Friday, 18 August 2017

How to build a house Part Zero: A world of pain!

A lot of people have an idea about an ideal home.​ Some have dreamed of it for years, some have an evolving plan in their heads. ​But unless you are very humble or very rich, the ideal home will be beyond your budget​, and ​unless you are very practical​ or somewhat unimaginative it will ​probably ​not be physically possible to build.

​On top of this, people tend to embark upon building projects with partners, spouses or other family members​, and the chances of two people sharing the same aesthetics are small. ​The process of building a house involves a steady erosion, and sometimes brutal ​dismantling of your dreams.​ The paradox of the creative process is just how much destruction is involved. Rather than lofty ideals, the battle is ​usually ​won by our incredibly low standards ​for acceptable living conditions​, and our ability ​to adapt to our environment. We are often like lobsters in pans of steadily warming water, who will never try to jump out even as the water boils.

Des res in Ishigaki.
We have ​a stereotype of the cavemen, living in dark, damp caves. I'm sure some of them did, but for the most part that is probably just where they died, especially if they did something as stupid as build a fire in an enclosed space. The only reason we have such ancient archaeological remains from caves is because the caves preserved them so well.

They said they'd be putting the roof on next Tuesday.
​Evidence of other structures goes back​ to​ remains​ found in Japan half a million years ago. A couple of years ago we visited the Saxon village at West Stow in East Anglia where they found some remains of structures a mere one and half thousand years old. At first they thought these were pit-houses, and they tried to reconstruct these dwellings with a roof over the pit in an enterprise called experimental archaeology. After trying to live there, the experimental archaeologists soon found how unlikely they were to have been pit houses, since the pits rapidly filled with mud and water. Instead they hypothesised floors were built over the pits. So old buildings were probably less primitive than we think. At the same time, it's hard to believe that shoddy building is a new phenomenon. Here's a story ​from the BBC ​of someone who found hundreds of things wrong with his new house, in case anyone thought building in the twenty-first century was perfect.

Brand new sling.
We also visited Greece, and saw throughout the countryside partially finished houses which people had begun to live in but left floors or walls missing for tax reasons. As I visited ​some of the ancient remains I begun to wonder whether they were really in a state of decay or whether they had just been half-built in antiquity. 

Same old rock.
So back in the new house project, at some point Stockholm syndrome sets in. Stockholm syndrome was named after a bank raid in the Swedish city when bank employees were held hostage over five days in 1973. The hostages developed emotional bonds and loyalty to their captors over this time. It took less than a week. Five days was enough to not only develop love of an aggressor, but also coin a term that we still use half a century later. And this is about the time it takes for you to become a hostage of your house. You may develop the syndrome with your architect much earlier.

And then when it's finished, you'll end up being sent something like this satisfaction questionnaire.

Read about Ben's housebuilding adventures here on Retire Japan.

Monday, 3 July 2017

A plastic bottle house and other stories

​I've always had a problem throwing things away. A lot of people see an empty bottle and think it needs throwing in the bin. I think what a fantastic piece of engineering it is, how many possible uses it could have, and how long its life could be. So I found this article from the Guardian about buildings made of plastic bottles particularly interesting.

​In other news, here's an examination from the Zeitgeist Is Changing blog debunking the "wind farms kill birds" meme. It puts fossil fuel power stations fifteen times more dangerous to birds than wind farms. 

This is supposed to be following on the coat tails of Solar Impulse, which set several aviation records and was a genuine testament to the state of renewable energy and a gauntlet thrown down for bigger and better air craft to follow.

But this green boat is not going to come anywhere close. For a start any claim to be the first zero-carbon circumnavigation of the globe ignores at least five hundred years of wind-powered journeys starting with Magellan. And even then, most of the places he travelled were already inhabited, and the natives had not arrived there by jumbo jet.

There is a claim that this will be the first round the world trip using renewable energy and hydrogen fuel. And it will probably be the last. Hydrogen is a ridiculous way to store renewable energy. As we have seen in EROI, solar power is just becoming a viable source of power in terms of the energy it will generate over the lifetime of an installation compared with the amount of energy needed to install it. Electrolysis is a great way to produce hydrogen... in your bedroom. As a commercial process, it is very energy intensive.

The comments below newspaper articles are usually full of profanity, insanity, and complaints but these comments contained a lot more insight than the article itself.

Friday, 30 June 2017

How to build a house in Japan Part One: Who is going to build it?

If you want to have a house built in Japan, you have three basic choices: a large-scale "house maker" 大手ハウスメーカー, a local builder ("komuten" 工務店), or an architect ("kenchiku sekkei jimusho" 建築設計事務所). It's unlikely that any of these people will tell you about the other options since they have their own commercial interests in the way they do things.

