Follow-up to Freakonomics: What about Financing?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. They keep me in touch with what’s happening in the US and UK. I recently suggested to the team at WNYC’s Freakonomics Radio that they look into Japan’s weird housing economics. They liked the idea and did some research. You can listen to the episode below.

I’m impressed by how the editors distilled this complex topic and some long interviews into an engaging 30-minute episode. The contributions of Jiro Yoshida of Penn State and Richard Koo of Noruma Research Institute lent a lot of weight to the discussion. It’s a shame they didn’t use the part of Koo’s interview where he calls Japan’s depreciating housing “the largest discrepancy in the free world.” Naturally, there is only so much they can cover in so little time…

Listeners might be left wondering what about the role of financing? Japanese people, like everywhere else, typically take out a mortgage to buy or build a new home. But when the home’s value quickly depreciates, owners still have to repay the original value of the loan. During the Great Recession, many US homeowners also found themselves in this situation – it’s called being underwater. A significant number of borrowers (particularly the un-creditworthy ones) came to the conclusion that it would be simpler to cut their losses by defaulting on their loans and handing their house keys back to the bank. The banks were left trying to recoup their losses by selling these depressed assets. Why don’t Japanese homeowners just do the same?

Well, there’s a big difference between home financing in the US and Japan. Those mortgages in the US were non-recourse loans. This means that if you don’t make your mortgage payments, the bank has no other recourse but to repossess the collateral, which means foreclosing on the home. In contrast, Japanese mortgages are recourse loans. Banks have recourse not only to take the home, but also personal assets (cash savings, cars, other property, etc) to repay the original loan amount. The Japanese homeowner doesn’t have the option to walk away from a loan they can’t repay. They’re the ones left holding the depressed asset.

Japanese businessmen – or salarymen – are famous for the incredibly long hours of work, much of it unpaid overtime. The Japanese language even has a word for death by overwork: karōshi (過労死). When I see crowds of men and women in identical suits packing themselves into commuter trains like sardines every morning, it makes me sad to think about what they will spend their lives working for. To get a mortgage in Japan requires a salaried job. Most of them will work at that job to pay off their mortgage and keep a roof over their families’ heads. By the time they finish paying it all off in 20 to 30 years, their home will be worth nothing. No wonder the Japanese are such big savers, preferring to keep their money in savings accounts, rather than reinvesting in their homes, this building upon wealth. Only their land can be resold, but prices have been dropping since the housing bubble burst in the early 1990′s.

Won’t you take a moment to pity the poor Japanese salaryman?

photo by Tokyoform

photo by Tokyoform

On the Passing of Kathryn Findlay (1953-2014)

I recently learned with sadness that Kathryn Findlay has passed away from a brain tumour at the age of 60. She leaves an important architectural legacy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the works that Ushida Findlay built in Japan during the early-to-mid ’90s were truly groundbreaking. Since the Modernist era of the 1950′s and 60s, relatively few significant curvilinear buildings had been realised anywhere in the world. The Truss Wall House (1993), stands out as a seminal work of Japanese residential architecture. It’s also emblematic of a strain of eccentric and extreme houses built in the country’s recessionary post-bubble era.
24_truss-wall
Her works presaged a formal approach that gained mainstream adoration with Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and is now epitomised by the proliferative works of Zaha Hadid, who graduated from the AA only a couple of years prior to Kathryn. Ushida Findlay’s control over form, with all building elements – walls, floors, ceilings, even handrails – merged into a sculptural totality, before modern 3D animation and CAD software trivialised form-making. Designing these works by hand – not to mention (what I guess) are hand-drawn/stippled renderings – must have a been a massively labor intensive undertaking.

I don’t find anything self-consciously avant-garde about Ushida Findlay’s houses. They seem irreverent and playful, capturing a uniquely Japanese spirit of fantasy – a spirit akin to legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Speaking to the Guardian last year, she spoke of the “disapproval (the firm received) in Japan for not being minimalists.” But they persevered in the hope that eventually, “they’ll understand you, and you’ll understand them.”

