Bill Ramsey – East Meets West: The Collaborative Design that will Bring Japanese Home Building to America
November 12, 2019
Get an inside look at two architects—one in Japan and one in America–as they cross-pollinate ideas and practices on a new approach to home design, engineering, and building.
American home building’s business case for big change renders clearer and clearer and clearer each day that goes by.
The way builders build houses here needs this change. Without it, builders won’t be able to build houses here, save for a very few builders and a shrinking pool of customers.
Residential construction’s business model—iterated as a theme and a few variations across 10 or 20 decades—presumes a builder’s ability to get land, or skilled labor, or access to capital, or building materials at cut rates, because, depending on a housing cycle that booms or busts, supply far exceeds demand.
That model broke.
Builders today are at a crossroads. Bargain-basement prices for lots, or labor, or loans, or lumber is no longer part of the cyclical turn of things. No amount of waiting for raw materials or resources costs to come down will make it so. At the same time, the nature—and future—of earning a living and bringing home wages drives a bigger wedge between people and the kinds of homes they want for their families. Rather than to hope for return of the days of plentiful, low-priced home sites, oversupplies of high-quality skilled laborers, and dirt-cheap lending rates, alternatives are emerging. Some are being explored domestically, in housing markets throughout the nation, in bright spot instances of pioneering, innovative construction inventiveness, showing American know-how at work.
In this case, however, we look outside the box of U.S. practices and businesses, to Japan. There, among the world’s most advanced building technologies are widely practiced. There, too, issues such as affordability, sustainability, resilience, labor capacity, productivity have become solvable challenges.
The big question has been when—not if—U.S. builders would have an opportunity to learn and apply techniques and systems and processes builders in Japan have invested in for decades and mastered, introducing better, more efficient, more environmentally sustainable building to North America.
The time has come, but it could only come with collaboration.
The 2020 BUILDER Concept Home project, called Chōwa—Living In Balance—is a real-time exploration of how East literally meets West in home building, and of how what is best and most advanced in Japan’s construction, engineering, and design practices is taking shape, as we speak, in the U.S. In fact, in Las Vegas.
This recent analysis, by Harvard University behavioral scientist and author Francesca Gino, “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration,” notes that six key practices form the foundation of collaboration.
- Teach people to listen, not talk
- Train people to practice empathy
- Make people more comfortable with feedback
- Teach people to lead and follow
- Speak with clarity and avoid abstractions
- Train people to have win-win interactions
Chōwa is the brainchild of Sekisui House and its wholly-owned operating unit, Woodside Homes. Teams of dozens of experts and executives on two sides of the globe—in Osaka, Japan and Woodside’s Salt Lake Cityheadquarters, and its regional hub in Las Vegas, Nevada—have been working around the clock to discover brand new approaches to design, building, and business modeling that aim to put consumers—potential home buyers—at the very center of a new value chain.
The collaborative work of the Japan and U.S. teams focuses on planning, process, and execution of every minute detail of Chōwa. The project’s two architectural team leaders, Hirokazu Miyachi, who, from offices in Osaka, Japan, oversees architectural development for Sekisui House Ltd’s innovative global line of SHAWOOD homes, and William Ramsey, a principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning, out of Alameda, Calif., serve as a good example of the team effort that has gone into the project. In their approaches, you’ll hear all six of Dr. Gino’s essential “training techniques,” each of them an expression of deep trust in an exciting exploratory process.
The very heart of Chōwa is balance. It’s a home—designed and built differently–where life, work, play, eating, restfulness, joy, and health flourish in harmony. It’s East-meets-West in a real world of high-stakes, high-anxiety, and high expectations for new solutions to a host of new stresses and challenges of our technologically warp-speed lives.
We’ll unveil Chōwa in January 2020, at Howard Hughes Corporation’s innovative Summerlin masterplan, an award-winning epi-center of sustainable community development in Las Vegas.
To get a sense of the epic level of partnership that started day-one, in early-September 2018, in the earliest pre-development stages, when Chōwa was only an idea, the architects’ take on the challenge showed how unique and daunting the venture would be.
