Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Japanese Home Construction

The Daily Yomiuri reports that the government will study measures aimed at increasing the popularity of constructing more durable houses. At first glance this is a head-scratcher; why isn't this just determined by the market? But cheaply constructed housing is so pervasive here, that we're probably in some sort of meta-stable state where durable housing can't get a foothold in the market.

In the U.S., it's not uncommon for people to live in houses that are a hundred years old; you need to update the electrical system and maybe the plumbing, and if you want central heat/AC that's an expensive upgrade, but it's all doable. Twenty- or thirty-year-old houses are the heart of the U.S. real estate market (maybe the avocado green appliances get looked at askance if you haven't upgraded, though). Although scrape-and-bake McMansions have been the trend for a decade or so, fundamentally U.S. houses are built to last (though I have my doubts about the recent trends in big-chip particle board and some of the materials in the new large-house movement).

In Japan, it's different. I'm not old eough (forty) to associate Japan with cheap, flimsy goods, but that stereotype is really in evidence in the housing industry. Anything over ten years old is "old", and by the time it's twenty you probably don't want to live in it. When I first arrived here in 1992, I thought it was a legacy of the post-war poverty and housing shortage, but Japan has now been prosperous for several decades, and I see no changing trend. Perhaps it goes back several hundred years, to when the working assumption was that a fire would roar through Edo every thirty years or so and obliterate everything, so there was no point in overbuilding.

The average lifetime of a house, according to the article, is thirty years. The government hopes to raise the lifespan to forty years within the next decade, and up to 200 within the next fifty years. It's an admirable goal, but will have a negative impact on the construction industry, so likely will be opposed, I'm guessing.

In a Japanese house or apartment, interior and exterior doors and cabinet doors are often made of flimsy material. Within a decade, they are chipped, the paint is flaking, the hinges are iffy, they may even be delaminating. Flooring is cheap and dents easily, carpets are thin and wear and stain (even without shoes on them). Countertops are either cheap vinyl or unattractive stainless (which does have its benefits).

One of the biggest reasons things age so quickly, IMHO, is the lack of central heating/AC. It's still very rare in houses and nonexistent in apartments. When you move in, you buy a wall-mount unit for each major room. This leaves hallways and entryways unregulated. In our current apartment, for example, they are on the north side and never get sunlight, so they are damp all the time. Cardboard boxes stored under the stairs disintegrate, papers go limp and mold or mildew, and shoes mold. It's startling and disgusting to pull out a pair of shoes you haven't worn lately and find them covered with a fine fuzz, even if you last wore them on a sunny day. This inevitably has to affect the structure of the house itself, and you can see it as wallpaper peels.

Japan is incredibly humid, and hot for much of the year, but this isn't the tropics. People in the southeast U.S. have dealt with this fairly successfully. I wonder how they manage in, say, Singapore, which is fairly wealthy and very tropical?

The most recent houses are sided with some sort of artificial material, often pressed and painted to look like brick or stone. I have no idea how long that will last, but I'm not optimistic. The only positive trends I see are that walls often have some insulation (usually 35mm of polystyrene foam), and double-pane windows are very gradually gaining popularity.

As long as I'm ranting about house construction, it's worth noting that few Japanese people have a clothes dryer. Hanging your clothes out works many days, but many days it doesn't, and your clothes are left damp, with a "sour" smell. We acquired a dryer, which we use probably a third of the time, but it takes hours to do a decent job. The dryer isn't vented to the outside, so it's really just heating up the water in the clothes rather than extracting it. In the U.S. it has been common to plan your laundry room on a wall so the dryer can be vented, but here in Japan they haven't crossed the social hump in popularity of dryers that would make that desirable, and so the machines are stuck in this inefficient mode, which of course hurts their desirability and adoption.

Enough ranting for today...

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