Should We Look to Japan and Shipbuilding Practices for the future of Residential Building Products?


Boneyard Studios, a tiny house community in Washington, DC.

In its August issue, Builder magazine ran an interview with Blaine Brownell , author, co-director of the architecture program at the University of Minnesota, and founder of Transtudio—a design and research firm focused on emergent and sustainable building advances, about the future of residential building products.

In the article, “Thin and Now,” Brownell cites Japan as the indicator of the future of U.S. residential building trends, with its “keen sense of optimizing resources” and “really thinking about how to get the most of less material and land.”

Japan’s building style comes from scarcity of space (it has one of the highest population densities in the world, most of which live in the 20 percent of land that is considered habitable) and raw materials (80 percent of goods are imported). Brownell also draws parallels between Japan’s home building philosophy and ship design, where space is also at a premium. Both use products that pack multiple functions into a compact package.

These building trends can clearly be seen in the U.S. in the growing Tiny House movement – very small homes, typically less than 400 squarefeet. Although the average home built in 2014 is bigger than ever, according to the US Census Bureau, CNN Money claims the uptick in average square footage has more to do with the growing wealth disparity in the country (the rich are getting richer – and building larger homes) than the actual number of people living in more square feet, according to this article .

Meanwhile, Millennials are putting off buying first homes in favor of living in another small space – apartments. This is a generation who came into adulthood at the collapse of the housing industry and to whom the benefits of an urban lifestyle and apartment amenities outweigh those of a large living space and the American dream of home ownership. The Tiny House movement may be a bit extreme, but a movement in the building industry towards smarter design in smaller homes may be a way to entice a skittish younger generation to try their hand in home ownership.

Smaller homes are less expensive than larger ones in terms of taxes and building, heating, maintenance and repair costs. The average owner of a Tiny House has more in savings, spends less of his or her income on housing and is more likely to fully own the home.

Like the Japanese homes and ship building design, small houses emphasize design over size, utilize dual purpose features and multi-functional furniture, and incorporate technological advances of space saving equipment and appliances. Vertical space optimization is also a common feature of small houses and apartments.

As Baby Boomers move on to retirement and Millennials take their place as the driving consumers behind our economy, perhaps if the building industry wants to capitalize on this key demographic, it should be looking to the Japanese and ship building industries for new product inspiration.

Leave a Reply