Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Japan's housing mix: an example

In the previous article, I talked about the need for varied housing choices in every community to allow for people to find housing that fits their needs, no matter their income level. I also mentioned in many instances how Japan has a much more varied and integrated housing choice thanks to its zoning law that does away with separating residential housing types. I just wanted to provide an example of this, through a neighborhood I chanced upon in Sendai while going through the Japanese real estate site

It's a suburb of Sendai but at 15-minute walking distance from a train station linking directly to Sendai station and thus Sendai's downtown area, a 25-minute trip. The train's frequency is about 15 minutes during the AM and PM peak, 20 minutes between the two and 30 minutes in the early morning and late at night. That station's name is Rikuzenochiai.

Here is where it is:
Area in relation to nearest train station
 Anyway, here is what the area looks like from the sky:
The area from the sky
Already, you can notice how chaotic it seems from on high, but what does it look like from the street? Well, with Google Street View, we can explore things. I have selected a few of the housing types, and calculated the housing density they offer in dwelling units per hectare (DUH) and dwelling units per acre (DUA).

So, let's begin, first by showing where each housing type is:
Where each housing example is
Small apartment buildings
The first example is a couple of 2-story apartment buildings (アパート, apaato as the Japanese say it). There seems to be two units per floor, maybe around 50 square meters (540 square feet) each. Yes, the Japanese tolerate smaller apartments than we do, in fact, you can easily divide density by 1,5 or even 2 if you presume North American space per unit instead of Japanese space.

Very big estate
This is really a house for someone who is comfortably wealthy, the lot is big and surrounded by nice walls, and there is a big lawn, very rare in Japan.

We'd call this "semi-detached" in Canada, these are two housing units with 2 stories each with a shared wall. The Japanese call it a タウンハウス, a townhouse. But according to the real estate site, these are actually rental apartments, with the important distinction that they have 2 stories. A decent density brought down by a relatively large parking lot around the two buildings.

Small 1-story houses
These houses are pretty small and lack a second floor. the parking associated with them is on the other side of the street. What is special is that some of them don't actually flank the street, there is just a small passageway through which people can access them.

Typical middle-class houses
This is more typical of Japanese suburbs and would dominate more if there wasn't a train station in easy walking distance. Each house is different as Japanese tend to prefer buying a lot then having a house built by a contractor on it rather than buying a house that's been built in bulk by a big-pocketed developer like we often do here. There are a few models of houses that are copied here and there though, as local building companies have certain base models they offer.

Studio apartments
Despite the appearance, these aren't townhouses but 2 stories of 4 small studio apartments each, as much as I can figure. What the Japanese call ワンルーム, one-room apartments. No, not one bedroom, one room, often about 20 square meters only (215 square feet) with a small kitchen counter and a small toilet. It's made for singles who want cheap housing. The density is quite high, but these are suitable only for one person, so the density in people per hectare is not as high as the density in terms of units per hectare suggest.
A long bloc of studio apartments
Like the previous one, these are small one-room apartments, 26 of them going by the numbers written on the walls. Again, as they fit only one person per unit, this is probably only 4 times as dense in terms of population as the middle-class houses, despite the sky-high number of units per hectare.

So within close walking distances, you have a tremendous amount of variety in term of housing. Single-family homes, from the very big to the very small, townhouses, small apartment blocs and studio apartments. Housing solutions for every wallet and household, all with 1- or 2-story buildings only. Very cheap housing is plentiful for singles. All of them are very dense and most lack yards, but this could be transplanted in North America with yards, reducing density by maybe 30% but maintaining the variety of housing. So if you want to keep some yards and offer space more in line with North American urban standards, the density would be about 2 or 3 times less.

And all this is in a small area of 300 meters by 150 meters. That's the result of an absence of zoning regulations requiring only one or two types of housing per neighborhood... or even per city.

As an added bonus, here is what can be found on the wider arterial street leading to the station a few hundred meters away. Remember that Japan's height limits depend on the width of the street bordering the building, so the wider the street, the taller the building:
Mixed use building, commercial on the first floor, residential over it
So this is 4-story, as the street is wider. The apartments are bigger than in previous examples around 65 square meters if my estimates are correct (700 square feet), likely 2-bedroom, or maybe even 3-bedroom, apartments.

And this is right next to the station:
Tall tower of "mansions"
Japanese call condos in taller buildings マンション, mansions, in a weird twist of the meaning of the word in English. You might notice how the density of this 10-story building is not much higher than the previous one, neither are the units seemingly bigger. What gives? Well, there's a huge parking lot behind the building, which the previous didn't have. Had the parking been integrated in the building, density could have been two or three times higher. Which showcases how surface parking caps density, at one point, the taller the building you build, the larger the parking lot becomes, negating density increases by increasing height.


  1. Very nice and interesting article. I certainly like the example provided, but:
    "So within close walking distances....Housing solutions for every wallet and household"
    I wonder if most Americans would actually want this. I get the feeling a lot of Americans prefer that wallet segregation.

  2. That's actually not a twist of the word in English - it's a return to a more typical meaning! See "in British English" here & google images "mansion block" or "mansion apartment".