English text of article from
JapaneseGreen Post #10. 1993

When I first began to be asked questions about designing ecological housing for Japan, I was puzzled. Traditional Japanese housing and living patterns were already among the most ecologically sensitive and spiritually satisfying in the world. Building materials were local - generally timber, straw, thatch, paper, clay, and stone. They were renewable or reuseable resources or ones which returned to their natural state when abandoned. Energy use was small and renewable based. Why change?

The more I listened, the more I realized that the past is not the present. New living and building patterns in Japan cause much greater ecological impact and often don't make good living environments. Attempts to modify traditional housing for more comfort and different living patterns have not worked as well as possible. And some traditional building and living patterns did result in dangerous and uncomfortable buildings requiring much work to maintain.

There are many aspects of housing where great improvements are both needed and possible. The strengths and successes of an honorable building tradition need not be abandoned in the process, nor improvements limited by them. Design and techological skills from abroad can work together with deeply rooted local skills to stimulate new and more comprehesive thinking and the development of a new tradition which encompasses new capabilities and new dreams. Our need today is to pull the best from all sources - traditional and modern, local and foreign. We need to synthesize patterns which honor both past and future, which move our hearts, meet our needs, and fulfill our responsibilities to the rest of the planet.

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Japanese living patterns have changed dramatically. Families have more belongings, are changing from floor to furniture-centered use of rooms, and desire higher levels of thermal comfort. There is growing interest in the different esthetic, spatial, and symbolic qualities of other cultures and building traditions. This is bringing a cross-fertilization of sensitivities, technologies and designs. Younger Japanese are taller than their parents. Even the basic planning module of Japanese construction needs to be changed so that tatami and futon sizes, door and counter heights, etc. fit the people who now use them.

Resource depletion, environmental impact in obtaining materials, reusability, waste stream impacts, energy use in manufacture, performance, and toxicity all influence choice in building materials. Use of these materials then has to deal with durability, safety, comfort, and the psychological and spiritual performance of the completed building.

Durability is one of the most vital, yet neglected, aspects of building design. It can dramatically alter the investment of work, energy, material resources and maintenance per year of a building's life. Durability can reduce the environmental costs of building by an order of magnitude.

Opportunities for improvement in materials go beyond cost and energy performance. Reflections in windows at night can generate distraction and self-consciousness by seeing ourselves or others reflected in strange combinations. Non-reflective surfaces could improve the psychological "performance" of windows. Etched glass, for another example, has gained widespread use in shoji panels in place of traditional rice paper, yet gives a harsh feeling to the spaces where they are used. Certain fiberglass and glass/fiberglass laminates have the "feel" of rice paper, with greater durability and weather resistance, but are not widely in use.

The amount of agricultural land being lost to urban development in Japan is stunning. The loss of agricultural productivity is often irreparable, and our connection with the natural productive processes which support our lives is essential. Europe and other intensely developed areas have developed a great variety of housing types which lie between the single family residence and Japan's massive "dancha" housing blocks. These housing types use much less land than the small-scale Japanese housing, and create much better living environments than the "dancha". It is surprising that Japan has not applied or modified these other housing types for Japanese conditions and sensitivities.

Innovative kinds of hillside construction also seem to be neglected in favor of sprawling consumption of agricultural land. Application of these and other alternative land use patterns form an exciting opportunity for designers working in Japan as well as a way to preserve biological land productivity while providing for expanded housing needs.

Desire for higher comfort levels has led to new glazing, heating and cooling systems in both existing and new construction in Japan. Major increases in energy use has resulted, in spite of very innovative ways of using that energy. Radiant-heated tatami mats and carpets warm people without raising the temperature of the air in the space. Such heating systems unfortunately create electromagnetic fields that are harmful to the users, but they can possibly be improved. Infra-red heaters are common, but sometimes hazardous in use. Design of highly-insulated wall, roof, floor, and window construction can now permit low-energy heating or cooling of whole building interiors. Opportunity exists for much more sensitive solar heating and shading, infiltration control, and reduction in building heat loss.

One of the traditional problems of Japanese housing has been its vulnerability to fire, earthquake, and typhoon damage. A wood and paper house may be made of renewable materials, but when a whole city burns, obtaining materials to rebuild has major ecological impact.

