Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Differences in building culture

Different countries have different building cultures, and the differences between Japan and the UK are immediately visible. Just like the buildings themselves, some of these differences are superficial and others are structural, some are easily visible and others are buried and hidden deep underground but have profound influences.
In Japan people like new houses but in in the UK people like old houses. I think this comes from the fundamental difference that in the UK houses represent capital wealth, while in Japan the value is in the land, and houses are consumables. Before we decided to build, we spent a few years looking at buying a house, and visited many that were unsatisfactory, in one way or another. A few times we noticed houses for sale moving into the list plots of land for sale, as the building was knocked down. In these cases, the price usually went up, suggesting that an old building on a piece of land is a liability and the land becomes more valuable when it is removed. 
In the UK, if people want a different house, they will sell up, buy a new one and move. In Japan they will knock the house down and rebuild. Redecoration and renovation are carried out on a regular basis on UK houses, while in Japan they are more of a recent trend. 
Here's a barn conversion. Not an uncommon sight in the English countryside, but it would be difficult to find a building in Japan that had been converted from keeping animals and their feed to human use.
Perhaps also as a consequence of the low value placed on buildings, building standards seem to be much stricter in substance and enforcement in the UK than in Japan, where the main criterion seems to be that your house won't burn down and fall onto the neighbour's.
In the UK, central heating is standard, while in Japan it is is a luxury. The term mudanbo jutaku (literally no-heating house) is sometimes used in Japan to describe buildings meeting the Passive house standard. This comes from the trend in Europe towards higher levels of insulation so that central heating systems can be scaled down or removed altogether. Meanwhile in Japan adding central heating is a sign of a progressive house.

In a UK house, the boiler is inside. Why waste the heat? Traditional Japanese houses don't have a boiler but recently many have an ecocute atmospheric air pump with a large tank of hot water, which is invariably put outside. Why waste space?

Insulation has not been used very much in Japan, although it has been increasing recently. In the UK it is in the building regulations, and there is financial support for adding it to existing building stock. In fact I heard that the authorities will even pay people to clear your loft. One of the barriers to people claiming their free loft insulation was that they couldn't be bothered to clear decades of crap from the loft, which makes installation impossible.

Traditional UK building materials are stone and brick while in Japan the material is wood. Occasionally you see brick houses in Japan, but they are more likely to be a wooden frame with brick-imitation cladding. Meanwhile in the UK people in brick houses sometimes get them stone-clad. 

The design process in the UK starts with the whole building, into which rooms are fitted. In Japan the design seems to start with rooms that are assembled together into a building. 

The market surrounding the building industry in Japan, including DIY home-improvement, seems to focus on products. If you can plug it in, switch it on, fill it with batteries, it'll have a place on a shelf. In the UK, there seem to be more parts and materials.

Of course there are differences in what mother nature offers the two countries. Earthquakes are unusual in the UK, but frequent in Japan and buildings must be built to withstand them. Traditionally summers are humid and winters are dry in Japan. My grandmother used to say that Britain doesn't really have a climate—just weather. But inasmuch as it does, the summers are dry and the winters damp. 
In spite of all these differences, there are some significant similarities between the two countries. Both have high self-ownership: Japan 60%, UK 69%. There is variation up and down both countries, but the annual heating demand in Matsumoto and London is similar, between 2 and 3,000 degree days per year. People have an impression of Japanese people living in rabbit hutches, but in fact the average new build in the UK is significantly smaller than in Japan, 76m² compared to 95m², but this may relate more to the number of occupants, and the number and location of houses being built. In surveys, the floor area that people think they need is very close, with people in Japan wanting 35m² per person compared to 33m² in the UK. See shrinkthatfootprint.com for more details. 
There are also much bigger differences between the culture of the building industry and normal people, whose desires are very similar.
  • Everyone wants a lower budget. Given a choice we would all rather pay less.
  • Everyone wants a larger house. Obviously there are limits to the size of plot, and many people would rather not live in the Palace of Versaille on account of the cleaning and maintenance and all those tourists traipsing through your bedroom. Some even advocate smaller living spaces. But given a choice of a 10m² or 15m² living room most people would probably choose the bigger one, other things being equal.
  • Everyone wants a house that is warm in winter and cool in summer.
  • Nobody wants condensation, whether it's rising damp, weeping mist on the inside of windows, or damp causing mold on clothes.
  • Everyone wants low running costs.
  • Everyone wants a long building life. Nobody wants to see a house they have built knocked down. We'd rather die first.
  • Everyone needs lots of storage space. People may not think of this, and any time you visit a model house or look through glossy magazines of ideal homes, be aware of the lack of the kind of stuff that we share our living spaces with.
  • Everyone wants a house that is easy to keep clean. People often forget this one too. Especially the architects who tend to be male and probably don't keep clean their own houses!