October 06, 2011

Before and After

Before and After (not a translation) on ABC (Asahi Broadcasting) is like This Old House, except they do one house an episode. That means they race through the interesting stuff--the foundations and framing and plumbing--and spend more time on the boring stuff like interior decor.

Enough attention is paid to the nuts and bolts to make it clear that while ferroconcrete structures in Japan are the most solidly built in the world, and residential building codes have improved since the Great Hanshin earthquake, they still aren't as strict as building codes in the U.S.

One week on This Old House, while tearing down an old floor, Tom Silva pointed out all the once-standard construction methods that were no longer code. That same week on Before and After, there was an army of carpenters busily repeating pretty much every single one of them.

One of the big challenges on This Old House is retrofitting old structures for modern plumbing, heating and AC. The biggest plumbing challenge on Before and After is allowing the o-furo water heater to be turned on from inside the bathroom, instead of leaning out the window.

As I noted previously, south of Hokkaido, Japanese houses aren't likely to have central HVAC, high pressure hot water, or insulation. In my apartment in Port Town, the hot water in the bathroom and kitchen sinks ran off the heater attached to the o-furo, but only one faucet could be on at a time.

Another thing that becomes clear is that, as Alex Kerr laments, Japanese are pretty unsentimental about ordinary old stuff. The debut episode involved restoring a century old house. In the U.S., historical preservationists would have been crawling all over it. Break out the jackhammers!

To be sure, the idea of buying a house as an investment is a foreign one in Japan. The only worthwhile investment is in the property it sits on. You build a house in Japan knowing that the next earthquake may knock it down, and the next tsunami may wash it away. But there are exceptions.

The laundromat I used in Osaka was off a street crowded with old, two-story residences. Over the span of six months, I watched one get torn down to the ground--leaving a gap in the street like a missing tooth--and then rebuilt exactly the same, but using a frame of steel I-beams.

That's one house that isn't going anywhere, come hell or high water.

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