Kathryn Findlay did eventually convince Japan to take notice and was one of very few outsiders to crack into its somewhat closed and (still, to this day) patriarchal culture. But Kathryn was the first female academic appointed to the faculty of Tokyo University’s School of Architecture. She will be remembered in Japan along with names like Josiah Condor and Antonin Raymond, as an exemplary foreign architect who left a lasting impression here.

It is a shame that I never had the honor to meet Kathryn Findlay in-person. But as a fellow AA-graduate, who has chosen to start a career in Japan, and shares an interest in the complexities of building challenging architecture, she is certainly a role model.

CNN Interview on Japanese Residential Architecture

The CNN interview I gave last week has aired as a part of a piece on Japanese residential architecture (I show up around 1:00 in). The crew got in touch after reading the ArchDaily article and they contacted the owners of some of the homes pictured to arrange access and interviews.

Sou Fujimoto was also interviewed in his House NA, so I tagged along to see it for the first time firsthand. Although I was familiar with the design concept, I came away with a deeper appreciation after talking to the client (who didn’t wish to be interviewed on camera). Of course, seeing how a home is actually lived in – as opposed to staged photographs soon after completion – is always an eye opener (curtains, space heaters, the inevitable clutter of daily life). I thought the CNN cameraman caught the house’s lived-in charm rather well.

CNN shoots Sou Fujimoto's House NA

Thanks Paula, Nicki, and the rest of the CNN crew.

Map of Tokyo Residential Architecture

I was contacted by a number of news outlets after I published my recent article explaining Japan’s crazy housing economics and how I think they facilitate experimental residential architecture. Since many people seem keen to see or photograph these in-person (or via streetview), I have assembled a map that catalogs some interesting examples of Tokyo residential architecture. Google’s new maps engine sure looks snazzy, doesn’t it?

Currently, the map is centred around West Tokyo, where most of the famous examples are clustered. By no means exhaustive or authoritative, I plan to gradually update it (time permitting). I welcome any additions to the map that readers care to suggest. Just tweet them to me: @AlaTown

Why Japan is Crazy About Housing

Japan is famous for its radical residential architecture. But its penchant for avant garde housing may be driven by the country’s bizarre real estate economics, as much as its designers’ creativity.

The following article about Japanese housing economics and how they motivate Japan’s penchant for experimental architecture first appeared on ArchDaily, where it quickly became one of their most popular articles. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevent me from including here the photography that accompanied the original article.

In architectural magazines and websites, like ArchDaily, we see a steady stream of radical Japanese . These homes, mostly designed by young architects, often elicit readers’ bewilderment. It can seem that in Japan, anything is permissible: stairs and balconies without handrails, rooms flagrantly cast open to their surroundings, or homes with no windows at all.

These whimsical, ironic, or otherwise extreme living propositions arrest readers’ attention, baiting us to ask: WTF Japan? The photos travel the blogosphere and social networks under their own momentum, garnering global exposure and international validation for Japan’s outwardly shy, yet media-savvy architects. Afterall, in Japan – the country with the most registered architects per capita – standing out from the crowd is the key to getting ahead for young designers. But what motivates their clients, who opt  for such eccentric expressions of lifestyle? Continue reading

Rethinking the Workspace

Rethinking the WorkspaceSeeking to reach out to those in charge of making office design decisions – senior management of multinationals – I recently contributed an article to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Journal spelling out recent evolution in the workplace… Continue reading

Understanding Japanese Building Law

Understanding Japanese Building LawWhen buying property in Japan, navigating the Japanese Building Standards Law can be complex, even for natives. For foreigners, the added complication of Japan’s unique restrictions and terminology – like kenperitsu and yousekiritsu – can make it all the more difficult. When searching through property listings, you will a set of numbers listed on the advertisement. These are development restrictions prescribed by which of the twelve land use zones and other districts the property lies within. Since it can all be a bit confusing, here’s a brief introduction to some basic restrictions you will need to be aware of when investing in Japanese property… Continue reading

Concreteness (from Clog: Brutalism)

Concreteness Clog Brutalism
I recently contributed an article to Clog magazine’s Brutalism issue, about Japan’s long love affair with concrete. The debate surrounding Brutalism hinged upon whether the 20th-century movement was an architectural ethic or merely an aesthetic. Japan’s obsession with concrete (or what I call ‘concreteness’) might be loosely termed ‘brutalist’, but the country has shown how the material, despite architects’ ethical intentions, lends itself all too well to the aesthetics of consumerism.

