Friday, 24 February 2017

Windows transparent, specs translucent, prices opaque

Japan is a country that seems to have its priorities wrong when it comes to building houses. Here, you'll find more insulation in an underwear department than in the walls of your house. The packaging of chocolate snacks has bigger air gaps than double-glazed window units. And more care is given to temperature control of draft beer than homes. 

While many Japanese manufactured products are among the best in the world, it became clear very early that Japanese windows are not. Within Japan there seems to be a stark difference between domestic production and exports. Companies that do export usually have
completely different product line ups, and different marketing strategies. International competition is tough and competitive, while the domestic market is characterised by franchises and conglomerates, so that choice to the consumer is limited.

Looking from an anthropological perspective, this may have something to do with low context and high context societies. In the low-context west, the priority is on finding the best solutions must be found for problems. In Japan, relationships, and especially long-term relationships are most important. If you're buying vegetables from your neighbourhood green grocer, then the relationship between you and the green grocer is important. While building a house, I can't help feeling that the most important long-term relationships are those among the architect, the builder, the suppliers and the sub-contractors. It seems like the poor sods who have to pay for it all, and then usually live in the building for the rest of their lives, are a bit of a nuisance and an interruption to this cosy clique. After the house is built, it's pretty unlikely the customer is going to be going back to get another one, and if they do need to build a new house, there's a fair chance it would be with someone else.

This is one reason to make the building industry resistant to imports and happy with what it gets. I'm quite sure this is not unique to Japan, and the building industry is conservative the world over. In fact people in general will usually choose the status quo rather than leap into the unknown.

The situation with windows is that the performance of imported windows, in terms of insulation and airtightness, is much higher than Japanese manufactured windows, and in fact when we were trying to compare the performance, it was quite difficult to find any quantified figures for the Japanese windows. The Japanese windows are cheaper, but in order to make a comparison, you need to know how much heat they are going to let out over their lifetime.

As I wrote before, the triple-glazed, wooden-framed, argon-filled windows located mostly on the South of the building will bring in over twice as much heat as they lose. Lower spec windows are
effectively leaking heat throughout the winter and will cost more the longer they are used. The economics change if you knock the house down and smash the windows after 17 years, which I think is the average life-expectancy of a building in Japan. But the windows will probably last 50 years, and the calculations I'm making for energy savings are also based on that. Without high-spec windows, the only way to get high energy performance from a building is to make the windows very small. And that seems to be what is happening with a lot of houses. This may look like a picture of a four-storey building, but in fact is it a two-storey building, and the windows are tiny. 

It was not a completely smooth ride getting imported windows, partly exacerbated by the fact that we dealt directly with a window importer rather than ordering the windows with everything else through the builders. At first the architect wanted us to use some Japanese windows, hoping to sneak them in where they were not so critical. The reality is that we're looking at a building envelope with a more-or-less uniform temperature, so everywhere is critical, and wherever you put something with a lower insulation spec into the envelope, that will immediately become a critical spot. 

We ordered the windows summer 2010, before the house was built, as part of an application for a 2.7 million yen NEDO grant, which was dependent on the building being finished by the end of January. Working back from that deadline, the windows needed to arrive in November 2010, ready to be delivered onto the building site. Unfortunately, it didn't seem that anybody was working forward to that deadline, and when we eventually got a building schedule, the date for the windows to go in was the following 23rd May, over six months later. They were since delayed another month due mainly to the weather, and partly due to a shortage of building supplies caused both directly by the Tohoku earthquake hitting factories producing building materials, and indirectly because of the extra demand in rebuilding.

I don't think there is a systematic attempt to keep imported windows out of Japan, but there are several mitigating circumstances.
* Japanese builders have long-term relationships with Japanese window manufacturers.
* There is little knowledge or understanding of insulation and what the numbers actually mean.
* Higher performance windows are more expensive, and the budget for windows is usually very small.
* Customers are unlikely to ask for high performance windows, and if they do, they are likely to be told it is impossible, unnecessary and expensive.

Windows make a massive difference to a house. When people are asked what they did wrong, the most common answer is the location, size, shape or style of the windows.

This includes edited content from  Are windows being framed? posted May, 2011. The content was still mostly true, although Japanese windows have got better, and if we were building today we would have probably used Excel Shanon. There is still plenty of aluminum to be seen, even in brand new houses.