Values in Home Design: USA vs Japan

August 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Most everyone who has ever attempted a building project of a large enough scale has, at some point during the process, scorned the building department. Why do I need a handrail for 3 crummy steps? Why can’t my sink be 34 and a quarter inches off the ground? Why do I even need a permit at all? At times of frustration like these, the architect might gaze wistfully out the window and long for a land free of code officials. A land not unlike Japan.

As far as I can tell you can do anything you want in Japan. For a long time I attributed this to not only the lack of code enforcement but the absence of a code to enforce. And because there isn’t anything to tell you to put a handrail in, it stands to reason that there’s no way to be sued by someone due to the lack of one.

sleepwalkers prohibited

As I found out from listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, permissive building laws are only a part of why houses be crazy in Japan; as you might have guessed by now, the number one reason that Japanese houses are so unique is an economic one. Houses just don’t retain their value in Japan. I’ll over-simplify for the sake of brevity: the Japanese have a cultural predilection for the “new”, re-enforced by things like Shinto shrines and the shoddy, unsafe housing stock that dominated the post-World War II rebuilding effort. Even newer homes are not trusted because the threat of earthquakes keeps every homeowner on edge. As a result, homes lose all, yes all, of their value 15 to 30 years after they are built. Only the land that the homes are built on retains any value.

Homeowners know that the next owner will just bulldoze the site and start fresh so they are free to build experimental homes that are tailored to their specific lifestyle. Architects, eager to stand out (Japan has the most architects per capita of any country), push the envelope of what is possible and acceptable. The results are the extremely creative houses that are the envy of forward-thinking designers everywhere.

at least where the matching white shirts and pale blue pants for the porfolio shots

But there is an ugly downside to this phenomenon. Homeowners are basically resigned to losing their housing investment so there is no incentive for even basic upkeep. Economically, this means that  it’s very difficult to generate wealth through home ownership. Home ownership is one of the biggest factors in the creation of a wealthy middle class in America and evaporating home values has contributed to the ongoing economic crisis in Japan known as the Lost Decade (which is actually well into its third decade). And while disposable homes are not strictly unsustainable, I have a strong suspicion that these homes are not built solely of rapidly renewable resources.

you'd think a country with a declining birth rate wouldn't be so eager to let its youth fall to their deaths

So is the grass really greener on the other side of the ocean? The housing market in the US of A is certainly not perfect. To start, the idea that homes (or most buildings) built today will exist unchanged even 100 years into the future is a fiction. Between regular maintenance, remodelings and additions, most homes will change dramatically in their lifetime. Emphasis on resale value means that these changes will be made not thinking about the current occupant, but thinking about what some future occupant might like. The result is the sprawling collection of fat, boring homes that make up the suburban landscape. And while yesterday home ownership contributed to the creation of the American middle class, today it contributes to the widening wealth gap between the very poor and the comparatively rich.

Oh, and the American housing market recently imploded the global economy. There’s that.

Can good architecture be created right here in the states despite all the faults and restrictions? Is there a way to break the cycle of declining home values in Japan? Would doing so stifle the creativity that we so admire? As usual I don’t have answers, just musings. But if you have answers or more questions, let me know below.


August 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

Last week I tried to start a social media movement and get people to come up with things that architecture reminds them of. Wouldn’t you know it, Twitter disappointed me once again. But the people who did play made it awesome and I came up with a few more good ones myself, so here is everything from the #architectureislike. If you can think of any more and want to try and bring it back, well, knock yourself out.

^ A bunch of people who were too cool to play along. Here are some of their way more interesting tweets from that day:

Nice of him to put the ellipses right at the point where I stopped paying attention anyway.


He also tweeted 4 times about his own podcast, so maybe he “technically” only gets one bone to throw per day.

I guess if I want a RT from this guy I have to join his shaved head club.

Alright, back to the tweets that were actually entertaining. #notbitter

Just so nobody felt left out.

Thanks again to everyone who played along!

I still think this has potential, so if you have more followers than me and want to take this idea and pretend it was yours two weeks later, that’s just fine with me. Wouldn’t be the first time. #stillnotbitter

Architecture is like toilet paper

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

People generally don’t care how good it is as long as they’re not bleeding from the ass afterwards

This seems like a fun hashtag, no? Follow me (at raybowman), I might be able to come up with a few more. And tag yours with #ArchitectureIsLike, we can be trending!

4 DIY furniture hacks

August 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

Every now and then Pinterest will send me some kind of digest email. Most of them I glance at and delete, but the one with the subject “10 why-didn’t-we-think-of-that home hacks” unleashed a torrent of inspiration that I never even knew was in me. It’s just a matter of using your imagination! Where before I would look around and see trash in the street, now I try and think of it as trash in my house. So before you go out and spend your money on an affordable option at Ikea, hack your home using one of these brilliant ideas instead. Best of all, you can do it yourself with no help!

