Creative home-building ideas in crowded Japan

How would you like to live in a home sturdy enough to stand through an earthquake or weather a typhoon - and which comes with a 10-year warranty? These are conditions some Japanese builders are willing to simulate on test houses to guarantee, to themselves and the consumer, the quality of their structures.

The Japanese, like their American counterparts, are grappling with the problem of meeting a basic social need in a time of prolonged economic downturn and high housing costs. In a land where a small home far outside the city costs around $130,000, research to contain expense by creative use of space and new building materials is essential.

What is emerging is an innovative and vibrant housing industry that is building ceramic houses, prefabricated structures that can go up on a site in as little as four hours, and homes built with American-style two-by-four construction, among other things. And with a new emphasis on economical and energy-efficient housing, American builders are finding that the cost- and space-conscious Japanese may have a thing or two to teach them.

American interest has been sparked largely by the ability of the Japanese to construct 1.1 million homes last year, despite adverse economic conditions. This equals the American output - but in a country with half the US population and 1/ 25th the area.

The Japanese homebuilders' ability and willingness to innovate, to find new materials, and improve upon space restrictions, is also the subject of a film currently being developed by the Boston-based Urbanimage Corporation. With funding in part from the National Endowment for the Arts, firm president Lawrence Rosenblum wishes to convey the creativity of the Japanese housing market, noting, ''Each culture can be a control case for the next. We can highlight attitudes that characterize inventive thinking, and help builders feel , 'Hey, this is a great idea' without feeling threatened they didn't think of everything first.''

Mr. Rosenblum and Boston architect Andrea Leers are interested in examining the housing delivery process, including issues of design, prefabrication, research, as well as a highly developed post-construction service system.

The Japanese homebuilding industry has only recently emerged from one concerned simply with putting roofs over people's heads to one which promotes development, quality control, and a sensitivity to the consumer's wishes. This growth was spurred by the government's ''Showa 55'' project, which challenged builders to find solutions to the growing need for quality housing at reasonable prices. It also placed emphasis on new systems of factory-made housing as well as use of two-by-four construction.

Quality control, of course, is taken very seriously. Sekisui House Ltd., for example, which builds 30,000 structures each year, is the firm that submits test houses to simulated earthquakes and typhoons. Firemen even set them aflame to test resistance.

Prefab housing, which accounts for 12 percent of the Japanese market, is taking great strides forward, according to Noriko Yamamoto, president of Global Link, a California consulting firm. Among the manufacturers, the Sekisui Heim modular house made by Sekisui Chemical Ltd., for example, is almost completely factory-made and can be ready for occupancy as few as 40 days after the contract is signed. Styles and designs of manufacturers are quite flexible to meet varying consumer needs and tastes.

No matter how modern the style, however, Japanese homes as a rule include traditional characteristics such as sliding amado which cover glass doors, a tatami room, and a genkan, the small entrance area where people remove their shoes before stepping up into the house. Modern and traditional are often freely mixed.

Some Japanese builders have already begun to enter the US and Canadian markets. And, commenting on Japanese builders' relevance to the US industry, Mr. Rosenblum, who started Urbanimage 10 years ago, asserts, ''We want to alert the American public to innovation in housing delivery. Some Japanese homebuilders are beginning to approach the house as a complex product deserving the same kind of attention as the automobile. We know how this approach has influenced the auto market worldwide. There may be a lot to learn from the Japanese in the area of housing.''

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