Increasing number of abandoned homes in Tokyo

As the population declines, Tokyo has more abandoned homes:

Despite a deeply rooted national aversion to waste, discarded homes are spreading across Japan like a blight in a garden. Long-term vacancy rates have climbed significantly higher than in the United States or Europe, and some eight million dwellings are now unoccupied, according to a government count. Nearly half of them have been forsaken completely – neither for sale nor for rent, they simply sit there, in varying states of disrepair.

These ghost homes are the most visible sign of human retreat in a country where the population peaked a half-decade ago and is forecast to fall by a third over the next 50 years. The demographic pressure has weighed on the Japanese economy, as a smaller workforce struggles to support a growing proportion of the old, and has prompted intense debate over long-term proposals to boost immigration or encourage women to have more children.

For now, though, after decades during which it struggled with overcrowding, Japan is confronting the opposite problem: When a society shrinks, what should be done with the buildings it no longer needs?…

Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits,” said Tomohiko Makino, a real estate expert who has studied the vacant-house phenomenon. Once limited mostly to remote rural communities, it is now spreading through regional cities and the suburbs of major metropolises. Even in the bustling capital, the ratio of unoccupied houses is rising.

The population loss in Detroit and Tokyo are driven by different factors yet the Motor City could help other cities around the world think about what to do when the population decreases.

This particular article doesn’t talk much about negative consequences of having a lot of abandoned homes. Any problems with squatters? People tearing apart the buildings for scraps? Animals? Neighbors unhappy about the lack of upkeep? Bloated infrastructure costs that need to be reined in? Perhaps the consequences of abandoned homes are quite different across national contexts.

“25 Lessons You’ll Learn From a McMansion”

One contributer to finds humor in things you can learn from a McMansion:

1) The builders did not have all the answers.  Sometimes, they didn’t understand any of the questions.  Feel free to display bewilderment and dismay at their cluelessness.

2)  When you find a light or window in an inexplicable location or missing where one should decidedly be, refer to lesson #1.

3) Four words: What Were They Thinking?

4) McMansion owners can be the best-dressed people at the party.  But when the party is at their house, try not to stare, point, or snicker…

The main joke here appears to be that McMansions are not built that well. Hence, be prepared to find lots of things to fix or to have to make major changes to poor decisions by builders.

Ikea survey on American home patterns

Here is one snarky interpretation of some interesting data from a recent Ikea survey of Americans:

Only 1% [of those surveyed] want their home to reflect how successful they have been.
Analysis: This may seem surprising, but in fact Americans often choose to lie to surveys to make themselves appear more humble…

43% state they have assigned seating in their living room.
Analysis: Americans care deeply about personal property and annex even the smallest items…

31% of people with pets answered that the pet cuddles with them in bed “every night.”
Analysis: American pets do not respect boundaries.

I’ve wondered why sociologists don’t spend more time studying what Americans do in their homes. I could see why companies like Ikea want such information (see the survey results here): they want to sell us things for our homes. While such research questions may seem intrusive, Americans have created a superior private realm that keeps them away from community life (the interpretation of several New Urbanists in Suburban Nation) so something interesting must be going on at home, right? We know that Americans consume lots of television (lots of studies on this) and find ways to handle housework (lots of studies on this) but what about regular interactions? What about what they think about what their own home says about themselves? What do they do when left alone in their own homes? Surveys could help us get at this but participant observation would also help: seeing Americans in their natural and prized personal settings.One book that does do some of this is one I read a while back in grad school called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Also, Pierre Boudieu’s classic Distinction looks at numerous household items and activities.

A little bit more on one of the Ikea questions (page 3 of the PDF):

How do Americans feel about home?
•95% say home is a place they can relax
•94% feel their home is a place where they feel
safe and secure
• 78% stated their home reflects their character
•50% believe that when it comes to life at home,
the top priority is for the home to be warm and
• Only 1% want their home to reflect how successful
they have been

It is interesting how many Americans don’t want the home to reflect their success but it should reflect their character. Critics of McMansions might charge that the reason those homeowners bought such homes was to try to impress other people.

Questioning the open kitchen

Lots of newer homes have kitchens open to great rooms or other gathering spaces. However, there are a few people questioning the trend:

J. Bryan Lowder, an assistant editor at Slate, recently slammed the open concept in a widely read article called “Close Your Open-Concept Kitchen.” He called the trend a “baneful scourge” that has spread through American homes like “black mold through a flooded basement.”

