Tag Archive: CONCEPT

Jul 04

The Decision

So, I’m back from the first leg of my tour to Canada, and my wife has been busy while I’ve been gone. She’s hired SANWA to build the window grille to keep any kids from dropping out of our second floor window.  She’s hired a landscaping company to turn the garden at the Kamiooka Tea House into something manageable.  And she’s pretty much narrowed down the choices for renovators to two.


We dropped SANWA (except for that window thing) because we didn’t feel they understood our design ethic.  We dropped Sumitomo because their it-will-never-change-from-the-estimate fee was not negotiable (there were no details in the estimate that were changeable—not the type of doors, not the bath unit, etc.).


So we had a meeting today with the two remaining.


We met with CONCEPT at 13:30.  We’d actually tried to cancel them, but they were very keen on showing us what they had planned for us.  However, their price was steep, and while they managed to drop it by about 800,000 Yen, it was going to increase again with the structural changes they were suggesting.

Despite all we’d heard from Yokohama city and Sumitomo about balance being important, CONCEPT didn’t change their idea of reinforcing walls, seemingly willy-nilly.  The new plan was to tie the second floor and first floor together more strongly.  This wasn’t included in the quotation they gave us.


The thing about CONCEPT is this: if we didn’t have such an old crap house, we would totally go for them.  They understand us, plus they have a vision for each room, plus they think of stuff the other companies don’t (i.e. running conduit between the office and the second floor).  After he left, I’d pretty much decided that if URBAN didn’t have any significant improvements to their initial offering, that CONCEPT would be the way to go.


Unfortunately for CONCEPT, URBAN did.  While I’d been gone, they’d submitted a lowball quotation to my wife.  URBAN have expertise in Earthquake-related structural improvements, but the changes they’d suggested would not have significantly increased our survival chances, even by their own reckoning.


So they came in today with a quotation 1.2 million yen higher, but with changes that might actually save our asses in the event of a large Earthquake.

Earthquake_Fix_ZoomThe image on the left shows our unmodified house in a computer simulation of a quake.  The right hand side of the house basically folds up.  The new version, taking into account the improvements URBAN pitched us, is on the right.  As you can see, only the right-hand side of the second floor collapses in this version, BUT it doesn’t collapse completely and leaves some void space.  These changes have to do as much with balance as they do with strengthening walls.


Of course, these are computer simulations and can’t really do more than guess at what would happen during a real quake, since actual damage all depends on intensity, direction of shaking, and duration, but this is the closest anyone has come to giving us something concrete we can do to increase survivability.  All bets are off if the earth under the house gives way as well, but, as I say, we’ll take what steps we can to prevent things we can actually control.


So we’ve essentially made the decision to go with URBAN.  It’s a shame, because I’m not sure we’ll be able to get the extra little touches that CONCEPT had pitched:


– Conduit for LAN cable

– Little bedside lights build into the wall of the cubby we created for the head of the bed

– Custom bookshelf for the library room

– Ranma between the library and genkan


I’m still holding out hope that maybe we can convince them to do these little jobs.  But I’m not holding my breath.  There’s not a lot of money in it for them.

May 31


So yesterday, after our deflation from the Sumitomo visit on Saturday (after reading the online reviews of the company), we received CONCEPT again at the Kamiooka Tea House.


We took our rep (damned if I can remember his name—it’s Yoshikawa or something like that) upstairs to the tatami room and we all sat down at the low table we’d asked the owners to leave.  I cracked open a couple of shutters to let some daylight in, and he presented us with CONCEPT’s quotation.


Actually, it was two quotations, and five different designs for the first floor.


The main interesting features of the various plans were:


  • An extension where the south door off the kitchen is now, extending the house by about 2 square meters in order make the bathroom bigger (larger bathtub)
  • Reducing the depth of the closet in the office to make it more western-style
  • Living room (actually, we’re calling it a Library now) becomes a dining room
  • Wall between the hallway and Library removed.  Wooden crosspieces inserted as seen in the photo below with the middle opening covered by the kind of flap you see hanging outside of restaurants (if you’re reading this on facebook, you may have to refresh the page to see it: if that doesn’t work, click the link at the bottom of the note to view the original post at squeeze-box.ca).  This is to make the room feel bigger, and also just increase the amount of light.

