Opinion: Lessons From Japanese Prefab Housing


On a

recent tour of Japanese prefabricated housing factories, I was awestruck by the sophistication of Japan’s construction industry: entire factories populated by robots, houses trundling along assembly lines, technicians assembling houses as one might a Toyota Camry.

This was a real “wow” moment, as building in Australia is still firmly in the realm of tradition – “guys in utes” (not robots) are still the foundation of our industry.

At a time when

some commentators in Australia are hoping the emerging “manufactured” housing industry can soften the blow of the departing auto industry, Japan shows us an established and sophisticated lean manufacturing future.

But its outcomes, in design and social terms, also represent a kind of dystopia.

Reality of the Japanese housing industry

‘Cost performance’ marketing strategy

Masa Naguchi at Melbourne University, who kindly organised our tour, explains this paradigm of high price/ high quality with the notion of “cost performance”. This is where – not unlike the auto industry – each successive model is continually improved (the Japanese call this kaizen), receiving new features and improved performance across a range of criteria, including seismic, thermal, acoustic, and energy consumption.

The “cost performance” marketing strategy centres on demonstrating that an increased upfront capital outlay will be offset by the reduction of life-cycle operating costs, and the potential to eventually earn money from electricity generation.

Japanese prefab housing also comes with a standard 20-year warranty and a strong focus on after sales service – again, much like the auto industry.

Enter Orwell

Tesla Motors factory in California, and more like the retro-industrial mood of

The Hunger Games (2012).

Workers jogging to keep to the tempo of “the line”, screwing on windows rather than steering wheels. Melodies from western children’s nursery rhymes played in dull electronic tones when overhead machinery moved and, on one day, the thermometer on the factory floor read 35C (fine for robots, almost unworkable for humans).

By the time I noticed a plaque mounted oddly on the corner of some heavy equipment, displaying a picture of a now-departed designer of the proprietary wall cladding system, things were beginning to feel positively Orwellian.

Adding to this aura, the Daiwa House factory complex has a very stylish museum dedicated to the founder of the company, Nobuo Ishibashi, where visitors can see his adolescent Judo uniform and his various notebooks showing significant life moments.

Undoubtedly, this is part of Japanese corporate culture – something about which I know very little – but as an architect researching the potential of prefabricated housing in the Australian context, it’s hard not to criticise both the social and design outcomes of the Japanese industry, particularly because Japanese architecture is so highly regarded internationally.

Australian comparison

housing starts for 2013/14, was 91,610 with an estimated prefab volume of 3%, or 2,748 houses.

Happy Haus,

Prebuilt and

Tektum, offer a wide range of housing products to market, which are comparable in price to Japanese models.

While some Australian companies offer various quality benefits, most are not as sophisticated as Japan, showing us that “cost performance” and the highly efficient design and production process (something visitors to Japanese factories are not shown) are lessons Australian manufacturers should learn.

The Conversation.

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