This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on November 3, 2014
Three and a half years since the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011), houses are being rebuilt in the devastated areas at a rapid pace.
In this situation, a project was launched to build affordable houses using locally produced timber.
Driving this project is the Kamaishi Forest Owners' Cooperative. Five of its central figures, including the president and the accountants, perished in the tsunami, and the cooperative was in danger of closing down.
However, as part of its efforts to revive, it launched a new project with the slogan of "Forest-powered recovery."
The person heading the project is Yukio Takahashi, the managing director of the cooperative.
“Our aim is to offer reasonably priced, high-quality housing to local people with local timber. And we believe it will contribute to reviving the region to some extent.”
(Yukio Takahashi: Managing Director, Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative)
The plan was to construct affordable houses for the tsunami victims. Responding to the passion of the cooperative members, experts from various fields offered to help.
This architect specializes in designing wooden houses.
He came up with this new method for constructing houses by assembling panels made from affordable timber that is called “B-grade”.
“We thought we could cut greatly cut costs if we used panels connected with bolts.”
(Akio Fujiwara: Architect)
A local lumber mill agreed to saw up B-grade logs that are not normally used for housing.
“It’s great because it makes low-value timber profitable.”
(Akio Ueda: Lumber mill owner)
A timber processor contributed by producing wood panels.
“I felt I had a responsibility, a duty, to provide support wherever I could.”
(Ryoji Satou: Timber Processor/Carpenter)
These experts put together a plan to build houses of local timber that are around 30% cheaper than regular houses of the same size. However, they ran into a major obstacle: they could not find builders and carpenters willing to use this new method.
“Builders did not show any interest because the method is unconventional. Rural companies tend to be reluctant to take on unusual projects.”
“We struggled to attract builders. We had the timber, a lumber mill, and a precut factory. But we hadn’t found any builders!”
A project to rebuild houses with local wood to revive the local forestry industry… American journalist Morley Robertson reports on how the plan was realized.
Around 90% of the area of the port city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture consists of forested mountains and the limited flat areas are densely covered with buildings.
The 2011 tsunami destroyed more than 4,000 houses in Kamaishi. They were mainly in the areas located near the sea.
Three and a half years later, about 2,000 families still live in temporary housing.
These units were only meant to be used for up to two years. So damage to the ceilings and underfloor parts is starting to appear.
This is a meeting place next to a temporary housing complex. Today, a support group is offering counseling for those interested in rebuilding their homes.
The group gives advice on issues such as the cost of building a new house and the subsidies they can get from government bodies.
One of the counselors, Takashi Sawada, used to work for the Carpenters’ Cooperative. In the past year, he has provided assistance to more than 130 families.
“Some people are ready to build a house, but haven't decided on the location. Others feel insecure because they may have to wait for another two or three years to rebuild their houses. They’re concerned because the price could rise higher and higher while they’re waiting. That’s the biggest worry.”
(Temporary housing resident)
Most of them are ready to build a new house right away if the price meets their budget.
“Everyone wants to leave the temporary housing. They just want to get out. One of them said, ‘Every time I stand in the kitchen of my temporary housing unit, my eyes start to water.’ Comments like that urge me to help them realize their wish to rebuild their home as soon as possible.”
(Takashi Sawada: Counselor)
In Kamaishi, embankments are being created for new residential areas that will be safe from future tsunami. When their construction is completed, they will start the full-scale rebuilding of houses.
Those who cannot wait until the completion of the construction have started to rebuild their houses further inland.
According to local residents, a growing number of developers from outside the area have come to Kamaishi since the disaster to buy land and sell houses. Because the demand is so high, the selling prices have continued to rise.
The average price in this region for a house with a floor space of around 100 square meters is between 25 and 30 million yen, 30 percent higher than the price before the tsunami.
“Many victims at the tsunami are in debt, still paying off loans for their houses that were swept away. Right now the real estate prices in Kamaishi are simply beyond their reach.”
(Morley Robertson: Reporter)
The Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative that supports the local forestry industry was hit hard by the tsunami.
However, it restarted forestry work soon after the disaster and the number of staff members has risen by eight to 21.
As he tried to reconstruct the cooperative, Yukio Takahashi, the managing director, focused on the home-rebuilding project.
Right after the quake, Takahashi jotted down the phrase “Forest-powered recovery”. He thought about supporting the region’s recovery by building 100-square-meter houses using local timber and selling them at the reasonable price of 10 million yen.
Slashing construction costs was the biggest challenge. Instead of the A-grade timber normally used for building houses, Takahashi wanted to use the more affordable B-grade timber.
B-grade logs are 20% cheaper because they are thin and have a less attractive color. They are usually made into plywood rather than being used as building materials.
To make use of B-grade logs, the team came up with an innovative construction method, using panels made by connecting rectangular lengths of timber with bolts.
By joining the panels to form the walls, a sturdy, shock-resistant house can be constructed.
This plan was completed six months after the tsunami. These quake-resistant, 100-square-meter houses costing 10 million yen can easily be assembled and built in a shorter time than conventional houses.