Lowder’s point, and one echoed through the anti-open-kitchen movement, is that we have walls and doors for a reason. While open-kitchen lovers champion the ease of multitasking cooking and entertainment and appreciate how the cook can keep an eye on the kids (or an eye on a favorite TV show), the haters reply that open kitchens do neither effectively. Instead, the detractors say, open kitchens leave guests with an eyeful of kitchen mess, distract cooks, and leave Mom and Dad with no place to hide from their noisy brood.

And apparently defenders of the open kitchen are quite vocal:

Roxanne, who blogs at Just Me With … under her first name only (and chose not to reveal her last name in this article for fear of backlash from open-kitchen devotees), ranted against the concept on her blog. For Roxanne, the open kitchen destroys coveted privacy.

Who knew this topic was so controversial. And how did we move from older homes with kitchens at the back of the house to the open kitchen of today?

Design psychologist Toby Israel, author of “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” said open kitchens have gained such momentum because the kitchen is often the heart of family existence and a central gathering point.

All interesting. But, another issue with this article: the headline suggests there is a backlash against this design but presents limited evidence of this. Sure, it quotes a few people who don’t like the open kitchen. And there is a citation of an odd statistic that just over 75% of home remodelers are knocking down walls. All of this indicates more of a discussion about open kitchens, rather than a big trend.

This is a common tactic today from journalists and others online: suggest there may be a trend, present limited evidence, and then leave it to readers to sort out at the end whether a big trend really exists. There are several ways around this. First, present more data. A few articles that start heated online discussions do not tell us much. In this case, tell us what builders are actually doing or what homes people are buying. Second, wait it out a bit. Having more time tends to reveal whether there is really a trend or just a minor blip. While this doesn’t help meet regular deadlines, it does mean that we can be more certain that there is a discernible pattern.

American, Australian leaders face vermin, possums in their residences

Even some of the most powerful leaders have to deal with infestations in their houses: the White House has vermin and the official house of the Australian prime minister has a problem with possums. First, the White House:

It is, of course, not the first time bugs or vermin have done battle with the humans who work in the 213-year-old building. Humans have not always prevailed easily – much to the deep frustration sometimes of the president of the United States. None was more frustrated than Jimmy Carter, who battled mice from the start of his administration. To his dismay, he found the bureaucracy unresponsive. GSA, responsible for inside the White House, insisted it had eliminated all “inside” mice and contended any new mice must have come from the outside, meaning, the New York Times reported at the time, they were “the responsibility of the Interior Department.” But Interior, wrote the Times, “demurred” because the mice were now inside the White House…

His fury was captured in his diary entry for Sept. 9, 1977. Carter that day summoned top officials from the White House, the Department of Interior and the GSA to the Oval Office to unload on them about the mice overrunning the executive offices – including the dead ones rotting away inside the walls of the Oval Office and giving his office a very unpleasant odor. “For two or three months now I’ve been telling them to get rid of the mice,” Carter wrote. “They still seem to be growing in numbers, and I am determined either to fire somebody or get the mice cleared out – or both.”

Now more scared for their jobs than at any possible reaction from humane groups, the bureaucracy responded. According to the Associated Press, daily battle updates were sent to the highest levels of the White House, complete with body counts and descriptions of the weapons being deployed. On Sept. 12 – three days after the meeting with Carter – GSA reported 48 spring traps in the White House, including five in the Oval Office and four in Carter’s study. Six more “Ketch All” traps were placed in the crawl space under the Oval Office. Peanut butter, bacon and cheese were the favored baits. By Sept. 13, the number of traps deployed in the West Wing was up to 114. On Sept. 15, the body count was up to 24. By Sept. 19, it was 30; then 38 by the end of the month…

Other presidents have had their own battles with White House vermin. First Lady Barbara Bush once was taking her daily swim in the pool on the South Lawn when she was joined by a rat that “did not look like a Walt Disney friend, I’ll tell you that.” She told reporters “it was enormous.” She credited her springer spaniel, Millie, and her husband, the president, with rescuing her and drowning the rat.

And in Australia:

Australia’s official prime ministerial residence, The Lodge, a 1920s colonial-style 40-room mansion in Canberra, was intended to be a temporary lodging until a permanent “monumental” residence was constructed. It is in a state of serious disrepair and has given successive leaders problems.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard once recalled an embarrassing dinner with a visiting foreign leader in 2012 which was interrupted by possum urine dribbling from the roof towards a valuable painting.