2010-05-31 12.13.08

  • The west kitchen door (which is already unopenable and bolted to the floor) removed and replaced with a reinforced wall
  • Most of the interior walls covered with a reinforcing board of some sort.  This will strengthen the house against earthquakes, according to CONCEPT, but will completely cover the existing Japanese wood detailing.  However, it will be paintable, unlike most Japanese walls.
  • Removal of library closet and conversion to a bookshelf, possibly with a sliding piece
  • ALL the flooring on the first floor replaced with beautiful hardwood floors
  • All the new floors will be insulated
  • New unit bath
  • A ranma (a decorative wooden transom) between the living room and kitchen.
  • In one version, the kitchen was extended and the library was squished
  • A custom sink and cabinet unit for the “powder room” (the changing area between the kitchen and bath room) made out of beautiful wood
  • Bracket lights for the bed nook that we’ll create by removing the lower half of the bedroom closet.
  • Did you know that closet hangers cost 55,000 Yen!?!?!

The estimate was well over 5 million yen, which totally breaks our budget, given that it doesn’t include any work on the foundations or the exterior walls vis-a-vis earthquakes.  (Incidentally, CONCEPT’s opinion is that Yokohama City’s standards for the earthquake certificate are so high that we will never actually get it: meaning no 1.5 million yen money back from the local government to pay for structural improvements.)


The major expense was the wall work, which stung on two conflicting levels.  First, because we would rather not cover up the woodwork on the walls, and second, because we definitely need the structural improvements the wall work brings.


The other major expense was the flooring.  The flooring CONCEPT had picked out was a beautiful grey/brown hardwood.  (I spent much of my youth in a farmhouse that had flooring made of enormous wooden planks, and that really influences my aesthetic, I guess.).  But at 10,000 Yen per square meter, was really not as affordable was we’d have liked.  The cheaper options are not really wood, but plywood/pressboard.  We will probably have to compromise here and decide to use the good flooring only for certain rooms on the first floor.  (Actually, keeping some of the existing flooring might be an option, since the library floor is quite new.)


The extension at the back of the house to increase the size of the powder room / bath room is a great idea, and actually not that expensive.  But the quotation doesn’t include the registration of the extension, which will likely cost around 80,000, more than doubling the price of building it.  Also, the arrangement of the walls after the extension actually makes the kitchen smaller, which we don’t really want to do, since we want to fit our table and chairs in there.  Which is, sadly for my legs, more important than an extra large bathtub.


We can also save money by demolishing the office closet and sticking my desk in that corner (no hanger—55,000 yen less!).


With such fiddling around, we brought the estimate to under 5 million, which is not really enough, considering we’re anticipating no money back for either Eco Points or the earthquake certificate, and we want definitely want to reinforce foundations and possibly outside walls.


The double-glazing may just have to wait for another year.


We’ll try to meet with CONCEPT again before I need to leave for Canada and pass along our thoughts on their estimates.

May 31

A Saturday Morning with Sumitomo Fudosan

Sumitomo is the fourth (I think it’s the fourth) renovations company that we’ve shown the Kamiooka Tea House to.

Frankly, we weren’t expecting much, because Honda-san, the rep, had been phoning non-stop, but seemed incapable of using email.  When my wife finally got hold of him a week and a half ago by phone, she arranged an appointment for Saturday, May 29, and asked him to confirm by email.


When he hadn’t confirmed by mid-week, she sent an email saying that we would cancel unless we heard from him.  He faxed us that day, and solved part of the mystery.  Sumitomo’s IT department are apparently a bunch of idiots because the Sumitomo employees can receive email fine, but are having trouble sending.  Our new method of communicating with Honda-san is that we send an email, and he replies by fax.


Jesus, if I worked there, I’d probably create a Gmail account simply so I could communicate with my clients effectively.