However, the new method of using B-grade timber was not favorably received by local builders.
“There’s no problem with B-grade timber in terms of strength, but the surface color’s not so good... So it’s all up to the skill of the builders skill and also for them to make it look nice. Our top priority was to build affordable yet quality houses using local timber. That’s what we had to realize. I had to be very objective because I knew that to succeed would take more than just my passion and willingness.”
Two months after the plan was completed, Takahashi formed a consultative group to bring more people in to the project.
Experts from every field of house construction joined the team: architects, lumber mill owners, wood processors, builders and carpenters.
Takahashi was so desperate to build 100-square-meter houses costing 10 million yen that he made a drastic proposal: “Can we build a house using only A-grade timber and the conventional method?”
“I was told it was totally foolish. From the viewpoint of all those house construction workers and other professionals, it was absolutely impossible, considering the current situation and market prices. They gave me a thorough thrashing! They said many times it was simply not possible.”
Of the four ranks of building materials, A-grade are the best in quality, and are thicker and nicer in color than B-grade. The average price of a 100-square-meter house built with A-grade timber and the conventional method is at least 15 million yen.
To consider building a house 30% less expensive using A grade timber and conventional method was very daring. But Takahashi wanted to try and very strong supporter offered to help. He was Muneo Kashiwadate, a local architect who had assumed the position of director of the consultative group.
“Hello. Nice to meet you. I’m Morley.”
(Muneo Kashiwadate: Architect)
Kashiwadate strongly identified with Takahashi's idea of providing affordable houses to disaster victims while supporting the region’s recovery by using local timber.
The two men got to know each other three years ago. They met at a group discussion on providing houses appropriate for Kamaishi using local timber and local carpenters.
“We had to carefully review materials and labor costs. We considered details such as these in order to lower the price from 15 million to 10 million yen. Regarding the design costs, we thought it could be feasible.”
Along with other local architects, Kashiwadate spent four months drawing up a plan.
In the end, they came up with five plans to meet the needs of different types of families, such as general, seniors, and fishermen.
They created these ready-made designs to match local needs. By having customers choose from these plans, design costs were reduced.
To save on the costs of materials, they decided to make all the framework beams of uniform length, using the same type of material. However, being creative with the design was not enough to realize a 100-square-meter, 10 million yen house.
As the next step, Takahashi and the others started visiting lumber mills and builders to ask them to think of ways to cut costs. First, they visited Akio Ueda, who runs a lumber mill in Kamaishi.
Ueda’s mill had been hit hard by the tsunami, but his business had begun to get back on track with more orders coming in. Ueda agreed to their idea, but said it would be difficult to make a 10% discount on A-grade timber.
“I explained to them the current market price of timber, and told them nobody would give them a 10 percent discount. Of course, we had all suffered damage from the tsunami, but I couldn’t agree to the idea that we, the lumber mill, should be the only one to cooperate. We were on the verge of going out of business, so many times I asked them to give us consideration.”
(Akio Ueda: Lumber mill owner)
What could the cooperative do for the lumber mill?Kashiwadate, the architect, proposed an idea. It was to cut logs of the length required in the plan right from the beginning.
“If we cut 4 meter lengths, how much will be left? Not much, I guess.”
(Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
They wanted to use beams with a uniform length for all five designs, so they decided to cut the logs on site accordingly. That would eliminate one step at the lumber mill and reduce costs.
In addition, a great offer was made by a member of the consultative group.
A wood processor in Tono City offered warehouse space for the temporary storage of timber.
This meant the wood processor could buy timber for the project from the lumber mill in advance. It could be stored at the warehouse regardless of whether there were any orders or not.
Thanks to this, the lumber mill became able to use its down time to saw up timber ready for shipment at any time, which improved work efficiency.
Ueda could now agree to ship A-grade materials at the required 10% discount.
“So I could finally lend them a helping hand for the revival of the region.
Regarding the price of a house, it is the builders and carpenters who have the decision-making power. At the consultative group, the members discussed this matter many times.
They had secured designs which free of charge and 10% cheaper timber. Now they need to find willing carpenters.
“It was around 1,000 dollars per square meter. 10 million yen sounded very hard to achieve. No matter how much we wanted to cooperate, we also have to survive. None of us carpenters thought it would be feasible if we had to sacrifice ourselves.”
(Yasuo Fujii: Ex-vice president, Kamaishi Carpenters Cooperative)
There was a major reason why it was hard for the carpenters and builders to cut costs.
To construct a house, contractors have to be hired to deal with the interior, electricity, water supply, and so on. The cost of employing them cannot be reduced.
However, one carpenter agreed to build a house for 10 million yen. Isao Sugawara used to be the president of the local carpenters’ cooperative.
To cut costs, he endeavored to do as much of the work as possible without employing contractors, and he succeeded in building a house for 10 million yen.
Eager to increase the number of carpenters like Sugawara, Kashiwadate came up with an idea.
He decided to organize an event where carpenters could directly hear what the local people were thinking about rebuilding their houses.
