unaware of it,” Beard says of the green space. “It really flows right into the park, and … I think that’s probably what won us the competition.”

The community itself was designed with a four-fanned layout that maximizes southward views and is linked together on the ground floor. Each of the fans are shaped around a series of courtyard spaces designed to carry their own sense of character.

Inside the building, the connection to nature is reinforced with the use of natural colors and materials. Specifically, the designers mixed “old world” non-industrial, artisanal, and handmade elements with “new world” machine-made and imported ones. Materials include walnut and oak woodwork, natural stone, hand-troweled plaster, lacquer, custom Japanese washi and wooden screens, wrought iron and hand-blown glass.

“We wanted the interior – and by extension, the residents – to become ‘one with the park,’” Jue told SHN. “This oneness with nature is a particularly Japanese state of mind, embodying the passage of time and the inevitability of returning to the earth from which we come.”

Almost all of the furnishings, light fixtures, carpets and window coverings were custom designed for the project, and much of the artwork came from Japan.

“The outcome feels not unlike a fine luxury hotel of the most discerning taste,” Jue said.

The construction

Construction began in 2015, and was on time when it wrapped up in the spring of 2018. The project’s contractor was Maeda Corporation, a prominent Japanese building construction and civil engineering firm.

The project was also on budget, thanks to Healthcare Japan’s keen attention to spending, Beard recalled. 

“It required a lot of diligent review of where the construction money was going,” Beard said. “They got [the total cost] down quite a bit, but they ended up putting more back in as it was under construction because I think they realized that it was worth the investment.”

While the particulars of the ambitious project itself were a challenge, its design and construction teams were well-prepared, and the process was smooth over the roughly three-year period, he added.

“The construction quality [in Japan] is extremely high,” Beard said. “I’m still amazed at how efficient and well-constructed things are.”

The fact that the design team had worked with the client on previous projects also helped the process along. And, the Sun City Tachikawa project also benefited from years of accumulated usage data from that team’s past projects.

“We had the benefit of all of this accumulated knowledge to inform us how to do this in a way that was going to benefit the eventual users of the building as well as the ongoing operations,” Beard said.

The completion

Like its sister community in Kobe, Sun City Tachikawa reached its target occupancy faster than anticipated. While Beard was unsure of the exact current occupancy, he estimated it was higher than 80% and climbing.

For Jue, the finished product exceeded all of his “wildest expectations.”

“We put everything we had into it for the 11 years from competition-winning entry to grand opening,” Jue told SHN. “The frosting on the cake was learning the residents are delighted with their new home, and that this was the fastest-selling project in our client’s portfolio.”

SHN’s Design Award judges lauded the project for its sleek, modern design and its connection to the surrounding national park.

“The layout of the building utilizes the site well and gestures to the nearby park,” said Dean Maddalena, president and co-founder of senior living design firm StudioSIX5 and a Design Awards judge. “Beautiful integration of interiors and exteriors as you journey through building.”

Jeff Anderzhon, senior planner and design architect with Eppstein Uhen Architects and another Design Awards judge, had similar things to say about the project.

“Very nicely done, and great integration into nature surroundings,” he said.

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