Monday, 19 March 2018

House of the Year in Energy Awards 2017

​Congratulations to IS Design, of Nagano City, ​winners of the Grand Prize of the House of the Year in Energy Awards 2017. Perhaps the smallest company ever to win a grand prize. More about IS in another post, but from the buildings I've seen, they deserve the prize.

​ Another ​three builders won this grand prize, followed by 63 getting a special excellence award, 137 with an excellence award, 31 special excellence industry awards and 46 excellence industry awards. This did make me wonder whether anyone was left without a prize, but also underlined the achievement of IS design in getting the top award. It also highlights how many builders in Japan are thinking about energy, and is also a reminder of just how many builders there are in this country! The list may be useful to anyone looking for a low-energy builder. Many of the builders are small, and you would need to be in their area, which is not listed explicitly.

​ An interesting feature of the list of award winners is the climate region. Japan is divided ​into 8 climate zones from 1 in the North of Hokkaido to 8 in Okinawa. In the case of small builders, this presumably shows where the building that won the award is. For national builders, presumably it shows where the award-winning building is available. Some builders will only offer some buildings in certain regions. If you are in Hokkaido, the north island, I imagine is it very easy to find a well-insulated house, and in fact it may be difficult to find one that is not well insulated. If you look at the map though, you can see the bottom tip of Hokkaido is the green region 3. And so is the north of Nagano prefecture, which is a large-landlocked prefecture rjght in the middle of the country. In fact Nagano ranges from region 3 in the snowy north to region 5 in the south and there is a marked difference between the energy standards of the buildings. Practically this means that it may be possible to get a smaller builder from the north of the prefecture to build in the south, however some of the national-scale builders may refuse to increase the spec for a building in the south because it is only in region 4 or 5. Some builders pride themselves on offering the same price for their buildings wherever in the country they are built, so their accommodation to the local climate can have implications to their bottom line.

There are more details on exact climate zones of towns and regions in Japanese here.

Below are some observations based purely on the websites of the other three winners, since I haven't had the chance to visit their buildings.

​Shimano Komuten are in ​Koyama City, Tochigi Prefecture. At the top of their website they say they are specialists in highly insulated houses (高断熱住宅). The landing page also mentions airtightness and ventilation. They give six points in building low-energy houses, the first of which is insulation. The second is airtightness, which goes into some detail about the Exel Shannon triple-glazed windows they use. Ventilation is their third point, so they clearly subscribe to the holy trinity of Passivhaus.

Their fourth point is a guarantee to keep monthly energy bills to under 300 yen per tsubo, about ​90 yen per square metre. In the first year, they will pay all the energy bills. In the second year they will cover all energy costs over 300 yen per tsubo, or if the energy bills come under 300 yen, they will give the difference as a gift. I'm not sure if I've translated that correctly, or if it completely makes sense. I guess it gives the homeowner an incentive not to overuse electricity, but it presumably also gives the builder a disincentive to make a house that will use much less than 300 yen per tsubo, but if they're actually putting up their money for the home owner's energy bills, they are obviously serious about it, and presumably have a better idea what those bills will be than most house builders. And those energy bills are pretty low. For reference, my energy bills are under 200 yen per tsubo, assuming the electricity I'm using straight from my solar panels is costing me the same as if I bought it from the grid.

Seidai​ are in Kanazawa city, Ishikawa Prefecture. ​Their building process has ten features: 1) cool in summer and warm in winter; 2) good for the health; 3) easy on the wallet; 4) long lasting; 5) very quiet; 6) strong in earthquakes; 7) flexible in planning; 8) regular consultation; 9) "after follow"; 10) environmentally friendly. ​As a deep green, it annoys me a bit that the environment is number ten on their list, but it's good to see it on the list, and it makes sense to add it after the other items that will have a more direct impact and are likely to be more urgent concerns for their customers.

The finer details include a choice of insulation materials between glass wool, sheep wool, polyester or cellulose. They also talk about airtightness and ventilation. And they too have low-e argon-filled PVC triple glazing from Exel Shannon. They also have a well-ventilated crawl space, which may be OK if it's within the thermal envelope, but I don't really subscribe to the wisdom of the crawl space when you have a modern foundation slab.

Yamato Juken​ are a large-scale builder operating in the Kanto and Kansai areas, on a different scale to the other three grand prize winners. They received the prize for the UW-Y, which is the top of their range, and also won the award in 2014.​

They are a ZEH builder. ZEH is a zero-energy policy which is slated to be a national standard by 2030. I won't go into politics here, but just note that many current politicians may be out of office by then, some of the civil servants may have retired, and slate breaks easily if it is dropped!

Yamato's policy statement talks about bringing Japanese buildings to the world standard, contrasting the average 30-year lifetime of a Japanese house with 141 years in the UK and 96 years in the US. They mention the insulation standards of Germany, and lament that while Japan produces cars and electronic goods to world standards, its buildings fall far behind.

They talk about airtightness and insulation for a healthy house. Strong houses to protect your family. Placing importance on the ideas of the customer. A commitment to health. A price you can trust that will put your mind at rest.

Looking in the details, they also have Exel Shannon's triple-glazed low-E argon filled windows. IS Design use these windows as well, which puts them in all four grand prize winners.

In their details on insulation and airtightness, I couldn't help noticing an obvious gap in the thermal envelope where they have insulated the house on the outside and the crawl space on the inside. The caption in the house says there is nowhere for the cool or warm air to escape, but can you spot it? If they can't get that right on a graphic, I worry whether they could get it right on an actual building!