For two months, the event was held in one of the houses built by Mr. Sugawara, with local carpenters as guides. It attracted more than 600 local people.
I think the awareness of the carpenters changed. They still thought it was too cheap, but their awareness definitely changed, because almost every visitor said, ‘I want to place an order as soon as I decide the location.’”
(Muneo Kashiwadate: Architect)
Following the event, the number of carpenters offering help increased.
Yuetsu Miura is one those who agreed to build affordable houses. He strongly identified with the idea of building houses for local people with local timber.
“I thought we should take action because I believed this would all work itself out. The victims naturally don’t have much money because they lost virtually everything. So even if we ask them to increase their budget, they can’t do it.”
(Yuetsu Miura: Carpenter)
Today, he is installing a kitchen. Checking the manual, he does everything himself, from assembling the sink to other installation work around the wet area.
This takes two weeks longer than the conventional way, but it cuts costs.
The number of builders and carpenters working on Takahashi’s house rebuilding project gradually rose to 29.
“Talking to these builders, I became aware once again of their pride as professionals. Regardless of the price, they want to build quality homes and so they refuse to cut corners. Although the price must be very hard for them to accept, being local residents themselves, they agreed to help us.”
Building 10 million yen houses as “Forest-powered recovery” finally became possible when experts from various fields including loggers, lumber mills, wood processors, architects and carpenters agreed to cooperate with one another.
In mid-September, Morley and Muneo Kashiwadate visited one of the newly constructed houses.
It is owned by a family who recently moved from a temporary housing complex.
“Hello. I’m Kashiwadate.”
“Hello, I’m Morley.”
Harumi Nozawa, born and bred in Kamaishi, lives here with her two children and her parents. Their new home is a two-story house with four bedrooms.
It is large enough for the five family members.
It was ordered this spring. Although the prices of concrete and facilities for the wet area rose from the original estimate, the unit price per square meter was still around 120,000 yen.
That was still more than 30% cheaper than the average price for a house of the same size.
“We’re struggling financially and the carpenter knew that. He did his best to cut costs.”
“I feel so secure now because I’ll be able to survive even after my children grow up and get married.”
(Harumi Nozawa: House owner)
Currently, 13 houses in Takahashi's project are being constructed or are planned. In addition, 13 families have already placed orders.
The dream project to rebuild houses for victims using local timber and local carpenters at an affordable price has finally come true.
The Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative launched this house rebuilding project with “Forest-powered recovery” as its slogan.
Recently, the cooperative has started attracting young people who aspire to work with it. Nine new staff members have joined since the disaster. They include one man who lost his job due to the tsunami, and one who quit his job to join the cooperative.
“I used to be a contract worker. I thought about my future and left my former workplace to join the cooperative. I wanted to become a full-time worker at a decent workplace. It’s fulfilling to think that the trees we cut down will be used for local people’s houses.”
(Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
“I did a lot of research until I found this cooperative. I tried to get a job at a factory, but it was hopeless to find jobs there. I couldn’t find any job in the manufacturing industry. Only part-time jobs for a few hours a day were on offer. That’s all there was.”
(Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
There is a shortage of work in the devastated areas, but the Kamaishi forests have ample resources to create more jobs.
“As I said before, remain attentive to everything around you.”
By 2018, Takahashi plans to employ seven more people.
This spring, they received a new order. Kamaishi City Office asked them to be involved in the development of new residential sites for victims.
The idea is to develop residential sites by clearing hillsides of forest next to villages that were swept away by the tsunami. The role of the cooperative members is to cut down all the trees that will obstruct the construction work.
The cooperative members willingly accepted the offer because it will expedite the building of new houses. They are requested to complete this work in more than 20 locations in 2 years, while also being engaged in thinning work in other areas.
“From a foreigner's viewpoint, it’s not easy to accept the hillsides being cleared like this.”
“Well, yes, but most of the people who’ll move in here are fishermen. They don't want to live too far away from sea on which their livelihood is based. We have to cut into the hillsides, but we’ll try to minimize the area. We want to create a new residential area on a minimum area so that they can regain their livelihood.”
All the logs cut down here will be utilized for rebuilding homes.
“What is your goal? At what point do you think recovery will be achieved?”
“Well, I think recovery will be partly achieved when most of the residents can return to their original livelihood zone. That’s the first step of recovery. Different from a wealthy urban lifestyle, I believe there’s a certain lifestyle that the local people in Kamaishi feel comfortable with and enjoy. When each one of us can decide what our ideal lifestyle is like, and aim to achieve it, then I think that sentiment will revive the region. So if emotional recovery, not just physical recovery, progresses, we’ll achieve revival to a certain extent. There’s no fixed goal, but what’s important is to make the most of every day.”
“Mr. Takahashi is trying to help rebuild the devastated city of Kamaishi through his expertise in forestry. He organized the project to build homes from locally produced wood and made sure that local people are employed. His team of loggers are all survivors of the catastrophe. Their way of coping with the enormous task ahead is to stay busy and never give up.”