executive impact

Cultural lessons in housing and construction

17 Comments
By Mike De Jong for EURObiZ Japan

One can gain many insights from one’s chosen profession, including valuable lessons about a foreign culture. Eric De Groot has learned much about his adopted country during his 25 years in Japan’s construction and building materials industry, including a notion he calls “semi-permanence”.

“The built environment is treated much differently in Japanese culture than in the West,” says De Groot, president of spray foam insulation manufacturer Icynene Asia-Pacific and member of the EBC Construction Committee. “Buildings here are meant to serve the people who use them and have no — or very little — sentimental or intrinsic value on their own. Once their usefulness no longer justifies their upkeep, they are replaced.”

The reason for this is that the Japanese have historically used wood for building — making homes and other structures that are vulnerable to earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires. It’s one reason that, even today, Japanese homes have a shorter lifespan than those in places such as Europe, where many last hundreds of years.

“The way it’s expressed today in the housing industry is that you look at the average life cycle of a house being 25 years — basically, from brand new to zero value,” says De Groot. “It’s completely opposite to the way most [Western] people think about what should happen in housing values. An older house, if maintained, should increase in value. It’s completely counter-intuitive to the way people think about real estate value.”

De Groot does add that many Japanese are now realising the waste of constant rebuilding. And the government is also promoting construction of longer-lasting structures, including the notion of the “100-year house”. But the vast majority of new homes are still of the low-cost variety, or what De Groot calls “put it up now and we’ll worry about what it’s worth down the line”.

“I don’t think the thought that buildings are not permanent was a part of their culture,” De Groot adds, “but it certainly became part of their experience, which then informed the culture. Culture is really shaped by the environment. So much of the [Japanese] attitude to housing — and to buildings in general — is because of the environment they live in.”

A Canadian who traces his European roots to his Belgian grandfather and English grandmother, De Groot arrived in Japan during the bubble era of the mid-1980s. After briefly working for a foreign trade office and a Canadian lumber exporting group, he moved over to Forbo, the Swiss commercial flooring giant, in 2003. After a decade there, he switched to his current firm in January of this year.

As one of the few non-Japanese employed in Japan’s notoriously conservative, hierarchical and insular construction and housing industry, De Groot credits his success in finding a niche. His current firm was the first to make light-density polyurethane spray foam for insulation — now used in 7% of all new housing starts in Japan. With the Japanese government focusing on reducing energy wasted in poorly insulated buildings — and mandating that every home be insulated by 2020 — De Groot senses a real opportunity for Icynene’s products.

He advises newcomers looking for success in Japan to find a similar route.

“I’m endlessly fascinated by the challenges of marketing foreign products in Japan — and of how and why some products are wildly successful here. Others find a comfortable and profitable niche far off anyone’s radar [especially the radar of giant local rivals who could destroy them with a wave of the hand]. And others crash and burn in spectacular fashion,” he says.

“There’s no one answer, of course, but key is researching the particularities of the relationships between the players in each industry — and especially the competitive environment.

“My advice to most businesses, given the risks, is to aim for the comfortable niche, secure it and hold it as a beachhead, then try to expand from there,” he continues. “Especially in an industry as unfamiliar with foreign products and services as the construction and building materials industry, I think the high-end niche is an achievable and realistic space to aim for.”

DO YOU LIKE NATTO?

Time spent working in Japan: 25 years, almost all my working life.

Career regret (if any): Still a work in progress.

Favourite saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Favourite book: The Wages of Guilt by Ian Buruma.

Cannot live without: Rock ’n’ roll.

Lesson learned in Japan: Patience.

Secret of success in business: Hire good people, make sure they know the goals, then get out of their way.

Favourite place to dine out: Anywhere with good junmai-shu.

Do you like natto? You’re kidding, right?

© TOKYO

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.


17 Comments
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Japan needs one type of house - one that is warm in winter and cool in summer. What I don't want is a hundred excuses about why this is not possible, which is what i normally get.

The reason for this is that the Japanese have historically used wood for building — making homes and other structures that are vulnerable to earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires.

Italy is a country that has built buildings about of brick and stone for thousands of years (many still standing), despite have earthquakes. Stone is also good for warmth in winter and coolness in summer if thick enought and also quite fire resistent!

7 ( +7 / -1 )

The whole throw away house concept here I find disgustingly wasteful & they are not cheap. The throw away house is a fairly modern concept dreamt up by the construction industry, thankfully there are more options now to build something that will last, but the majority seem to like the plastic gas producing toxic new homes for some bizarre reason

I mean in the past Japan made houses that lasted, there is no reason for these high priced un/under insulated single pane window pieces of crap that are everywhere, but hey I aint going to live in one!

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Great article. Everyone who has bought, or intends to buy, a home in Japan should read this. I was particularly glad to hear that the government is finally going to require that homes have decent insulation. That move is far overdue.

For all the talk about quality products in Japan, housing is definitely one area where the quality is very poor. Superficially, new homes here look well-made, but begin to fall apart within a few years of construction.

“I don’t think the thought that buildings are not permanent was a part of their culture”

This is one statement I disagree with. For instance, all of the most famous old temples/shrines in Japan get completely rebuilt, not renovated, every so many decades. This practice has been ongoing for centuries here.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Sensato - all of the most famous temples & shrines do not get rebuilt every few decades.

A handful do. Most go through the normal maintenance / renovation that is necessary to keep them in operable safe condition. Japan abounds in 1,000s of old shrines and temples, still standing in fine condition after 100s of years.

As was earlier noted, the complete disposable house syndrome is a relatively new phenomena, perhaps originally created by a shortage of quality materials post-war and then continued by the avarice of a construction industry hell bent on screwing the locals for all they're worth.