Around a third of new homes in Japan are built by large-scale builders. They​ are​ usually​ relatively expensive, you have a limited range of designs to choose from, and variation may be impossible or charged extra for. What you get will look very similar to the catalogue or the model house, and the support will be good. Actual energy use will often be a lot higher than predicted, but that applies to most non-Passivhaus buildings. If you can find a house maker you like, building through them will be the smoothest path to your own home. Some of the house makers are working hard on low energy buildings, and Ichijo are getting close to the Passive House standard. ​Most are governed by market considerations and long-term relationships with suppliers, so standards are often minimal. ​In theory large​-​scale builders can use factory assemblies to produce high quality at low cost​, so in some cases these houses may be cheaper, and if the economies of scale really do work, that's the way house building may ultimately go​.​ We buy cars off production lines, so why not houses?

An architect should be able to build anything you ask for, or at least will be​​ able to draw it. There is a risk that you may not get what you want, either through miscommunication, practical issues or the fact that architects have their own agendas ​and aesthetics, ​and your house is one​ small piece of that jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps worse, you may get exactly what you want, but find when you move in that you didn't want that after all! Building through an architect will often cost less than a house maker, but there is no guarantee. This ​route ​will work best if you find an architect who shares your idea of an ideal home. If you​ can​ find an architect ​​interested in ​building a ​​low-energy house, with some experience in highly-insulated highly-airtight buildings, then it should come out cheaper​ and higher quality​ than the house makers. If you treat the architect as if you were commissioning a famous artist to create an artwork, then this will go smoothly. Smother still if you imagine the artwork will be displayed in a gallery that you can visit if you want to. Of course, back in the real world it's going to be a house that you'll be looking at it every day, and usually concerned about its function rather than its form.

Going straight to a komuten will give you more freedom than a house maker, but not as much as an architect, and they will probably be cheaper than either. A komuten will ​often employ ​at least one ​qualified architect who ha​s​ all the technical skills and legal qualifications to build a house. Ninety percent of the building companies in Japan produce fewer than ten houses a year, so there is a very long tail in the construction industry. Finding the right one for you, in the right place, may be more tricky.

There is a grey area between ​a​rchitects and ​k​omuten, in terms of finances and project management. Architects do not build houses, and ​the construction of ​your house will probably be​ carried out by a komuten whether you choose an architect or a komuten. In fact even some of the large​-​scale builders contract work out to komuten, so it's possible that exactly the same people ​will be building your house whichever route you chose.

The basic role of architects is to design the building, and in the simplest case they will do that​ only, and hand over the plans to a builder. ​More often the architect will see the whole project through, and may act as the project manager. When it comes to payment, ​the architect may charge you for the whole lot, and subcontract the komuten and other contractors. Or you may pay the komuten and the architect works for them. In either of these cases there is one person to negotiate prices with, and as a customer it is clear who is responsible if something goes wrong​.​ ​W​hich it probably will since houses are complex, and building is more art than science. Alternatively, the architect may charge a fee and you pay the komuten separately, but the architect will stay on to oversee the project. This may be less ideal.

The carpenter is really important if you're building a wooden house, and in fact carpenters used to build houses in Japan without architects, ​and they are part of a long tradition. This may not always be a good thing ​if you want to build a ​low energy house​ since​ you sometimes need to go against building tradition. ​Many of the older people in the building trade have basically decided on the way things should be done, and it may be very difficult for them to try new approaches. In fact they may see new ideas as direct threats to their livelihood and will be hostile towards them. Younger people may be much more open to ​new ideas, but of course they have less experience!

​Another potential danger ​is choosing a friend to build your house. ​You may feel a great sense of security relying on someone you know well since building a house is a daunting process. However, there is always a danger working with friends, and w​ith as big an investment as a house​,​ the danger is potentially very big. If things go wrong, then you may lose your friend​.​ Even if things go well, ​you may feel that you are helping them as a customer by giving them work, and they may feel they are helping you by working for you, which could strain the relationship. ​If it is a very good friend, then your friendship may be too much to risk for something as trivial as a house, and if they are not a very good friend, you have no reason to choose them above anybody else. You should be choosing the people who are going to build the best house for you. Of course things may go smoothly, and ​it may turn out that your friend is the best person to build your house, but that should be the end point, not the starting point.

​Note: ​In Japanese, Ichijo somewhat confusingly calls itself Ichijo Komuten, but they would not be described as a komuten​.​ ​I​n fact​ they​ have operations in the US and Australia as well as in Japan.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Jargon - A glossary for the low energy builder

​Here is a brief glossary of jargon related to low-energy building, including English, Japanese and an English ​definition. It will soon move to a permanent page, where I hope to update it.

A​r​gon​ アルゴン​​: An inert gas used in multi-pane windows. It insulates around 50% ​better than air.

Astroturf movements​ 人工芝運動: Groups paid for by large corporations to appear to be grass-roots organisations, often supporting their projects or fighting against regulation. A victory of capitalism over morality!

​Cellulose insulation セルロースファイバー: Fibre-based insulation made from wood fibres, sometimes loose and blowable, and sometimes pressed together and bonded with its own resins. (Not universally acclaimed.)