It sounds like these both of these houses have their own unique and tortured histories, leaving plenty of opportunities for nature to intrude on human politics. Frankly, I’m not sure most people would want to know how many critters are in and around their property. What exactly goes on around that foundation or within the walls? Perhaps this might be another selling point for passive houses: they are so sealed up that nature is effectively kept at bay.

Building Gulf Coast houses on 10-20 foot stilts

Federal regulations regarding building on flood areas on the Gulf Coast have led to a new kind of up-in-the-air house:

I’ve visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast at odd intervals since Hurricane Katrina struck almost eight years ago, and have been keeping tabs on an emerging architectural typology. Ordinary suburban-style neocolonials and ranch houses are being jacked up on sturdy wooden or concrete piers ten or 20 feet in the air, the heights dictated by the Base Flood Elevation set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and enforced by insurance companies. These houses fascinate me because most of them make few concessions to the fact that they’re not built at grade. They look as if someone has played a cruel joke on the owners, as if the family had gone out to dinner and come back to find their house out of reach…

I know a little about the prehistory of these houses. About six weeks after Katrina, the then-governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, invited New Urbanist architect supreme Andrés Duany to bring pretty much everyone he knew to Biloxi to envision a rebirth of the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. The Mississippi Renewal Forum, as it was called, filled a giant ballroom of the Isle of Capri casino with some 200 industrious, inspired architects, planners, and engineers, all champions of pedestrian-oriented development.

But after several feverish days of dream-ing up antebellum casinos and neoclassical Walmarts, reality intruded. In the wee hours of day four, the conference leadership received the newest flood maps for the Gulf Coast from FEMA, and they showed Base Flood Elevations that were five to ten feet higher than those the designers had been working with. In the Velocity Zones, areas most likely to be impacted by a storm surge, the lowest habitable floor of a home suddenly had to be 21 feet in the air.

“I think the problem is totally recalibrating the aesthetic,” Duany said, leading an emergency meeting. “It’s not taking antebellum houses and cranking them up. The aesthetic has more to do with lighthouses.” While others in the room pointed out the political and economic ramifications of the flood map—some towns might not be able to rebuild at all, poor people would be driven off the coast for good—Duany was nonchalant. “It will be like Tahiti,” he said. “Totally cool.”

It is worth reading the rest as it discusses how such stilted homes make it really difficult to have the close community life desired by New Urbanists. On one hand, I imagine some sort of community will develop if all the homes share the same fate. At the least, they all become known as the people who live in the odd houses. On the other hand, being so high in the air may reinforce the notion that Americans care more about their private spaces – within their homes – than street life and the community.

One odd bonus of a home so far in the air: imagine the size of the vehicle that could fit below.

Failed interactive graphic comparing American houses to homes around the world

I was hoping for more when I saw this interactive graphic about homes around the world. Alas, this offers more style than substance. When you click on a country, you see a picture of one house, the average family income, the average household size, and an “odd” fact about the country. Indeed, I suspect this is more of a marketing ploy by the company sponsoring the graphic than anything else…

Here is what I would want to see if I could have my way:

1. Pictures of multiple “average” houses.

2. The average square footage of homes. Compared to other statistics available about countries around the world, it can be quite difficult to find good information on the average square footage of existing or new homes.

3. The average amenities of homes. Even if houses look different or are different sizes, this might be more interesting to a lot of people.

4. The average cost of homes or some measure of how much people in different countries pay for housing.

These four pieces of information would provide a lot better comparison to American homes.

“House Hunters” not so real

Several former participants in HGTV’s House Hunters say the story shown on TV isn’t exactly reality:

The premise of ‘House Hunters’ is that viewers follow a buyer as they anxiously decide between three different houses. Jensen says that, in fact, one house has already been purchased–the producers wouldn’t even finalize her as a subject until after the closing. “When I watch other episodes of the show now I can usually pick out the house they were getting based on hair-dos alone,” says Jensen. Houses are sometimes shot months apart. While the two rejected properties may be on the market, in Jensen’s case, “They were just our two friends’ houses who were nice enough to madly clean for days in preparation for the cameras!”

A former subject of the spin-off “House Hunters International” confirms that one house on the program has already been bought before filming begins. Ted Prosser, who did his real estate search in the Virgin Islands, said in an interview with a St. John blog: “The show is not really a reality show. You have to already own the house that gets picked at the end of the show. But the other houses in [my] show are actually the other houses we considered buying.”…

When confronted with Jensen’s allegations, a publicist for ‘House Hunters’ told Entertainment Weekly in a statement:

“We’ve learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a prolonged period of time – more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television…. We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process…. Showcasing three homes makes it easier for our audience to “play along” and guess which one the family will select. It’s part of the joy of the ‘House Hunters’ viewing experience. Through the lens of television, we can offer a uniquely satisfying and fun viewing experience that fulfills a universal need to occasionally step into someone else’s shoes.”

