Thursday, 7 January 2016

Lesson 11, Part II: Cultural Differences

I started off talking about my original goal, which was to build a house that would produce rather than consume energy. This meant a low energy house with some potential for electricity generation. It meant insulation, shading in the summer, and solar gain in the winter.

The fact that I was from the UK also meant that I had to deal with, or come to terms with, difference in building culture. In the UK people like old houses while in Japan they like new houses. So in the UK if they want a new house they sell up and move, while in Japan they knock down and rebuild. This comes down to a fundamental difference: in the UK the value is in the buildings, so houses are capital, while in Japan the value is in the land so the houses are consumable.

"Were you born in a barn?" - untranslatable and now largely obsolete expression

In the UK central heating is pretty much standard, while in Japan it is a recent luxury. Boilers are inside in the UK, where their lost heat will contribute to the house's heating. In Japan they are usually outside where they will take up no floor space. Insulation has recently been used more in Japan, while it is compulsory and often financially supported in the UK. I even heard a story of somewhere they had been giving grants for people to insulate their lofts, but they found some people weren't taking them up because they had so much junk up there that they didn't have time or energy to go up and clear out. So they started paying people to clear up their lofts.

There are other differences in design and construction. Stone and brick are the traditional building materials in the UK while wood is used in Japan. Design seems to start with the whole building in the UK while in Japan it often seems that rooms are being assembled into a house. Building standards are strict in the UK and more lax in Japan, except in the area of earthquakes, which are frequent in Japan, but unusual in the UK.

The climate is quite different with hot humid summers and cold dry winters in Japan, but cooler drier summers in the UK and milder damper winters. Of course, in both places the humidity remains between 0% and 100%, and the same laws of science apply. Also similar in the two countries is the floor area per person—around 35 square metres—in spite of Japan's reputation for rabbit hutches and the image of UK stately homes. The heating load over the year is similar, at least between Matsumoto and Manchester. Okinawa is much warmer than anywhere in the UK and Hokkaido much colder, and London needs more heating than Tokyo so the climate at the median population is warmer in Japan.

I think in both countries people want as much floor space as possible for as little budget. They want to be warm in winter and cool in summer. Nobody wants any condensation, ever. Everyone wants low running costs and a long building life. I suspect in both countries people get exasperated by architects and the biggest culture difference is probably between those who build houses and those who pay for them and then live in them.

I went through my list of alarming expressions.

風通しはいい kaze tohshi wa ii
translation: The wind goes through it nicely.
This phrase is beloved of building marketers, and rolls off the tongues of architects as if it is the redeeming feature of any respectable house. But getting a good through draft is not going to do much good if it's 35 degrees outside. Or if it's minus 10. Or if it's not windy. And I may not want the wind blowing in during hay fever season when the air is filled with pollen from the thousands of trees covering the mountains near by. At some times of year, a through draft may be nice, but those are the times of year when living in a tent is pleasant, and you don't really need a house.

季節感が有る kisetsu kan ga aru
translation: You get a good sense of the seasons.
This sounds to me like an excuse for it being hot in the house when it's hot outside, or cold when it's cold outside. Like you need your house to remind you of this. In fact I think the job of a house is precisely the opposite, and the environment inside should be within that rather narrow range of comfort that the our tropical origins defined for us. What are you going to do next, make a house that leaks water on our heads when it's raining? If I want to know what season it is, I'll look out of the window, thank you very much.

我慢してください gaman shite kudasai
translation: Just put up with it. 
This is the twenty first century. We've had permanent research bases in Antartica since 1903, and the international space station has been manned since 1998. It shouldn't be so difficult to make a house here that will put up with me. 

日本は… nihon wa
translation: Japan is... or Japan has... or Japan does...
Whatever Japan is, has or does, this usually sounds like either racism or jingoism, thinly veiled and often subconscious. It is often some "tradition" that was in fact a temporary measure brought out during some war, or imposed under occupation afterwards. 

There's a quote from Billy Connolly, "there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes."

I have a modification: there's no such thing as a bad climate, just the wrong building.

In the midst of this battle of ideals I came across the Passivhaus standard, and it made my goal possible.

See part III.