Eco​ エコ​​:​ see green

EPS​ 発泡スチロール​​: Expanded polystyrene. Low-cost foam-based insulation material.​ Being foam-based it does not allow much air or water vapour to pass through. When installed it is important to avoid gaps, which can halve the performance. If used within a wooden structure in earthquake prone areas, it's possible that gaps will appear after quakes. Don't confuse with XPS​, which is much stronger, although can retain more moisture.​

​Fibre​glass​ グラスウール​​: Low ​cost fibre-based insulation material. Being fibre-based the insulation perfomance comes from air trapped between the fibres, which can move allowing water vapour through. A vapour barrier is therefore necessary to keep the building airtight. Not particularly pleasant to handle, but once installed there are no health risks until the building is butchered or demolished.

Green​ グリーン​​:​ see eco

Green bling (derogatory and somewhat archaic)​: Devices, fittings and coverings that can be added to building to make them "green". According to an arbitrary calculation, 90% of the ​building's environmental performance depends on invisible elements integrated into the structure and integral to the conceptual design. The effect of green bling is often like ordering a salad with your steak in the interest of becoming vegetarian.

Green wash​ing グリーンウォッシング​​: Portraying ​products, processes and activities as environmentally friendly without making any fundamental exchanges except in the advertising copy. (See

Kazoo blow​er​​ カズーブローアー(告発を不正にする者): ​Person who creat​es​ a lot of noise that will support the status quo and drown out ​voices of concern or dissent. (cf whistle blowing; see also astroturf)

Krypton​ クリプトン​​: Another inert gas used in multi-pane windows. ​This is another 50% better at insulating than argon, and allows windows to be much thinner while reaching high performance. Since the frames will also be thinner, and frames and their thermal bridges lose the most heat in window installations, making window panes thinner may not be such a high priority.

Low-e​ ​低E: A coating applied to internal window faces which has low emissivity. This reflects low-frequency back into the building, and improves the performance of windows.

​Mineral wool​ ロックウール: Another fibre-based insulator like fibreglass, but made from ceramics. A little more expensive than fibreglass with the same performance, but not as nasty to handle

Natural materials​ 自然材料:​ ​A somewhat vague term usually ​referring to products with no synthetic chemicals, made from trees. Often these trees were planted in neat rows, cut with chainsaws, transported by diesel-powered vehicles to processing mills running on thermal power stations.

Polyurethane​ 発泡ウレタン: ​​Another foam-based insulator that performs better than polystyrene.

​Thermal bridge サーマルブリッジ・熱橋: ​An extra loss of heat caused by joins between insulating materials, geometry of external structures and additional non-insulating materials. Which heat losses are usually calculated over areas, thermal bridges are calculated over lengths. As insulation improves, thermal bridges become more significant since a larger proportion of heat is lost through them, and also more critical as they can result in cold spots that will attract condensation.

​Vacuum 真空: ​In theory the best insulation material available, since vacuums contain nothing which will conduct. This is sometimes used in multipane windows and insulation panels. I can't help being skeptical about the long-term performance since there is a big pressure difference between the atmosphere and the vacuum, leakage will not be zero, and eventually this will be filled with air. This may take one month, one year or ten years, but you should be planning a building to last for fifty or a hundred years.

Vapour barrier​ 蒸気障壁:​ A membrane usually applied on the inside of the external walls, or within 25% of the insulation from the inside. This stops moisture from the internal air from getting through the walls where it would cause condensation. Some wall finishes act as vapour barriers. Highly insulated buildings should also be air tight, to prevent heat being lost or gained through leaking air. Depending on the performance, vapour barriers may also act as air barriers.

Warm edge​ ウォームエッジスペーサー: ​A technology used around the edges of multipane windows which prevents heat leaking through that weak link in the window assembly.

XPS ​押出ポリスチレン​​: Extruded Polystyrene. The same chemical composition as EPS, but extruded rather than expanded, and stronger. Suitable for use under and around foundations.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Satisfaction questionnaire

Here is a satisfaction questionnaire for house builders to get feedback, inspired by one of the questions on the form we got when we moved in. 

Congratulations on moving into your new house!

Now that you've moved in, how does it feel to be in your new house?

Were the extra building charges adequately explained?
Yes, the explanation was excellent and I was in no way shocked by the unreasonable and unexpected price hike
The explanation could have been better, but I got the general idea
Perhaps you need to tell us again

How many problems have there been since you moved in to your new house?
Only about half a dozen
Ten or so
Definitely less than a hundred

When there were problems, was it easy to get in touch with us?
Yes, the phone was always picked up quickly
Yes, the email I sent didn't bounce
Yes, I knew you were there when I came round to the office, although it did seem strange that you'd turned the lights off

How many times did you have to complain about the problems before we actually did something?
Three times
I gave up complaining after the fifth time

When we finally did get in touch with you, how good a job did we do at pretending we cared?
It genuinely seemed that you didn't have anything better to do than listen to us
I think I saw you nodding
Not sure, you were too busy looking at your phone

Did we tell you about our other satisfied customers?
Yes, I heard about them several times
You told us about one satisfied customer several times.
You have other satisfied customers?

(Note: Clicking these buttons will make no difference to anything, much like the satisfaction surveys you are often asked to fill out!)