27 December 2010

Preparing for Inspection

      We are soon approaching the date of the Construction Plans Inspection, set for mid-January.  Yakushiji-san is busy preparing tons of documents with all the details about our new home, which will be submitted to an inspector in charge of approving our plans and giving the green light to construction.  We went over a long list of items that needed to be covered prior to the inspection to make sure that everything was in order.  Some of the key issues we discussed were :

Privacy Screens

      Japan’s “Mimpou” (Civil Code) lays out a number of rules regarding residential  constructions. One of them is the use of Privacy Screens (プライバシースクリーン) whenever the distance between your property and the neighbor's is less than 1 meter.  This is what one type of privacy screen looks like - awful-, and we hope we'll never have to use them!

Iin our case, privacy screens may be needed on the South side since we don’t have the required 1m distance between our house and our neighbor. The glass on that side will be opaque (不透明 - ふとうめい) but our next-door neighbour may still  insist on us getting a privacy screen. This is a bit unlikely, however, since he doesn't have privacy screens either; he will have to comply too if he makes this request.  The same applies to the southern windows in the kids' rooms.

      Privacy screens may also be needed in the kitchen, but the neighbor behind us doesn’t have them either so it’s unlikely they’ll push for us to get them. In any case, since we need to have opaque windows there too, we may decide to get rid of the window there altogether and add extra kitchen cabinets instead.  The view is lousy from that window anyway...

24-hour Ventilation

      To avoid the Sick House Syndrome, Japan’s Building Standards Law requires the installation of a 24-hour ventilation system. This is part of governmental measures to limit formaldehyde release from building materials.  This means that Input and Output units must be placed in practically every room, usually high up on the wall.  The input units (自然給気口) are flat and measure about 15x15cm.


       The output units (パイプファン) are about the same size and shape as the input units from the interior, but the fan that is attached to the exterior wall (外壁用ステンレス製換気口) come in various shapes.  The model we're getting is more attractive than  the common globe-shaped unit and less visible.


Smoke Detectors

The installation of smoke detectors ( 住宅用火災警報器 - JuutakuYou Kaisai Keihouki)  throughout the house is a requirement in Japan since April 1, 2010.  Some smoke detector models are nicer-looking than others and more or less discrete, depending also on how they are fitted onto the ceiling.  We were shown two models, the Panasonic Flat Type, and the Fenwel slim type

Models don't differ that much from brand to brand but Panasonic's new wireless model which came out last September 2010 is unique in that if one unit is activated, a signal will be sent to all other units in the house, thereby warning other occupants immediately of a fire in another part of the house.  The alarm will sound at 90db, so loud enough to wake you from deep sleep.  This model is fitted with long-lasting batteries that need only be changed every 10 years.  And no need to mark your calendar; an alarm and message will tell you that your batteries need replacing... Pretty good stuff!

26 December 2010

3D Design

      For the past couple of weeks, Efrain has been busy learning how to use Chief Architect, a Home Design Software that allows you to see your future home in 3D.  He got  into this project after I casually mentioned that we needed to visualize our new home, especially since we were finalizing window position and starting color choice..  It was either that or hand drawing every single room...
     
       He diligently went to work, and applied himself to the study of this new tool after work, everyday for the past couple of weeks.  Chief Architect is a complete and very versatile software, but you need to spend time learning the functions in order to get any kind of results!   While he says he hasn't mastered it inside out yet, he has nevertheless managed to render each floor quite accurately.  That is certainly good enough for me!  

1F - Glass View
      His renditions have helped us make decisions about window size and position, door type, as well as get a feel for the space at our disposal.  They were also helpful in figuring the position of furniture.  We hope to be able to use this software extensively to define color in the various rooms. 

    Now, if we could just change the beautiful view that we get from out the windows (green field, blue skies...) to more realistic surroundings typical of Tokyo suburbs, we would get a real feel of what our house would be like from the inside.

22 December 2010

Roof and Accent Tiles

        As we started to think about the exterior finish of our new home, we inquired about roof type and color as well as accent tiles.  For the roof, our architect suggested we take a look at KMEW's Colorbest Basic Line which includes three series: スペリアル、セイバリー and コロニアル.
 
       Having read a bit about roof color and its impact on energy consumption, we were immediately attracted to the lighter tones, especially the Silver White Roof from the Colonial Series.  According to some of the articles we've read, roofs are responsible for up to 50% of a home's cooling load.  This translates into higher air-conditioning bills... 

Silver White
      A light-colored roof might also help maintain the loft area at a more pleasant temperature.  We've also been able to verify from various sources that a light-colored roof makes sense even during the colder months.   Granted, we will have very good insulation, but that alone will not guarantee a more energy-efficient home as it doesn't really play a role in decreasing the house's exterior temperature.    Anyway, we think it'll be a nice change from the darker roofs that are usually the norm.
  