Is there any reality in reality TV? Seriously though, the “reality” shown on House Hunters would be cost prohibitive: how could a network afford (or justify) following a couple around as they see sometimes dozens of houses. I’m also a little surprised this information hasn’t come up before -participants must sign quite a contract.

I’ve noted before the popularity of HGTV shows. While the story of the couple on some of these shows is important, I wonder how much it really matters. Don’t people really want to see the different houses and options? You can’t have completely boring people on the show who like everything but at the same time, the real focus of these shows is the houses.

Changing sets in “Clybourne Park” from a nice 1959 house to a home ready to be knocked down for a McMansion

The play Clyboune Park is on Broadway and just won a 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. In going from Act 1 to Act 2, the play shifts from a house in 1959 to the same home 50 years later that is ripe for a McMansion teardown:

That’s because Clybourne Park is a biting, funny riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun, one that takes place in the house that Hansberry’s African-American characters purchase in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. It’s talked about, but never seen, in her play, but it’s the fulcrum of the conversations in Clybourne Park.

“The first act is in 1959, in sort of an Eisenhower-era middle class/working class household,” Ostling explains. “The people are packing up to move. And in the second act, it’s 2009. The neighborhood sort of went down, the house is trashed, and they’re preparing to raze it and build a McMansion. So it’s really two completely different sets.”

In the first act, the set has a cozy, lived-in feel — from the flowery 1950s wallpaper to the period doorknobs. When the curtain rises for Act 2, most of the details have changed significantly.

“All the woodwork is painted over,” Ostling says. “The front door has been replaced — because we were thinking, you know, they probably wanted more security, so that nice wood-and-glass front door is replaced with a security door that has some serious bolts in it.”

During intermission, the set has to be changed very, very quickly; a crew of five swings walls in a highly coordinated intermission ballet. When they first rehearsed the changeover, it took 30 or 40 minutes. Now, Ostling says, “We’re not waiting for the crew at all. We’re waiting for people to go to the bathroom!”

The home may be the same but much has changed between 1959 and 2009, both in American neighborhoods as in what Americans expect in their interiors. I would be interested to see what the “ready to be razed for a McMansion” interior look is these days – probably not much granite and stainless steel.

I’ve always been intrigued by how homes are portrayed on TV, in movies, and in plays. On one hand, they are typically depicted as “average” places. Of course, this look is very staged and I’m not sure these homes really look like typical homes. Yet, they always feel a little strange already as you know they are often cutaway all along one angle to allow for cameras. You know what this is like if you have seen a play or gone on a TV set where the interior looks a little familiar but is completely open with plenty of room for cameras and lights.

No agreed-upon standard on how to measure a house’s square footage

You might think this would have been settled some time ago but apparently not: builders, real estate agents, and assessors do not have a common standard by which to determine the square footage of a house.

Many shoppers blindly trust that the size of a new home featured in an ad or brochure is accurate. But the reality is that no official industry standard exists for calculating residential square footage, nor is there widespread consensus on the correct measuring methodology.

Some builders and agents, for example, tally a home’s total footprint, including uninhabitable space (such as areas between walls), while others round off calculations to the next highest number…

Steve Carr, president of Naperville-based Carr Building and Development LLC, said in new construction the builder or architect usually determines square footage calculations.

For resale homes, square footage is typically determined by the seller’s real estate agent (who will measure the dimensions or obtain predetermined measurements from the county assessor’s office) or by an appraiser, who is enlisted by the seller or, if an appraisal is ordered, the buyer’s lender, Wittman said.

So it sounds like the square footage is determined by whoever has a financial interest in the number. It would be interesting to do a study and look at a sample of homes and see whether the square footage fluctuates depending who is doing the measuring (a buyer, seller, or assessor).

There is some interesting discussion later in the article about how homes cannot strictly be compared on the price per square foot as there are other factors involved. This is true but I think this is misleading: there are few figures that people start with when looking for a home and square footage is one of them (perhaps alongside how many bedrooms the home has). I have thought in the past that people who buy homes for their square footage are different kinds of people (social class, taste) compared to those who buy for the architecture of the home or perhaps the neighborhood.

All together, square footage matters for everyone involved in the building, buying and selling, and taxing of homes and I’m surprised that there is no single standard. Who would lose the most by doing this?