It was to take what was both in spirit and in real life a quintessentially Japanese design and building system at its origin and work it to accomplish three essential baseline measures to work in America and in Las Vegas’s Summerlin community.
- The design needed to appeal to American—Las Vegas-area—higher-end Generation X home buyer tastes and trends.
- Exterior features and streetscape needed to comply with Howard Hughes Corp. architectural guidelines for the Summerlin masterplan, and its Ridges high-end neighborhood.
- Precision-manufactured structural members—from a proprietary foundation methodology to external and internal load-bearing construction—needed to comply with local and national code.
Conversations with Sekisui House’s Miyachi and KTGY’s Ramsey shed light on how they—and their teams—overcame the challenge, met the deadlines, and merged their design in a way that resulted in the timely transport of 22 shipping containers with millimeter-accurate structural members for a foundation, building enclosure, interior structure, and roofing from Japan to the United States, beginning in April.
Let’s begin, though, with insight into the vastly different backgrounds and influences that first inspired our two architects, and how their earlier careers and training in their respective disciplines served them as their paths interwove on Chōwa. This video will take you inside the “heart” of collaboration essential to making this East-meets-West initiative viable.
Miyachi took his inspiration in residential design from the Buddhist temples of Kyoto and Nara, while Ramsey poured over the mid-century iconic designs of Joseph Eichler, because, as Ramsey says, they were not only a great inspiration but they were made for everyday people.
Both Miyachi and Ramsey attest to the essential role collaboration has always played in their work developing new home designs. As Mr. Miyachi explains, residential architecture is difficult because you’re making a place people live their lives:
“Collaboration is in everything I do. You cannot build a house alone. As architects, we work together with the interior designers, the exterior designers, and the landscape designers, discussing with the client, of course, to go through all the issues and challenges in creating a house where they’ll spend so much of their lives. In that respect, every day is a series of collaborative efforts to make sure the home is a good match with the person’s lifestyle.”
KTGY’s Bill Ramsey notes that while time and space were constraints to the way he and Miyachi teamed up on the design development process, communications and information technology played a helping role, removing some of the friction from the evolution of Chōwa from concept to real life.
“Technology, as it improves, really helps collaboration, especially across many offices or spaces. …Through various programs, you can have online conversations, online presentations. So, you’re meeting much more regularly, which allows you to work together … there’s always that conversation going back and forth.
The requirements of this project, at the outset seemed challenging. Chōwa would draw its architectural lineage right out of the vernacular of the temples that have long inspired Miyachi. What’s more, the building envelope and many of its structural members would originate and go through pre-construction fabrication in Japan.
Yet, the project’s aim is to exert compelling appeal to a U.S.-based, Las Vegas-area buyer, and its design and engineering must stand up to both Summerlin masterplan architectural guidelines and local, regional, and national building codes for safety and performance.
Miyachi and his team and the KTGY team working with Bill Ramsey met both the engineering code compliance challenges, and ultimately, have received enthusiastic support for the beauty of Chōwa from executives at Summerlin’s Howard Hughes Corporation. What’s more, containers filled with all the materials for foundation, framing, exterior and interior shear walls, and roofing—all precisely crafted for rapid, easy assembly on site, began passing through U.S. Customs as scheduled starting in early April.
There’s one more important box to check, and that is “how will the U.S. and Las Vegas home-buying customer respond to Chōwa?” We’ll find out in January, and we hope you’ll be there at Summerlin’s Talon Ridge to check out this amazing, ground-breaking effort. Meanwhile, the learning on both sides of the globe, about collaboration, about co-authorship, and about building homes better for people has been affirmed throughout the process.
Says Sekisui House’s Miyachi:
“I don’t think of the learning process as one-sided. I believe that there’s so much that architects in Japan and architects in the United States and other countries around the world can learn together by working together. It’s not only going to be a technical collaboration, but rather, a strong cultural understanding that’s going to improve as we take more advantage of information technology and sharing. That’s so much more important than one country teaching another. It’s going to be learning together; I think that’s going to be a great thing moving forward.”