Prospective homeowners logging in to customization

October 30th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Wood if you could

Wood if you could

Designer homes are a luxury anywhere in the world, but in Japan they are even more so given the price of land and the cost of construction. And until not too long ago homes that were considered “distinctive,” meaning that they were obviously designed and built to the specifications of their original owners, were considered risky by bank lenders, who believed their distinction would make them difficult to resell, regardless of their quality.

Nevertheless, over the years more and more prospective home owners became understandably disillusioned with the dull layouts and inflexible designs of assembly-line products sold by major manufacturers like Toyota Home and Daiwa House. Many of these people have opted for so-called log houses, most of which aren’t strictly speaking made of logs. However, they are all-wood. Originally, log houses were sold as second homes or vacation homes (besso). It’s been only recently that people have started looking at them as first homes.

Last week, we visited a log house that was near completion in a leafy corner of Chiba Prefecture. The property was located at the edge of an open field that looks as if it used to be farmland, and in the near distance was an old temple on a forested hill. However, the area was under development, and the log house, designed and supplied by East Loghouse Tokyo, looked a little incongruous set amid other more conventional houses with their boxy shapes and saiden (chemical compound siding) outer walls. The plot of land it stood on was the usual postage stamp dimensions you find in Japanese subdivisions.

Unfinished wood floors

Unfinished wood floors

Despite the name, East Loghouse Tokyo is actually headquartered in Tochigi Prefecture, and three representatives of the company drove 90 minutes from Utsunomiya to pick us up at a Lawson’s near the train station in order to drive us to the house. One of them, in fact, was the CEO, thus indicating how small and portable the company is. Apparently, there is no actual head office. Though the company used to have some model homes set up in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, they mostly sell their wares over the internet and the telephone. If you want to see the real thing, then you have to literally see the real thing: a log house that’s under construction.

This makes it somewhat inconvenient for potential buyers, but it also keeps the prices low, probably the cheapest of the handful of log house specialists in Japan. Log houses are sold as kits, and a basic two-story structure comprising about 80 sq. meters of floor space costs around ¥5 million, depending on the way the wood is processed. Obviously, the larger your desired house (East has various designs it makes itself), the more it costs, but it’s still pretty cheap.

BESS, another big log house manufacturer, charges three to four times as much for a “basic house,” and one of the reasons is that the company has considerable extraneous costs to cover. They maintain model exhibit areas all over the country, including one in the heart of pricey Meguro Ward in Tokyo, and carry out extensive advertising and direct mail campaigns.

That all-natural feeling

That all-natural feeling

East Loghouse gets its lumber, mostly Siberian pine, from Finland, but the wood is machine processed in China. The company pays for shipping up to the Port of Yokohama, but the customer covers the transportation after that. Of course, the buyer can assemble the kit if so inclined — the owner of the house we inspected is doing some of the simpler work himself like staining and installing fixtures − but most will avail themselves of builders, which depending on who you use will charge about ¥10 million to put the thing up. So not counting the price of land and taxes, it’s about ¥15 million for the house itself − not a particularly big house, granted, but, again, it’s all-wood.

Or mostly wood. The salesperson pointed out to us that the dark panels on the outside of the second floor were not, in fact, natural, but compound siding made to look like wood. Because of fire regulations, Chiba Prefecture says that second stories of private homes cannot be made 100% of wood, which makes sense given how cramped housing developments are in the suburbs. But unlike fake brick or fake tile or fake mortar siding, this looked quite a bit like what it was supposed to look like, which is important. The selling point of log houses is their rustic appearance and, in particular, their scent, which is strong. This kind of house is apparently normal in Finland, but quite exotic in Japan. “Live a resort life in the city,” is one of East Loghouse Tokyo’s catch copy lines.

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