A model home in Tokyo touts US lumber

While the world's spotlight is on Tokyo this week as leaders of the free world gather for their annual economic summit meeting, the forest products industry in the Pacific Northwest hopes a little light will shine on a house being built in a model home park by two American trade organizations. The structure, already dubbed the ``Summit House '86,'' is a major effort by the forest products industry in the Northwest to stem the decline in wooden home construction in Japan and introduce modern American building techniques on a wider scale, thus providing more export opportunities for American timber companies.

One of the international trade trends in forest products which is most disturbing to the Pacific Rim has been the steady decline in the number of Japanese houses being built of wood. While the total number of housing starts increased last year after a sharp decline earlier in the decade, the trend away from single-family homes made of wood continues its downward slide. And that's bad news for Northwest lumbermen hoping to increase sales of wood products to Japan.

Last year, for the first time, the proportion of housing starts made out of wood fell below 50 percent. While new housing construction climbed to 1,236,000 units, only 592,000 of these were made of wood (47.9 percent), according to the Japan Lumber Importers Association. These figures reflect a trend away from singly built wooden homes to steel and concrete condominiums and apartments, especially in metropolitan areas.

It's within this context that the demonstration wooden house that is being built in Tokyo by the Western forest products industry takes on added importance. Known formally as the Advanced Technology Timber Structure, it is designed as a showcase for the latest wooden construction techniques.

A construction team from R. L. Construction Company of Tacoma arrived in Tokyo in early February to begin framing the house. The building's completion this month is timed to coincide with the economic summit.

Building a demonstration house was proposed late in the forest-sector negotiations between the United States and Japan last year and was accepted more readily than controversial demands to reduce Japanese tariffs on plywood and other wooden panel products. The idea was to build a model house that would show off all American wood construction techniques whether or not they conformed to Japanese building codes.

The resulting structure is much more than a house. It is a 5,000-square-foot, three-story wooden building with an office on the first floor, housing space on the second floor, and an artist's studio on the third. In the front is a wide expanse of wooden deck space, and there is a swimming pool made of pressure-treated wood.

To construct a three-story wooden structure, a variance was obtained from the Construction Ministry, since wooden structures of this height are normally prohibited by Japanese building codes. This restriction has severely limited construction of single-family wooden homes in Tokyo, because limited land has tended to necessitate use of concrete to build condominiums and apartments. Because of the special interest in this project, not to mention high-level government attention, the variance was granted in two weeks rather than the customary six months.

``A recent study conducted in Tokyo identified some 55,000 postwar structures which need to be replaced,'' says Craig Larsen of the Western Wood Products Association. ``The study also pointed out that the most economical way to do that would be with three-story, 2-by-4 construction methods.''

Mr. Larsen says his association hopes the demonstration house will help convince the Japanese that the wooden systems commonly used in the US should be included in the Japanese building code.

American wood producers, says Hugh Love of the American Plywood Association in Tacoma, have never really had a chance to show off these techniques, partly because of building code restrictions, but also because the relatively high Japanese tariffs on plywood and other panel products have discouraged their use in Japan.

The US government put severe pressure on Japan during the past year to reduce or eliminate tariffs on these and other panel products, with only partial success. A compromise reduces the tariff on plywood from the present 15 percent to 10 percent by 1988, a reduction the American plywood industry feels is too small to provide significant market opportunities in Japan.

The US government considers the tariff issue open, but has agreed not to push for reductions in the near term to see how the proposed reductions affect trade and to give Japan some time to help its own ailing plywood industry adjust to more international competition.

``During the negotiations, the Japanese repeatedly told us that American panel products were not wanted and wouldn't work in Japan,'' Mr. Love says. The demonstration house is one answer to that charge. It appears to be generating interest. The Japanese Construction Ministry sent its entire building code staff to tour the site during construction.

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