       To match with this light-colored roof, we've been looking a tile samples from Nagoya Mosaic.  Our architect suggested two patterns to add accent to the our home's exterior.  One is to cover the balcony with tiles, the other is to cover the lower part of the house in tiles as in these images:

      We of course discussed costs, and decided to choose option A where tile coverage is only one fourth that of option B.  Leafing through the Tile Catalog, we were easily able to confirm the soundness of our choice: tiles are not cheap and prices vary tremendously.  The more affordable tiles cost about 3000 yen per square meter, while the costlier ones are priced anywhere between 12,000 to 20,000 per square meter.  



      We found one type of tiles that was priced just right for our budget, and that we immediately loved.  The color is a crispy greyish-beige, which is just perfect because we want to keep the overall feel of the house very light.  We may have to adjust our preliminary choices later on, as we discuss exterior wall paint and finish, but it's good to know we have options we like. And like everything else, the fate of all of these extras will be decided on Budget Review Day!

17 December 2010

Lifesaving Vocabulary

       Let me backtrack here a bit and post about buying property.  Looking back into some of our files, I just found the vocabulary list we had prepared back when we were in the process of buying our land.  We needed to get a few terms straight, especially concerning loan terms and purchase agreement.   I thought I'd share this LIST as it was highly useful to us. 

       Since the loan was granted to my husband, he had to fill in all of the applications in Japanese.  So while he fine tuned his Hiragana and Katakana, I printed out all of the terms and addresses I thought he would need to write in Kanji.  Let me tell you, Mitaka has one mean character in it: 三鷹   Plus, it's one thing to write your kanjis in the comfort of your home, feeling pride in your progress, and quite another to fill out a detailed application in front of scrutinizing eyes....  So we carried this printout of our current and future address and other details  in large characters to all of our official meetings with the bank and our realtor.  Highly recommended!

      Also, we obviously couldn't read all of the terms of our land purchase contract so we asked a good friend to accompany us for the transaction.  She eased our concerns by saying that even she couldn't make sense of all the small print...  In any case, neither the realtor nor the seller of the land really care whether you master your kanjis.  But the bank might...  When we first approached banks about loans, one agent at a Downtown Tokyo SMBC branch of SMBC told my husband that it would be impossible for him to get a loan from their bank since he couldn't read ALL of the loan contract.   Didn't matter if we had Permanent Residency and had been living in Japan for 20 years... 
     Ironically, we got our loan from the same bank, just another branch in our neighborhood! What really helped us was that our realtor made the initial contact with the loan officer and accompanied us to all of the initial meetings with the bank, along with his assistant Miyao-san.  The loan officer was also really helpful as he arranged for us to have an English-speaking agent go over the details of the loan agreement with us.

     Anyway, time to brush up on those kanjis...

16 December 2010

Ampere Capacity

     Ever wonder whether you will have enough electrical power to run all of your appliances at the same time?  We currently use gas in the kitchen but we'll have an IH stove in our new home so we were worried about having sufficient electrical capacity to run various appliances at once. 

     In our current place, we have 40A, and it's impossible to run the microwave oven together with the kids' air conditioner.   Can't use the toaster and the microwave together either...  For our new home, we were advised to get 60A, which is the maximum normal TEPCO breaker capacity.  We found the TEPCO calculator quite useful to figure what appliances can run together within a given ampere allowance.  Also, we need to bear in mind that from 10A to 60A, changing your breaker's capacity can be done free of charge, but the monthly demand charge will increase as follows:


     Now if we you want too go above this, to say 80A or 100A, we'll need to get a different account.  There is a fee of about 20,000-30,000 yen to enable this service and the monthly charge will also increase as follows:  80A: ¥2,184; 100A: ¥2,730.   Note that if you ever want to change back to 60A or lower, a disable fee of about 20,000-30,000 yen  fee will also be charged.  TEPCO's Service Guide can help dispel a few mysteries.

14 December 2010

Terrace and Balcony

      With so many options on the market for decks, it's hard to decide what would be best for us.  Our limited knowledge and extensive Internet investigations have convinced us that nothing can beat the feel and look of Real Wood.  

      We are willing to and actually looking forward to providing the necessary maintenance to keep our wood deck looking beautiful over the years.  Wood decks can apparently last up to 40 years  if maintained properly.  From what we can gather, maintenance involves applying a stain finish to protect against the harmful effects of the elements (rain and sun) and to highlight the natural beauty of the wood every six to eight months.