Shipping Pallet Bed

DIY Furn_Shipping Pallet Bed

Re-purposed wood pallets are a hot design trend right now and it’s easy to see why. The cracked moldy wood and shoddy construction add an unsightly touch to any hobo den. But as an architectural purist, I hate to see these pallets dressed up as something they’re not. Why put lipstick on the dirty old pig when you can just have the dirty old pig? I’m getting back to basics with this great bed which is just two pallets next to each other, shown here with sheets up-cycled from burlap sacks of rice. Trouble waking up in the morning? Oversleeping is never a problem when you’re constantly punctured by loose nails!

Bonus hack! Get yourself a monkey to preen the splinters out of your back every morning. Check with the city zoning office and your landlord for any regulations regarding exotic pets.

Cinder Block Nightstand

DIY Furn_CMU Table

Concrete masonry units, commonly called “CMUs”, “cinder blocks” and “pillbug habitats” are the bottom of the building materials barrel. Even the stingiest building owners usually have the decency to cover them up in all but the most utilitarian of building areas. So why not prominently feature them in your bedroom? You’ll look like a lunatic riding the bus with 3 cinder blocks on your lap, but just tell everyone that you’re making a nightstand out of them. Who is crazy now? Just drag them into position across your hardwood floor and POW! You have a stylish nightstand and all it cost you was your security deposit.

Bonus hack! Stack a (literal) ton of cinder blocks against the wall with the cavities facing out for a gorgeous bookshelf. Check with a structural engineer to verify that the floor structure can handle the increased dead load.

Just a bunch of milk crates everywhere

DIY Furn_Milk Crates

Milk crates are like the Legos of interior design. They’re OK individually when used as storage, or turned upside down and used as a chair. But when you have a million of them, the possibilities are endless! Turn two of them upside down and use them as a stool! There might be other options, too, so let your imagination run wild!

Bonus hack! A milk crate would probably look cool with a lightbulb inside it. In any case, check with your local law enforcement officer to verify the statute of limitations for milk crate theft.

Trash Bag Chair

DIY Furn_Trash Bag Chair

Every year New York City gets hit by a blizzard and trash bags pile up on the sidewalk in enormous heaps. Then New Yorkers complain about it and this makes national news because somebody thinks the rest of the country cares. Well, while New Yorkers are getting mad, I’m getting glad. Glad brand trash bags littering my house, that is! Simply take all of your soft-ish refuse that hopefully wont stink for a while, stuff it in a big black sack and throw it on the floor. Then just settle in for a cozy night of self-reflection. Nothing puts your life in perspective like laying on a pile of garbage and staring at the ceiling!

Bonus hack! When this chair goes out of style you won’t feel bad about putting it in a dumpster because that’s where it should have been in the first place. If you’re throwing away an entire living room set, make sure you check with your sanitation department to schedule a bulk pick-up.

That’s all for today! Check back often for more genius tips on how to turn one man’s trash into your own personal treasure!

Strength in Numbers

July 28, 2014 § 3 Comments

One night a few weeks ago I was trying to get home after a very late night (or early morning?) at work. I had worked so late that they closed the Squirrel Hill tunnel so I had to make a last-minute change to my usual route home. Instead of going underneath Squirrel Hill I had to go over top of it and along the way I noticed a glowing shard, a crystalline monument shining on an otherwise dark campus.

Numbers_PitHM inside

Shown here from the inside because there was too much glare from the outside

I rarely pass through this area and hadn’t noticed this bit of sculpture before so I had to put the pieces together by myself. Approaching the sculpture I noticed it was made of glass block, then that these glass blocks were filled with pop tabs.


Now puzzled, I slipped into one of the openings. Once inside, your view to the outside is completely obscured by the glass blocks, arranged in 6 overlapping “check-mark” shapes. I wandered to the center and read the inscription on the ground, which had one word that gave it all away: “Holocaust”.

A wash of realization swept over me. The “check-marks” overlapped in such a way as to make a Star of David. And the pop tabs … there must be one for each of the 6 million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. It was overwhelming; for that to be true, each block would have to have … over 6,000 tabs in each and every block. I walked around and did some counting, wondering if the numbers 7, 9, 20 or 960 have any significance in the Jewish religion, what it meant that the points of the star extended slightly outside of a circle, and eventually came to the conclusion that I just didn’t know enough about Judaism to speculate about any further symbolism. But one thing that made an impression on me, and would make an impression on anyone, is being inside, unable to see out for the tabs. Each one is insignificant on its own, easily overlooked. I wouldn’t have stopped my car on my way home after a long day at work to inspect a single pop tab, or even a pile of pop tabs. It was sheer volume that gave the pop tabs their power.

