Can refurbishment change the fate of Japanese houses that have been repeatedly knocked down and rebuilt?
| Tear down and rebuild |
There is a small town about an hour away from Kobe by train. There is a block in the small town, and houses are row upon row. The house here was built by Japan’s largest prefabricated house builder “Yamato House Construction”. The town sprang up in the 1960s, when the real estate boom swept through postwar Japan. But today, many houses built in that era have long been replaced by new houses, because most prefabricated houses, or most houses in Japan, only have a service life of more than 30 years.
Unlike other countries, houses in Japan depreciate in value and become worthless after 20 or 30 years. By the time the owner moves or dies, the house has pretty much lost its resale value and has to be demolished. The repeated demolition and construction of houses can be said to be unique to Japan. Of course, there are many reasons for this: first, the demand for housing has soared after the war, and quality cannot be considered in pursuit of quantity; Changes have to be made accordingly; the third is that there is no incentive mechanism for house resale, and people naturally don’t care about the maintenance of houses. All of the above have led to the “short life” fate of Japanese houses.
Fortunately, things have changed now. At the end of the block, there is an unoccupied house with scaffolding set up around the house, and the staff of Yamato House Construction are constructing it. They are not tearing down the house, they are renovating and updating the layout, and the renovated house can be put back on the market. In the past, such second-hand houses were rare, but now they are slowly increasing. “The Japanese began to like living in old houses for the first time,” said the public information officer of Daiwa House Construction.
| New Housing Trends|
Whether urban or suburban, the market positioning of renovated housing in Japan is changing, which also reflects the huge changes in Japanese society. Japan’s population is shrinking at an alarming rate, projected to drop to 88 million by 2065. The problem of aging in Japan is equally severe, with more than one-third of the population aged 65 and over within 20 years. Declining and aging populations have resulted in populations congregating in big cities, leaving millions of homes in remote areas empty. According to Nomura Research Institute, Japan’s housing vacancy rate is currently about 13%, and it is expected to exceed 30% by 2033. With such data and a stagnant economy, most people are pessimistic about the new housing market.
In addition to Daiwa House Construction, there are many Japanese construction companies entering the old house renovation market, and Sekisui House Co., Ltd. is one of them. The company built a residential park with model homes of different styles, mostly for the high-end market, with multi-storey structures and luxurious finishes. However, you can also see a simple two-storey building in the corner of the park. The first floor is in the architectural style of Japan in the 1980s. The house type on the second floor is the same as that on the first floor, but the layout has been adjusted. The kitchen is open and the walls are minimized. One room has been transformed into an audio-visual room with a sofa and a flat-screen TV.
For Sekisui House, simple renovations can transform a vacant home into a brand new commodity. “The old houses after renovation are rejuvenated, and there is no need to demolish them.” Company executive Ishida Kenichi said, “Young people nowadays don’t have a lot of money, so they don’t hesitate to buy old houses.”
Between Osaka and Kyoto This phenomenon is very obvious in Takatsuki City. A 39-year-old resident said, “Many young people live in refurbished houses near my home.” He, his wife and two children also live in refurbished houses, and the price of refurbished houses is much lower than that of new houses. “We can save money and take care of our parents conveniently by living here, which is much better than a new house,” he said.
Today, it’s not just big construction companies that dominate the refurbishment market. Zoe Ward is from Tokyo and is the CEO of a real estate agency. She said that as recent homebuyers began to reconsider the value of older homes, many renovation companies have been established. With the growing demand for housing in Tokyo, many homeowners are looking for such companies to renovate their old houses.
| Young people’s choice|
Young people, especially those in cities, have more choices. To meet their needs, some start-ups are looking beyond traditional housing. In recent years, a number of small development firms have been acquiring older homes and repurposing them, such as converting apartment buildings, offices and company dormitories into affordable co-working spaces.
Facing the problem of population decline, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has launched a plan to renovate mid-to-high-rise residential buildings in the 1960s and 1970s, encouraging families with children and residents who take care of the elderly nearby to apply first. And now, the Urban Regeneration Agency under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan is trying to attract young people to live in.
The approach taken by urban regeneration organizations is to cooperate with MUJI. Minimalist retailer MUJI is an internationally renowned brand whose simple, functional products are also popular in Japan. Through cooperation with urban regeneration organizations, MUJI has entered the field of old house renovation. To appeal to younger tenants, the staff broke through the walls and replaced bulky cabinets with open storage and shelving.
Koji Kawauchi, director of operations of MUJI Residential Space, said that traditional design does not meet the tastes of young people. Many houses have a narrow layout and a strong sense of fragmentation. “Our idea was to integrate small scattered rooms into a larger space,” he says. The staff removed the room’s fancy decoration and replaced it with simple white walls and solid wood furniture. Kawauchi said the number of occupancy applications for Muji’s refurbished properties was five to seven times that of other refurbished properties. So far, MUJI has completed the renovation of more than 500 houses, and plans to continue to advance with an annual progress of 150 to 200 houses.
| A new look of the city|
With the reduction and migration of the Japanese population, many small and medium-sized cities are in decline. Kitakyushu, a city in southern Japan, used to be the “capital of manufacturing”, but now its population has begun to grow negatively. Fukuoka, an hour’s train ride from Kitakyushu, is Japan’s “startup city” and the fifth largest city in Japan. Due to Fukuoka’s preferential tax policy and talent introduction policy, a large number of people have poured in from Kitakyushu, making the former an “empty city”.
Mitsuhiro Tokuda, a professor of architecture at Kyushu Institute of Technology, conducted a study in downtown Kitakyushu with students to investigate which houses in the area were vacant and which could be repurposed. “Research alone is not enough,” said Tokuda, who started a small company that works with homeowners to renovate vacant homes and find new uses. The company’s first project was to convert a vacant house into a co-working space for graphic designers and video editors.
There used to be a garment factory near the center of Kitakyushu, but the factory has been idle since it was closed. Tokuda and his team transformed it into a complex with community rooms, offices, creative workshops, a café and various gift shops, almost all of which are rented out.
Tokuda not only discovered the potential of reusing vacant houses, but also spread his new ideas and clever methods to more people. In 2011, he founded a training institution, the trainees are mainly architects, designers and businessmen. This is a short training course, lasting about a week, that covers finding vacancies, conducting research, developing plans and delivering to homeowners. Tokuda said the agency has completed dozens of projects in cities across Japan, where vacant houses are now converted into brand new retail stores, hotels, cafes and apartments.
Tokuda’s efforts have begun to bear fruit in Kitakyushu. Walking on a commercial street, he pointed to four buildings along the street and said: “These are the results of our projects.” Homeowners and businessmen have also formed associations to raise funds for street renovations . Today, the cracked asphalt pavement has been replaced by neat concrete slabs, street lamps are painted bright green, and benches have been added outside some shops for pedestrians to rest. Tokuda said: “The renovation of houses can drive the development of the neighborhood, and at the same time, it can also create the ‘renovation’ of the city.”