In any case, when we met him we were pleasantly surprised: he seemed intelligent, experienced, and confident.  Like all the renovation companies except CONCEPT, he didn’t really understand what we were after, and wanted to make everything NEW NEW NEW!  Although he’s the only one who understood my idea of extending the balcony without my having to explain it: “Ah!  You want to sit out there and drink tea!”


Of all the renovation companies so far, Sumitomo was the one that seemed to know the most about earthquake renovations and also home maintenance.  He explained to us that due to the heavy Japanese tile roof (pictured below), we would have to probably put plates on the outside of the house in order to satisfy the requirements of Yokohama city’s earthquake certification authority.

Honda-san also took a look at the foundations and agreed that they likely needed to be reinforced.  He also discovered a cross beam that had been nibbled by termites.  The termites aren’t active right now, but the damage isn’t extensive, so it’s possible that there was a problem that has already been dealt with or the termites abandoned the site on their own.  We won’t know until summer, which is the season they become active.


Personally, I’m surprised that more Japanese houses don’t have termites.  Virtually all of the buildings built 20 or more years ago have wooden support struts sitting on or in blocks of concrete that are only 10 – 20 centimetres from the earth.  (Yes, Japanese wooden houses sit on top of the ground, above the concrete foundations in order to maintain airflow under the building and prevent rot in the humid climate.)  We’d counted on having to deal with termites, so the only surprise here is that no one else noticed that damaged beam.


Other things no one else had mentioned: the wood on the outside of the windows needs to be painted before it rots off (he suggested we do it ourselves to save money), and the iron platform and struts holding up the garden should likewise be painted to prevent rusting.


All in all, his ideas about the interior design were not so amazing, but he knew a lot about structural items and more than any of the other companies about PROCEDURES.  He told us that it would likely take six months to do all the work if we wanted earthquake certification and Eco Points.


A word on Eco Points: in April, the government of Japan instituted Eco Points to try to encourage homeowners to renovate instead of knocking down and rebuilding.  If you do certain types of renovations that are considered to have an ‘ecological’ benefit, like, say, replacing single-pane windows with double-glazing, then you get points back that you can use as money to buy other materials (for example: insulation).


We’d been asking all the companies that came through if we could replace the current windows with double glazing and then use the resultant points to do the floor insulation we’d planned.  They’d all seemed to think it was possible, but Honda-san told us that a) the points are not necessarily given out immediately, and b) the government will only give out 100,000,000 Eco Points for 2010 and may not renew the program in 2011.


He suggested it would be unlikely to work, and advised simply replacing the window frames on the larger downstairs windows for the moment.


Honda-san also noticed the drain from the upstairs plumbing running out the northwest corner of the house and pointed out that it was too long a run for the toilet drain.  I’m not sure what complications that could cause down the line, but it’s good to know.


By the time he left, my wife and I were very impressed.  Despite not having the creative flair of CONCEPT, Sumitomo Fudosan seemed to have lots of experience dealing with the structural elements of renovating an old house as well as the procedural elements of the same.   We were sitting in the Sobaya around the corner from the house discussing the possibility of splitting the job in two (interior design to CONCEPT, structural work to Sumitomo).  That was before my wife turned her iPhone on and started reading Sumitomo’s reviews on various renovation forums.


Wow.  The internet was chock-a-block full of complaints.  Not of the original renovations themselves, but apparently Sumitomo was absolute shit at after care.  There were reports of Sumitomo reps simply not returning phone calls or any form of communication; court cases; refusal to do warranteed repair work… you name it.


That really worried me.  There are great advantages to dealing with a big company, especially in Japan: they can frequently get cheaper materials, they have lots of experience with the paperwork involved, and tend to behave much more professionally.  We chose a big company (Mitsui Re-House) as our agent, and are very happy with them.