Finally some commonsense and sanity is returning to the building world.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Once their usefulness no longer justifies their upkeep, they are replaced.

Usually long before their usefulness no longer justifies their upkeep.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

With the Japanese government focusing on reducing energy wasted in poorly insulated buildings - and mandating that every home be insulated by 2020 - De Groot senses a real opportunity for Icynene's products.

Good lord! This was the goal for about 2000 when I was in the same business back in the 90s. This was adopted as a standard by the U.S. in the late 1970s and aided with government subsidies.

Actually, spray insulation is too infrastructure intensive. Simple foil-faced or Kraft paper-faced insulation is many times easier to install, is the better option.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The appropriate choice nowadays, with modern understanding of earthquake resistance, is wood or reinforced concrete.

I am sure you are right - I was rather trying to highlight that there are cases that do not conform to the standard Japanese response, which justifies why they live is badly insulated, badly made houses.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I don't agree entirely with the notion that Japanese modern homes are poorly built. Compared to the shoddiness & 'near enough is good enough' mentality that goes on back home (in Australia), I'd say Japanese houses & apartments are overall built to a relatively high standard.

THAT SAID, the two blaring issues are of course:

'Cookie cutter' approach to housing developments here Rampant corruption throughout the industry
2 ( +3 / -1 )

I wonder if the rule for insulation by 2020 is for new buildings or if it is for new and existing ones?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My mansion is 20 years old, and looks great. I do not forsee anyone living here wanting to tear it down now, nor in 50 years from now.

These buildings will last with 10 year cycles of reform easily, if the reform is done correctly.

These new semi pre-fabs should last very long too. 30 year or older houses will mostly be replaced.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Cold in winter. Blazing hot in summer. That is what I typically live in as there seems no other alternative here in Tokyo.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Personally, I don't think the Japanese approach is so bad. Yes, they destroy and rebuild periodically... but North Americans and Europeans put fortunes into upkeeping, renovating and remodeling old houses that need only one thing: a private rendezvous with a bulldozer. So in the end, I am not certain the Japanese way is more wasteful than the North American or European way. And houses do still depreciate, I calculated it with my mother recently, once you take into account inflation and all major remodeling (not even counting upkeep costs and minor maintenance), her middle-class house, in a desirable suburb, lost at least 50 000$ in value over the years.

Furthermore, I think one of the main reasons why the Japanese have this mentality is that building and zoning regulations are very lax. Respect of one's private property is higher, so when someone wants to rebuild a house, or even build an apartment bloc in lieu of an older house, doing so is much, much easier in Japan than in western countries. In North America or Europe, if you go to a city office and say you want to destroy a house and build, say, a duplex instead, first, they'll say it's illegal because zoning says only a house that is exactly the same as the one that is already there can be built. No lot splitting, no townhouse, no multifamily housing. Then, if you want to change that, they will assemble NIMBY firing squads (AKA zoning/planning committees) and take any objection from any neighbor to block your request for a change in zoning.

Even if you get through all that, they will try to drown you in red tape to discourage you. The mentality is that "once it's built, it STAYS". It was a bungalow built in the 50s, now there is a subway station next door so it ought to be an apartment/condo building with 4-5 stories to satisfy demand? Too bad! It was a bungalow, it will stay a bungalow! Neighborhoods must NEVER change!

Of course, the result of all that is that building more housing in existing neighborhoods is essentially impossible. And as a consequence, house values explode over time... except it's not the house that has value, it's the LAND, the location. If you offered someone to sell the house, but only the house, you'd pay to move it brick by brick to the countryside so you could keep the land, no one would pay even 10% of the value of the house with the land. It's most evident in Vancouver, I checked houses there on a real estate site... a 1-million dollar house, but the municipal evaluation said the building was worth 50 000$, the land was worth 950 000$.

Anyway, personally I love Japanese cities. They feel alive and organic with their eclectic housing and lack of uniformity, they feel always in evolution and in movement. In comparison, Canadian neighborhoods that I knew look mummified, static, unmoving, stuck in the past, with change strictly stamped down.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Cold in winter. Blazing hot in summer. That is what I typically live in as there seems no other alternative here in Tokyo.

Actually, there are other alternatives. Depending on the type of building, its age and building price, you can get either what you say you live in or a much better place. The apartment building I live in is well insulated, so much so that if I have the floor heating on at the lowest temp, the place is warm and comfortable; it can even get hot on a sunny day (needless to say that then I do not need any heating). The building is new and it is made to last for at least several decades.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We built a house here - triple glazed, fully insulated - no Air Con etc AND built out of wood - so no, no excuse for cold winters/hot AC reliant summers. 6.30 this morning outdoor temp 2 degrees C, inside with no heating, 16 degrees C

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Jeff Huffman

Actually, spray insulation is too infrastructure intensive. Simple foil-faced or Kraft paper-faced insulation is many times easier to install, is the better option.

The big benefit of spray is that its easy to retrofit - you don't need to gut the place to insulate it, it can be poured directly into the existing walls.

I'm looking at renovating my place in the next year or so, and if I can find someone local to apply the stuff I will absolutely use it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

hokkaidoguyDEC. 04, 2014 - 01:10PM JST The big benefit of spray is that its easy to retrofit - you don't need to gut the place to insulate it, it can be poured directly into the existing walls.

You're confusing two different spray processes. You're describing boring holes into whatever the exterior cladding/siding may be and then pumping in expanding foam between the studs. The process I was referring to is foam sprayed on the inside before the drywall. However, both require expensive equipment.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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