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Greener homes mean much more than planting lots of trees
Building energy-saving homes is no longer enough. Nowadays, houses must be people-friendly and kind on the environment as well.

Such are the times we live in.

Competition is fierce among home builders in this promising market.

New house designs are focusing on making efficient use of wind and light to provide renewable energy sources, thereby cutting down on the use of electricity and carbon emissions that add to the greenhouse effect.

The growing interest in so-called eco homes stems mainly from a government campaign to promote "symbiotic housing"--structures that are environment- friendly while giving owners more than just a space to sleep at night.

Housing developer Sekisui House Ltd. came up with the idea of building an "experimental" house dubbed "Sustainable Design Laboratory," tucked inside a residential area of Kunitachi, Tokyo.

Researchers actually live in the experimental house to chart their progress in sustainable living.

The structure is designed to make maximum use of wind and solar power. The company hopes to come up with new merchandise, techniques and lifestyle suggestions, garnered through the researchers' experience of hands-on living.

To enhance the use of natural energy, the design laboratory installed a "groundwater air-conditioning system" that uses groundwater for a heat pump system.

Transparent film solar cells are also fitted between sheets of window glass for solar-power generation.

Windows facing the west which soak up the late afternoon sun are outfitted with special thermotropic glass that deflects strong glare by turning cloudy, when the surface temperature rises to between 32 and 35 degrees.

However, this eco house is not all about state-of-the-art gadgetry.

It also incorporates various features and designs of traditional Japanese- style architecture. The house is equipped with an engawa veranda space covered by glass; sliding shoji doors and tenmado skylight windows for ventilation.

The skylight installed in the roof operates on hydrodynamics--and requires no electricity. When external air is taken in downstairs, the warm air naturally climbs upward via a spiral staircase and is released through the skylight. Thus, the air flow provides a natural cooling effect throughout the house.

In winter, warm sunshine is absorbed through the upper windows covering the engawa veranda. The warmed air is then channeled to the other rooms.

The living room is fitted with a pellet stove, which burns recycled wood pellets. The warmed air from the living room also heats other rooms.

A computerized control system allows the researchers to keep the whole house comfortable with the help of natural air flow.

The "home navigation system" keeps tabs on temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide concentration and air flow inside the rooms and at strategic points outside. It "senses" when to open and close windows.

The system should be ready for practical use within two or three years, company officials said.

Stay cool

"When it comes to air-tight sealing and heat insulation, we have seen technology advance by leaps and bounds," said Fumio Kimura, director of Sekisui's Sustainable Design Laboratory. "But when it comes to making the best use of the natural environment, we still have a long way to go. Essentially, we want to reach the point where people can stay cool and comfortable without using air conditioners."

While the overall housing market is in a bit of a slump, eco-friendly homes clearly have definitive sales appeal.

For housing developers, gaining official acknowledgement for building "symbiotic housing" will help bolster their corporate images.

Environmentally-aware consumers are also clamoring for more options when they buy a new home.

In 1998, the Institute for Building Environment and Energy Conservation (IBEC) introduced an accreditation system for housing construction that meets certain criteria with the goal of promoting symbiotic housing.

The number of dwellings that received official accreditation as symbiotic housing doubled to over 3,000 in fiscal 2006 compared to the previous year.

There is, however, a downside to going green: Natural materials cost more, hence a higher price tag.

Sekisui Chemical Co. markets homes that come with built-in solar-power systems that "eliminate electricity bills." Building costs for such homes start at 650,000 yen per tsubo (about 3.3 square meters). The company also offers the option of retro-fitting existing homes with the system in an effort to increase its market share.

In 2005, an impressive 53 percent of all new Sekisui homes had the solar- power system installed.

In reality, though, a lot depends on the homeowner when it comes to eliminating electricity bills.

A Sekisui official explained: "We suggest energy saving measures such as utilizing (cut-rate) late night power. We try to push the financial angle, stressing the notion that ecology means economy."

Another idea that the company recommends is a well-planned indoor air control system that takes advantage of natural ventilation.

Misawa Homes Co. introduced its "ECO Bikiko (microclimate) Design" homes in 2005. Based on the company's accumulated know-how and technology that conserve energy and other resources, the new homes incorporate designs that fully utilize the comfort and benefits of the natural environment.

Building costs start at 570,000 yen per tsubo, which is not that expensive considering that the company's other homes average about 550,000 yen per tsubo.

However, installing a solar-power system costs an additional 2 million to 2.5 million yen.

To promote its new eco homes, Misawa built 200 of the houses with the solar- power system thrown in at a 50-percent discount. The sales campaign proved so popular that the company ended up offering 500 discount buildings.

The design is set up to take full advantage of environmental conditions of the housing locations. Thus, a thorough understanding of building site conditions is needed.

In short, consideration must be given to seasonal winds and the surrounding landscape. Sales staffers promoting such eco homes undergo intense training so as to provide the best advice to prospective home owners.

The Japan Wood House Industry Association, based in Tokyo, is now compiling a guidebook on designing and building environmentally-friendly wooden homes.

The aim of the booklet is to educate smaller construction businesses that lack the savvy to promote the "green" concept.

Ken Fujimoto, 41, a writer who specializes in information technology, built a house in a residential area of Yokohama about two years ago. His wife, who is an architect, designed the family home and selected the building materials herself.

Special materials

She hired a local construction company to execute her plans. The structure has three floors--two above ground and a basement study.

The roof is fitted with a solar-power panel and a solar water heater. Barrels sit in the backyard and at the side of the house to collect rainwater.

Water from an old well is also piped in.

Cool air wafts upward from the staircase that leads down to the basement.

The floor boards and the stairs are made from Japanese cedar; the walls are plaster board; carbonized cork is used for insulation.

The water pipes are stainless steel and the rain gutters are made of metal called galvalume.

The writer painstakingly avoided using petroleum products such as PVC.

He explained: "Ever since I was a child, I liked the idea of solar-power generation. I vowed to go for it if I was going to build my own home. My wife was very choosy about building materials and fittings and fixtures."

The temperature in the basement never falls below 12 degrees--even during the coldest winter, and it never rises above 24 degrees at the height of summer.

The temperate air is pumped upstairs. The living room has a vaulted ceiling open toward the south side. There is a skylight, too.

"At the height of summer when it is 35 degrees outside, it is 30 inside," Fujimoto said. "We only use a little air-conditioning before going to bed, if we are going to use it at all."

During the winter months, a single kerosene fan heater placed inside the living room suffices. The insulation helps keep all rooms at a comfortable temperature.

As for construction costs, the basement was the most expensive part of the construction, costing an average 600,000 yen per tsubo.

Fitting the solar-power generation unit cost about 2 million yen and almost 600,000 yen was spent on the solar-water heater. However, government subsidies of 300,000 yen and 50,000 yen, respectively, partially offset the costs.

Fujimoto trades his surplus energy, and mostly uses cheaper late-night power.

The house is furnished with power-saving electric appliances and all lighting fixtures use power-saving fluorescent lamps or LEDs. Overall, he is in the black as far as his annual electricity bills are concerned.

"As long as the devices don't break down, the system should pay for itself in 12 to 13 years," Fujimoto said.

Having said that, Fujimoto says housing developers should think beyond the financial savings of going green.

"That's kind of deceptive advertising," he said.

"Even if you do end up losing money, the point is that you have tried to fit in with the environment by living in an eco house. I think the bottom line is how to live your life with a sense of purpose and how to enjoy it."

Asahi Shimbun
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