However, the drawbacks to dealing with a big company become apparent when you read reviews like the ones we saw online:

  • The sales rep will make promises in order to make the sale (to fill his quota).  The rep’s job is to make the client happy enough to sign on the dotted line.  That’s how he/she is rewarded.
  • Sumitomo will lock in their estimate/quotation, so whoever is project managing the build has the job of doing the work for as big a profit margin as possible.  The project manager’s job is to do the work as cheaply as possible.  That’s how he/she is rewarded.
  • If something goes wrong afterwards, it is not in the company’s interest to do any further work, even if the work is guaranteed.
  • Lawyers in Japan are very expensive, and damages paid from lawsuits are paltry, compared to North America.  A large company knows that it is not in the consumer’s interest to sue them.

So if a large company seems to be getting bad reviews from former clients (especially if, in this case, the proportion seems MUCH higher than other similarly-sized companies get), it probably makes sense to avoid them.


This was disappointing.


We’ll still let Sumitomo go to the house and do their inspection (they do a much more thorough house check, since their quotation is locked in) and put in their quotation, but we will approach them with extreme caution now.  (I’ll probably even ask my wife to talk to Honda-san about the company’s terrible reputation.)

May 29

Sunday last

Wow, I’ve already got another episode to write about from today, and I still haven’t written up Sunday from last week.


Sunday of last week we were supposed to be having two preliminary meetings at the Kamiooka Tea House with two new renovation companies.


We met the rep of the first company, SXL (‘S’ by ‘L’) at 10:30.  He walked in, took one look at the place, and said it would cost at least 6 million yen to fix, probably closer to 8, and then essentially walked out.  We were all very polite, but I was really pissed that he’d wasted our time.  We had three hours until the next company showed up.


When sending out the bid, my wife had specified that we were looking at spending around 3.5 million Yen and had given a fairly detailed description of the house.


We know that 3.5 million is unrealistic, considering all the extra work that’s been added to the job since the first quotation, but the other companies have all come in and given it their best shot.  If this twit knew he wasn’t going to be able to do this for even close to the amount we specified, he shouldn’t have even made the appointment.  (And no, there’s no way you can tell what structural things need to be done to the house just by looking at it.)


So, after that disappointment, we walked around the house, talking about what we’d like to do for 45 minutes or so, and then took off to try the nearby Chinese restaurant (the large, vertical sign of which is the closest we get to a view from the Tea House).  You can see just to the left of center in the photo below:


After eating lunch at the Chinese restaurant, and a pitstop at McDonald’s for my wife to get coffee, we headed back to the house to meet our second renovation company for the day.


This company was called CONCEPT, and two men showed up.  The first was a shaved-head unprepossessing sales guy/designer (Yamazaki-san).  The second was a short man in coveralls, the workman, who was crawling under the floor and inspecting things.  We later found out that this second man is actually the president of the the company!  (CONCEPT only has 15 employees)


The experience with CONCEPT was the opposite of what we’d had in the morning.  Yamazaki-san seemed genuinely interested in the house and our ideas for it, and was always prepared to jump in with ideas of his own.  Unlike all the other renovators we saw, he understood instantly that we didn’t want to turn the place into a new house and wanted to keep the character of the house.  He was also excited by the house, particularly the second floor (and my toaster and shaved ice machine that I’d rescued).  He made lots of really good suggestions that enhanced the ideas we’d had rather than compromising them.


Meanwhile, the company president was crawling around under the floor and checking the walls and posts with his lasers and such.  At one point he popped up from under the bedroom floor and said something to the effect of: “The foundations are surprisingly weak!”  On the plus side, we discovered that all the posts in the house are still straight, despite being originally designed to support only one floor.


Speaking of the posts, the president also told us that none of our internal walls are load bearing.  That sounds great: we can move them around however we want… until you realize that that means that only the corners of the house are supported by the posts.  In the event of a big earthquake: wobble, wobble, wobble, rock, rock, CRASH!  (Particularly since this house has the traditional heavy Japanese ceramic tile roof.)


But the experience of dealing with CONCEPT was the best so far.  It was really nice to talk to someone who actually approached the house like a designer, asking about a given room’s feeling and function rather than just what we wanted it to look like.  And, as I said before, he seemed really taken with the house and excited about working on it, which made us feel really good.