Featured in The Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal Japans Creative Ephemeral Homes

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article summarizing my observations about the economics that stimulate Japan’s eccentric residential architecture. In addition to featuring my work, the correspondent – Lucy Alexander – also interviewed our clients.

The Onjuku Surf Shack certainly isn’t as unconventional as S-House, a curious see-thru split level home designed by Yuusuke Karasawa. However, both projects are used to illustrate the fact that Japanese clients have greater freedom to build their homes around their own personal tastes and aspirations. Our client expresses this quite well when she says, “I always wanted to design our own house to suit our lifestyle—a place where we could relax and enjoy life.”

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

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

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.

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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Green Spaces in Japanese Cities


Japan is a notoriously cramped nation. The commercial pressures to utilize land efficiently entail that little is set aside for the gardens, parks, or open spaces. Well, perhaps this post should be re-titled: “Something that Japan IS Learning from the West” because the Japanese retailer Muji is attempting to put Western town planning practices to use in building a greener suburban community East of Tokyo. The project makes an interesting case study. Continue reading

Kura Storage Spaces

kura
Japan’s house building industry is characterized by intense competition. With so many young families choosing to build new homes, volume house builders come up new innovative features to outcompete rivals’ products. Although these features often seem gimmicky, one idea that seems to be a must is the half-height storage level, or “kura” space. Two families we are well acquainted with here in Japan have both built new homes with a kura space in the last year. Continue reading

Terrace Housing – Why is it uncommon in Japan?

Terrace
Western visitors are often struck by the density Tokyo’s small houses. Often a gap of only 40 centimeters (15″) separates two houses – barely wide enough for a person to squeeze between. Windows often look into these dark gloomy voids. Seeing this depressing site throughout Japan’s towns and cities leaves me to wonder: why haven’t the Japanese built more terrace housing? Continue reading

Veranda – Balconies Serve Utilitarian Functions in Japan

Veranda

Living in Europe and America balconies seemed like an added amenity or even a luxury. In Japan they are sustainable and utilitarian extensions of domesticity. One thing that distinguishes run of the mill Japanese homes from their Western cousins is an inordinate number of balconies. Many Japanese houses have a balcony (or veranda as they are known here) protruding from every bedroom, whilst apartment buildings are often encircled by a continuous run of them. Where space or money are tight, Juliet balconies are the solution. Continue reading

Ofuro – The Wonderous Japanese Bath

Bath

A Culture of Bathing
In a land where hot water seems to bubble up from volcanic hot springs at every turn, it is little wonder that bathing is an integral part of Japanese society. When the country urbanized, the tall boiler chimneys of public bath houses (called sentos) popped-up throughout dense residential quarters of Japan’s towns and cities. Sentos offered a plentiful supply of piping hot water jetting from long banks of showers and overflowing from piping hot pools for communal luxuriating. These were also important social hubs where people from all walks meet, stripped bare of society’s trappings. As Japan became a leading technological and industrial exporter, household affluence grew and homes were built with their own baths. Today, local bathouses are a dieing institution, but the tradition lives on inside the the Japanese home – each equipped with its own miniature sento. Continue reading