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.
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.
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.
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.