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:

“Of course architects charge a design fee for their services, but offer far greater flexibility in terms of choosing and specifying materials, finishes, equipment, etc, not to mention the overall design of the home. Home building is big business in Japan and there is a greater level of standardisation than in the West. Working with a big homebuilder, you are locked into ordering products from one or two large manufacturers – bathrooms and toilets (Inax/Toto) glazing and doors (YKK/Tostem), etc – who have pre-existing supply contracts with your builder. In the case of Onjuku, we were able to assist the client in procuring many items – kitchen, flooring, bath, fireplace, lighting, etc – for themselves from alternative sources online – such as Sanwa Company – and delivering them directly to the building site. This must be carefully negotiated and coordinated with the builder to avoid delays, but the savings are substantial when you consider that these are big ticket items where builders typically add a substantial (avg 15%) markup or handling fee. For example, the kitchen is entirely bespoke and was sourced by competitive tendering online. Most of the doors were custom-made by a local craftsman. In Japan, this is not as costly as one might expect and the quality and attention to detail is invariably excellent.

We can also work for the client to broker the best deal through a competitive tender process (inviting three or more builders to submit estimates). Fortunately, Japan is full of excellent independent builders and subcontractors. It’s what makes working here such a joy. However, in the case of Onjuku, the choice of builder was already stipulated by the conditions of the land sale (the builder sold the plot on condition that he also build the home). This is something to watch out for when buying land in Japan. However, it hasn’t stopped us from designing a unique home for our client in Onjuku and securing the best deal possible.

Of course, it’s impossible to quantify the psychological benefits to living in a home custom-designed to your lifestyle and tastes, not to mention the sense of pride and accomplishment the process generates. Working with a homebuilder offers a very limited scope for creativity, involvement in design, or customization. I’ve heard many foreigners gripe about their experiences with homebuilders after they end-up living in their home. They feel railroaded into the most expedient solution and typically regret the materials, quality, coldness, and overall synthetic feel of their home. Communication difficulties exacerbate their lack of influence in the process. Sadly they’re stuck living in the end result…

There is something very important prospective home buyers should bare in mind: for a host of economic and sociological reasons, homes in Japan depreciate in value over their relatively short lifetime (typically 20-30 years). It’s almost unheard of for the Japanese to resell their home for more than they paid for it and climb up the property ladder. That’s a very foreign concept here. On the other hand, we all need a comfortable place to live during our short time on earth. Clients should invest in their home what they can afford, but also keep in mind that it will likely be their home for a lifetime. Spending a little more time and money in the beginning to make the home a place that is uniquely one’s own is worth it.

For this reason, it is also important and very much feasible to design environmentally sustainable homes in Japan. An architect can design energy-saving features and specify technology to lower the running costs. These features pay for themselves in the longterm (15-25 years). Being short-sighted about energy consumption at the outset of the project can cost more in the longrun. Homebuilders offer solar panels, heat pumps and other technological upgrades, but simply plugging-in the latest eco gadgetry – again, courtesy of Japan’s largest manufacturers – is not always the most sensible nor cost-effective way to save energy. We focus on reducing energy demand. A good architect designs passively – proper solar orientation, shading, thermal mass, insulation, natural ventilation, etc – thus reducing the need to heat and cool the home in the first place.”

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