Adapting rental homes; what can we learn from Japan?

For RentDo you try out everything yourself or do you like to learn from the examples of others? Personally, I like to do the latter and I gladly share that new knowledge with you. That is the reason I travel around the world on behalf of BRIQS, in search of the best building innovation examples we can use to our advantage in the Netherlands or abroad. So, I was in Japan recently. What I saw there inspired and surprised me. And resulted in a blog trilogy about renting, buying and building innovations.

I was in Japan last June, by invitation Stephen Kendall a just retired American professor in Architecture who completed his studies and PhD at MIT by John Habraken. In recent decades he has been building a large network of contacts in universities, companies and the government, together with fellow students at MIT and his Japanese wife. He has opened special doors for me. I have seen that we can learn a lot from the Japanese about adaptability and their way of Open Building. But in terms of sustainability I got more confused on the way! Want to know more? Then read on…

Renovation = the new standard

Tatami2After decades of constructing new buildings, the Japanese government changed course in recent years; not building new but renovation is the present standard when it comes to rental housing on behalf of the state. The population decline, population aging and materials (re-)use are leading factors here. The Japanese state has 700,000 homes under management through its national corporation Urban Renaissance. To get an idea of the scale: Urban Renaissance is as big as the top fifteen corporations in the Netherlands combined.

Each year, an average of 7000 of those homes are now renovated, often by selecting construction companies for a neighborhood, area of region for a few years, and subsequently filling in the contract with home orders. Japanese contractors, consultants and administrators embrace the new reality with innovations. Innovations to make adaptability of property lay out for the customer as easily and cheaply as possible and quick in its execution. So as a new tenant’ personal needs change, so does the home. Adaptability of builders as companies and adaptability of housing is clearly the new strategy. Japan has adjusted its law in a smart and performance way to realize this strategy in changing the building game, especially when they are not in the lead as owner or commissioner. More on that in the blog on buying homes in Japan.

Japanese traditions translated

For a day we traveled to various projects in and around Tokyo with our group. To projects that have been renovated, rebuilt or are still to be addressed. We had the pleasant company of several (former) professors from the major universities who think along and think ahead in the Japanese approach.

Genkan2What I have seen, among other things, is how Japanese living traditions are translated into existing and new multistory buildings. For example, they never move through the house on outdoor shoes, only on the first meter. The height difference between the Genkan – the entrance-level for the outdoor shoes – and the parquet floor where they walk on slippers, is translated into raised floors in the rest of the house. The former squat toilet could be nicely lowered into the floor and there is underfloor space for all kinds of pipes. The tatami mats in several rooms are often on a different level too, often to indicate that you are supposed to take your slippers off. There is no inconvenience of the uneven top of the course cast concrete floor and everything is immediately visible, accessible and adaptable to change. So no leakage and nuisance for the downstairs neighbors. Another big advantage when renovating is that you can work on it without having to enter the neighbors’ home. And you do not have to renovate an entire block or building at once, as is customary in the Netherlands.

Forced or voluntary renovation

In the Netherlands we have another habit that can turn out to be unfavorable for tenants (but is favorable for landlords). A property owner can execute a building renovation with the consent of 70% of the tenants in that building. He can compel the remaining 30% to accept the renovations also, including any rent increase, determined in accordance with national rules after renovation!

This is unheard of in Japan! No one can be forced to move or accept a modification. That is why many residents wait for compensation on rebuilding in the form of moving to a new home or a better located property. For the elderly you can expect that a ground floor apartment is now far more convenient than the apartment higher up in the building that they moved into decades ago. The experience is that the elderly who are relocated prefer a limited adjustment of kitchen and bathroom with a small increase in rent to a total rebuilding. For the young, it can often not be new and extensive enough!

Including furniture

mujiAnother noteworthy matter is that Urban Renaissance, the corporation of the state, is now offering social housing with furnishing for 7% extra rent. Muji – a kind of Japanese IKEA – handles the fit-out, which you can best described as white, bamboo and efficient. The small 40m2 houses from the sixties are filled in no time. Traditional Japanese houses have little furniture: inhabitants sit on the ground and have deep cabinets for stuff to put aside things like bed linen and mattresses. The younger generations do not want this anymore and use furniture regularly.

All but sustainable?

There is another typical and much less durable Japanese common use that I did not know about and that startled me quite a bit. For a Japanese everything must be new and beautifully packaged. The ease with which we pass on clothes in the family or buy them second hand in shops is unthinkable in Japan. A package free supermarket, like was opened up in Germany recently, will now be a revolution without a existing sustainable market. This also applies to the building of housing, and not only to the fit-out.

What has once been used is seen as virtually worthless and is replaced. In cars, for example, it is normal to trade it in for a new one after three years. Used cars are exported to developing countries for sale over there. This habit does not bode well for circular building with recycling of raw materials and products in Japan itself. Or at least asks for a whole different perspective on possible reuse of products and components. And that in a country where recycling of raw materials, due to the limited availability in the country, is long known and addressed in the form of obligations by manufacturers. This discovery makes me look with new eyes at Japan as an example! I had hoped that everything would be organized as well as with the innovative project NEXT 21. I will show you more about that in another blog and on the example pages.

Bringing back to the Netherlands

BathroomfloorBathing five times a day is not customary in the Netherlands, and never has been. And consciously placing floors on different levels in the house indicating what footwear to use, we will not do either. From Dutch legislation flat floors are namely premise and condition, but should that be of national interest for all? More than 20mm difference between the doorsill and the inside floor is even forbidden from the Building Act. In Dutch and Japanese testing homes we can do this of course. Indeed, there must be a lot on show for new owners and residents to see the potential. Like I said, the Japanese experiment NEXT 21 is a very good example. So, more on that later.

Take the next step and share your experiences

Do you want to take a next step? Come to the FREE* Masterclass. We will work with practical tools to instantly implement the actions of my ebook in your organizational, fiscal or financial projects and organization.

Join the conversation

Do you know how to build that new way and what you need? What innovations and new freedom do you wish to achieve for residents as tenant or landlord? Share it in the comments below.

To your health and wellbeing,

Remko Zuidema

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