For fire safety, new urban building codes frequently prohibit traditional wood building construction. The result of working in unfamiliar materials and requirements has led frequently to awkward design. Fire-resistance requirements can distinguish between fire spread between homes or apartments - and the fire resistance requirements within a living unit. Fire-resistant construction standards are available which document the fire safety of several methods of timber construction. Fire-resistive treatment of wood and paper finish materials can permit their use in exposed interior and exterior situations without contributing to fire hazard. And low-cost fire sprinkler systems using flexible plastic pipe can increase the fire safety of residential buildings even further. There are now a variety of ways to obtain durability and safety while also permitting sensitive design.

Even standard residential construction can now be built to easily resist wind speeds gusting to 180 kph, along with severe earthquakes. Tile roof installation, plywood shear walls, and standardized metal structural connectors can permit structural safety with minimal impact on the design of buildings. Design for resistance to corrosive marine environments, major earthquakes, rainfall of up to two meters per year accompanied by winds of up to 180 kph as well as fire, rot and insect damage are now part of the design skills of many qualified designers.

Within a building, thick wall, floor, and roof systems with high insulating values are often combined with open wood post, beam, and decking interior construction on a situation-by-situation basis. This can be effective in providing high performance construction which still has visual design revealing the beauty and organization of the structure.

Family living patterns continue to change dramatically. Traditional three-generation families and single generation families are fragmenting even further. The design of housing and neighborhoods to meet the financial, social, and privacy needs of singles, older grandparents, or single parents with children is generating interesting new housing patterns which are not widely used in Japan.

Japan's historical close ties with nature are now no more than a mere memory. In spite of much talk, it is rare that current construction even attempts to provide a physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual link with nature. Yet there is nothing more vital to health. One of the most basic maxims of ecology is "connectedness". A house which doesn't include connectedness with nature on all levels of design, experience and use has no claim to the name "ecological".

High-performance construction has rarely considered more than the technical aspect of the materials. It has neglected to include the vital considerations of the psychological and spiritual needs of the people constructing and using the buildings. Spiritual needs are poorly met in building design or other aspects of modern society. We fail to recognize that drugs, alcohol, crime, child abuse, homelessness, and many other widespread problems of our societies are all "diseases of the spirit". They all arise out of lack of self-worth, lack of respect by and for others, lack of opportunity to be of use and value to others - the elements which lower our resistance to the "disease opportunities" which are always part of our surroundings.

Recognizing the spirit of a place, and allowing it to be expressed in how we build, is an important part of learning to honor both ourselves and the life which surrounds us. It is vital in generating the links with nature and people which give strength and meaning to our lives.

An well-designed ecological house with sophisticated technical and emotional performance can still be a costly mistake if it generates unacceptable costs to others or to its support systems. Air conditioners that cool us while pouring hot air at our neighbors, or flush toilets that pollute rivers or drinking water of others, create more problems than they solve. Housing that generates costly ways of commuting to work, obtaining food, maintaining a social community, or obtaining energy is not ecological or good housing. Housing which is part of a system which destroys economic or political equity among people or the spiritual cohesion of a society is also not ecological or good housing.

With the rapid increase in "environmentally sensitive" health problems, the health hazards of buildings, such as formaldehyde in construction materials, airborne radon, electromagnetic radiation, or chemically reactive finishes have been the primary focus of much "ecological" housing. Much progress has been made in these areas. There still are, however, simplistic beliefs that "natural is good", that a product that was okay yesterday hasn't changed its chemical makeup by tomorrow, or that the physical chemistry of materials is the only significant component of "ecological" design. Health hazards can be and are being reduced significantly in certain ecological designs, but more needs to be done in this area.

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The wide range of Japanese climatic and economic conditions, esthetic interests and living patterns suggests that there is no single answer to "ecological" housing in Japan. Insulation levels, glazing performance, space heating and cooling, summer ventilation, window shading all need to be tailored to specific regional and site conditions and to the people for whom the houses are built. This can lower costs for housing, and at the same time create rich and beautiful regional variations in our communities.

Most of the "ecological houses" built to date fail to demonstrate the real magnitude of improvements that are possible. The specific needs of owners and the limited economic, technical and design resources which it has been possible to commit to an "ecological" house have narrowed down what new achievements could be demonstrated. The potential is there, however, awaiting only the dedication of resources and commitment.

Major improvement in the ecological performance of all housing is possible in Japan as well as elsewhere. It is needed for our own physical and spiritual well being and for reducing the environmental impacts of our needs to levels which can be easily afforded and sustained. We have much to learn from and give each other, and new things to discover together in the process. It gives us a challenge and opportunity with both economic and spiritual rewards to all people affected by it.

38755 Reed Rd.
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© 1993