(For the curious, here are a couple of blog posts and a newspaper article I came across while trying to find out if there was any more symbolism behind the numbers. I couldn’t find any better information, so if you know don’t hold back)

You can see this design tool at work in other memorials. There’s the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston that has numbers etched into glass representing each of 6 million lives.

Image from the NEHM dot org photo gallery, click to visit

I’ve also experienced it at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C., which I’ve written about here. It’s easy to underestimate the effect until you experience it in person, but judging by the people who originally protested the memorial before having their minds changed by walking through it firsthand, those who experience it never forget it.

Image from the National Park Service website, click to visit

I myself have been trying to come up with a way of using this to raise awareness of the crisis in the VA hospitals. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the problem myself, but the short of it is that there is a huge backlog of veterans that need medical care. By some measures [link downloads PDF] Pittsburgh is among the worst at processing claims. I did some napkin-level calculations and, by assigning the worst performing hospitals a larger share of the national backlog, determined that Pittsburgh would have to process about 14,000 claims in order to be doing it’s part.

14,000 is a lot, but how do I represent that in a way that people will understand? Well, for starters, it helps that the nearby Petersen Events Center seats about 14,000, so that has helped me contextualize what a huge problem this is even when broken down from a national to a local level. Something else I’ve learned that helps me to visualize the problem is that each and every veteran has an entire legal file box devoted to their claim, sometimes more.

That’s $2,800 worth of boxes from Staples

Trying to imagine what 14,000 of these boxes would look like, their weight, the space they take up and how you would be able to arrange them, that has given me some ideas as well. I’m still struggling to get a grip on the problem, much less the solution, but I think I have identified the building blocks. I want to explore what it would be like to turn the Petersen Events Center into a claims processing center. How would it look if every seat in the Pete was filled with veterans and their claims boxes? What changes to the architecture would have to be made in order to accommodate this? I don’t have many good answers yet, but I’m hoping to look at it more in the future. In the meantime, feel free to let me know if there are any “strength in numbers” memorials that I’ve missed.

Summertime (Sadness) Bouquet 2014

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Today is the unofficial start of my summer because my stepson just left to spend the next few weeks with his real dad. So, while I adjust to my summer schedule (AKA, writing blog posts on Sundays instead of Mondays, because Monday is movie night now), here is a bouquet of ideas that I picked for you. They don’t have their own post yet.

It’s hot out, hot enough to make an architect want to quit their job and make ice cream sandwiches for a living. I bet you I could be the first one to do it, then I would be featured on NPR and become a millionaire!

Damn it. []

Lana Del Rey is the best and I feel really sorry for everyone who goes out of their way to hate on her. They’re really missing out.

LDR on the C of RS

Two weeks of cat pictures in a row! Unprecedented! I don’t mind admitting that I am pandering to the coveted cat demographic. Cats all over the place are walking across keyboards in search of my blog, or at least that’s the only explanation I have for this search term that referred someone to my site today:

[[[]]jjk”” ][[;waaa

Here is a Yelp review that someone would write if they didn’t understand how energy is lost through windows:

“I paid several THOUSAND dollars for some brand new windows and they arrived THERMALLY BROKEN. wen I called customer service they told me it was SUPPOSED TO BE THAT WAY and REFUSED to REPLACE them!!!!!!!! I will never buy a window from these people again. one star”

My friend was looking for door and window details all day and he inspired that review. He also discovered the best door finish of all time:

Summer2014_Croc Nuts

If you’re going to use Croc Nuts on your door, it’s best to locate them right under the croc knob.

If you were to take out every finish that sounds like it could be a double-entendre, you would be left with “Oak”.

New Podcast Interview

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Monday came and went without a post because I was hard at work putting together a new podcast, this one with Jen Bee. She’s a woman! I’m progressive! There are two women on it, actually, and both of them are presenting at PechaKucha vol 18, which is tonight.

It’s up over at the D:i Podcast website, just in time. Go have a listen, and come to PKN at Bricolage Theater tonight (that’s July 17) if you are able. And subscribe to the podcast already, gosh. (link opens in iTunes)

And here’s a giant terrifying cat building for no other reason other than that nobody will read a post that doesn’t have a picture attached.

Is that curved titanium at the sides? Frank Gehry, have you been moonlighting designing cathouses? Are cathouses a thing? Should I Google “cathouse” at work?



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