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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

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Making the most of the sun: The prototype of Omotenashi House (above) at the Nishi-Chiba campus of Chiba University in late April —just before it was dismantled and taken to Spain to enter the Solar Decathlon Europe 2012.

Japan's house of the rising sun


Staff writer

What will our lifestyles be like in the future? An international group of students at Chiba University plan to explore the possibilities with their proposal for a next-generation solar house, a futuristic mix of new technology and traditional ways of life in Japan.

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Wires hang from the roof of the Omotenashi House so that plants can grow up them and create a green curtain that will not only offer shade to residents, but also provide them with vegetables. TOMOKO OTAKE

Around 50 students at the national university are bracing themselves for Solar Decathlon Europe, a biennial international student competition, for which entrants present designs for solar-powered, eco-friendly houses. Dubbed the "Solar Olympics," this year the competition will be held in Madrid, in September.

The Chiba University team, which has been chosen as one of the 20 finalists, includes international and Japanese students from multidisciplinary fields, such as architecture, medicine and horticulture. It's the first — and only — group from Japan to participate in the event, which is organized by several organizations including the Spanish Ministry of Housing and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Japan team hopes that its creation, the "Omotenashi House," can beat the 19 rival teams, which hail from 15 countries, mostly from Europe.

"Omotenashi means thoughtfully and sincerely conveying a feeling of consideration to those you encounter," Shota Tajima, a 27-year-old architecture doctoral student and the leader of the Chiba University decathletes, says in a YouTube video, as he explains in English the team's ideas behind the house. "It arises from Japanese traditional customs and practices such as tea ceremony or flower arranging."

So how is the spirit of omotenashi manifested in the house? And how will it represent the new and old? The Japan Times recently visited a prototype of Omotenashi House, which was set up in the university's Nishi-Chiba campus, Chiba Prefecture, before it was taken down to be shipped to Spain for the contest.

The two key features of the one-story, 60 sq.-meter house are the engawa (verandah) and tatami mats, both of which used to be common in traditional-style Japanese houses. The engawa, which extends around the whole building, is made from a mixture of recycled wood and plastic and is constructed with nails only — no adhesives — as part of the team's efforts to reduce its reliance on chemicals. It is the engawa, Tajima explained, that is a space where dwellers can connect and communicate with the outside world.

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Cool tatami: Omotenashi House project leader Shota Tajima (right) and fellow project member Gordon Higgins show the tatami surface of one of the room's movable cooling benches.

"Engawa extends outward (from a room), allowing neighbors to casually stop by for tea or a chat while shaded from the sun, and without worrying about encroaching on the residents' privacy," he said. "We want to promote such 'soft' aspects of the house, as we believe it enriches people's lives."

Instead of having tatami permanently laid out on the floors, the team has created a dozen box-shaped, movable tatami benches. Inside each bench is a special gel pad, which has been designed to solidify at 15 degrees Celsius and slowly liquify as it absorbs heat when room temperatures rise. The tatami mat benches can be left outdoors during the night, which cools the gel pads, and then brought inside during the day to keep temperatures lower without the use of electricity.

Traditional Japanese housing, from which this new building takes a lot of inspiration, has the disadvantage of often being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter — a problem caused by poor thermal insulation and solved here by the team's use of vacuum insulated wall, ceiling and window panels. Electricity for the residents is generated by the 460 solar panels on the house's roof, which can produce enough energy to allow two people to live comfortably while still using the TV, air-conditioners and PCs on a daily basis, Tajima explained. Unlike conventional solar panels, however, Omotenashi House's are stylishly designed to inconspicuously blend in with the roof's dark-colored tiles. In addition, the house will be surrounded by an "edible green curtain" of beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter gourd and grapes, which are grown on thin wires in front of the engawa, and there is a rice paddy in the front yard — features that both help to keep the building from being overheated.

In keeping with the idea of residents being as self sufficient as possible, inside there is also a "veggie factory," where lettuce is currently being grown under LED lights in a fridge-like box developed by the university's faculty of horticulture. The LEDs are not only are energy efficient but can also be adjusted in brightness and color to help maximize the vegetables' growth.

As good as this all sounds, making such a house a viable option for the ordinary consumer will likely take some time. The housing materials, as well as all the environmentally friendly appliances the house is equipped with, don't come cheap, and everything featured in the Omotenashi House was donated by private-sector companies, such as Sekisui House, a leading housing company, which is serving as the project's main sponsor.

Around 60 private-sector materials makers in Japan are also supporting the team. So while it's hard to pin down the cost of the materials, it's in the ranges of tens of millions of yen for Sekisui alone, said Hiroto Imai, an official of the company, who has been helping the students from the project's early stages.

Imai said the housing company offered all kinds of technical and logistic assistance to the team because it shares the students' goal to promote not just technologically advanced housing, but also eco-friendly and health-conscious lifestyles.

"We are proud of being part of this team, which is the first one (to participate in the SDE)," Imai said. "It could also be an opportunity to showcase the technological strengths of Japan's housing industry."

Such collaborations with commercial enterprises is something that Gordon Higgins, a 27-year-old architecture major from Jamaica and also a member of the Omotenashi House team, finds fascinating.

"One of the greatest things about this project is that (you learn how to) build a building, but you also learn how to build these connections with companies," he said.

What are the chances of the Omotenashi House winning the Solar Decathlon Europe? As the word "decathlon" suggests, the event's jury will judge 10 different aspects of the houses, including architectural design, engineering and energy efficiency.

Under SDE rules, the students teams have to assemble the house at the Madrid site by themselves and within 10 days. Energy consumption of their houses will be judged and participants must clear specific technological hurdles including keeping room temperatures at 23-25 degrees celsius all day and night to avoid points being deducted from their score. There are also rigid rules for humidity, sound-proofing quality, and more.

"We are confident we can achieve a spot in the top five," Tajima said, noting that the team has been testing the house in preparation for the competition. "But German and French teams have lots of knowhow as they are used to competing there."

The team's success will also hinge on how well its members present themselves during the event. In 2010, 190,000 visitors made it to the event, according to the organizers, so making a good impression to the judges and the visitors is essential.

"The presentation part is very hard to predict," said Tajima, who hopes to teach at a university in the future. "(But) this is a great chance to show Japan's strength in housing technologies, and have them judged from a global perspective."



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