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Sudare Screens and Blinds

It’s been some time since I posted about the differences between Japanese and Western housing and how they could constructively borrow these traits from one another. To revie the series (and this blog), I’ve written a short appreciation of an easily overlooked, yet ever present, feature of Japanese townscapes…

Sudare screen

In his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows Jun’ichirō Tanizaki extolled the virtue of shade and advocated for its appreciation in design and the arts. When visiting traditional homes or shrines in Japan, the provision of shade becomes quite evident. In addition to roofs with long overhanging eaves, the Japanese have long used blinds – called sudare – to create shade and privacy indoors, particularly in the hot summer months.

Cookie Cutter or Order Made?

cookie cutter homes


This week the Japan Times ran an article comparing the house we are building in Onjuku, Chiba to he process of building the typical Japanese corporate homebuilder’s home.

I had a bit of correspondance with the article’s author, Philip Brasor, making the case why I think that hiring an architect to design your home is competitive in terms of cost. As a follow-up to the article, I’m publishing some of that correspondance below: Continue reading

Precut – Modern Japanese Timber Construction


Industrially precut timber framing has become the predominant house construction method throughout Japan. In this first short documentary, produced by BAKOKO, we explain the process from factory floor to building site. Like so much of its traditional culture, Japan has developed a highly efficient technological adaptation of an age-old building technique.

This video was originally posted at bakoko.jp

Should Foreign Builders be Allowed into Tohoku?

Can we help?

Can we help?

Recently, a discussion on Linkedin came to my attention between foreign business people concerning bids to provide temporary housing for Tohoku. All shared similar frustrations that the process was far from transparent and it seemed clear to them that the Government of Japan never intended to source from any foreign bidders.

The demands seem to have been onerous: short deadlines, Japan-specific design requirements (tatami mats, electronic baths, etc), locally licensed construction partners, and very short construction turnarounds could all be interpreted as measures designed to protect the Japan Prefabricated Construction Suppliers and Manufactures Association from outsiders.

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Rebuilding Under Uncertainty

At BAKOKO, we’ve been planning a response to the housing crisis left in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed many towns in Tohoku. The challenge to formulating a design for rehousing the homeless is the uncertainty that pervades the rebuilding effort. As the government unsuccessfully struggles to meet its targets for temporary housing and clears mountains of refuse, it may be years before we see much progress on the ground in terms of rebuilding permanent communities. Continue reading

OM Solar – Japan’s Passive Building Standard

OM Solar

Over 25,000 OM Solar homes have been built in Japan within the last 20-30 years. This figure would appear to put the system’s popularity on par with Europe’s Passive House (Passivhaus) standard. Yet, the OM Solar method is unique and seems almost unknown outside of Japan.

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Windowless Homes

Recently, there have been a crop of modern Japanese homes without windows that look outside the home. Open to the sky, they are daylit by skylights and open courtyards. These internal spaces offer brighter living conditions than typical homebuilder homes with their familiar pitched tiled roofs and small windows veiled by net curtains. However, the lack of any view to the outside world is puzzling and, some might argue, unsociable. Continue reading

Before After ビフォーアフター

My last article mentioned a popular Japanese television series called “Before After”. In the cultural wasteland of Japanese television, dominated by cult-celebrity panel variety shows, it stands out as one of the few gems worth watching. Despite being a show ostensibly dedicated to home improvement, it might also be one Japanese TV’s most emotional…

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