       We've also considered the idea of getting composite decking for the 2F balcony, but after reading up on these, we've changed our minds.  Composite decking is fairly new, as it was  introduced a couple of decades ago as a miracle solution to replace natural wood. 

     At first, Composite Decking was claimed to be 'maintenance-free' but manufacturers have had to modify their sales pitch over the years following complaints and law suits.  It is mainly composed of recycled materials including plastic and wood chips, and has a short life span of 5 years.  Cleaning composite decking involves splashing harsh chemicals and once you decide to replace the deck it goes straight to landfill.

     Neither our terrace nor our balcony can be done in concrete, as they would otherwise count toward the house's total surface.   So, the options we have for our 2F balcony are FRP Grating (FRP stands for Fiber Reinforced Plastics) or Aluminum.  FRP Grating didn't appeal to us for its large holes, and Aluminum gets real hot in summer so we also crossed that off. 

     Our architect provided a rough estimate for our terrace and balcony.  For real wood on our 18m2 terrace and 11m2, we expect to spend a total of 700,000 yens.  Interestingly, the other options (aluminum, frp grating and composite) are similar price wise.

8 December 2010

Window Quality & Type

      We've learned a lot about windows these past couple of weeks.  We started out by pinpointing the location of each window in the house and defining size, position and type.  We mainly chose up-down French-style windows. 

     There is a lot we don't know about windows, so it is hard to make an informed choice.  To ensure the best insulation possible, we will get double-glazed glass low-E glass, that is glass that contains a special coating that allows sunlight to pass through, but blocks heat from escaping.  Low-E glazing filters out UV rays and reduce condensation on the window by keeping the indoor surface of the glass and frame warmer.
      
We looked at YKKAP windows because they make French-style windows.  Tostem is another window maker we will look into for a cost/quality comparison.  There are several categories of YKK window frames and their performance is summarized in this chart.   Basically, the better the frame the less wasted energy.  Normally, at Two Style, the recommended window frame is the エイピア  which is an aluminum plastic composite multi-layer structure.  Because we were hoping to optimize insulation and lower energy costs, TwoStyle recommended the エピソード , which is an aluminum and resin composite structure, helping to reduce annual heating and cooling costs.

     Now, about the Bay windows we were hoping to get, we've had to scale down our plans because of building regulations.  All the bay windows we had incorporated into the plan on the South Northern wall were converted to standard windows because of the regulations stipulate that there must be a 500mm gap between the house and the border of the land.  Our house is situated at 505mm from the border, so if we really wanted to have bay windows on that side of the house, we'd either have to get special permission from our neighbor, or move the house the required amount of mm.  Neither option was practical, so we simply dropped the bay windows on that side.  This regulation also applies to the 2nd floor and the loft, so we had to eliminate the bay windows in the kids rooms too.  What a shame...

3 December 2010

Stylish Doors

We made another easy choice this week: we decided on the type of doors to the bedrooms, bathroom, toilet and loft.  Altogether we'll need 6 doors, not including cabinet and closet doors which will be made by our carpenter.

Our architect showed us two samples of French-style doors from BLC (Beautiful Living Creation), one full wood type and one hollow wood type.  We love these types of doors!

We chose the molded panel type which is seem quite sturdy even if part of the interior is hollow.  This series was more affordable and we figured we wouldn't notice the difference!  Plus the doors are lightweight and just as lovely as regular doors.   

We went for white, like our windows and kitchen.  The MD Series includes three designs: Colonist, Carmelle, Classique.  And they're available three different colors, dark brown, white and caramel.

We feel we've made real progress here even though we're probably not annywhere near the end of the decision-making process regarding al those little things that can turn a  regular house into one that we will really enjoy living in and keeping pretty.  For instance, we haven't talked about door handles and knobs yet but I've got my eyes set on a few designs...  

1 December 2010

Kitchen Woes

   We recently received some very distressing news about our kitchen... The estimate for our custom kitchen by Takara Standard came in and the numbers were shockingly high, more than twice the planned budget.

   In our estimate for the house, our architect made the following allowances for Equipment and Windows:  1.8 million for equipment, including kitchen, bathroom, powder room and toilet.  We are right on target with all equipment except the kitchen.   As for the Windows, the target budget is 1.5 million and we are currently working to align our choices with that number. 

   After seing Takara's beautiful white carved cabinets in a house designed by TwoStyle, we knew we wanted to get the same feel in our kitchen.  Takara is also known as an affordable custom kitchen maker, so we thought this process would be relatively  smooth. 

  Although we had initially thought of a more closed sort of layout for the kitchen, to hide the "occasional" mess, we then changed our minds and decided to include an island-counter.  This item needs to be custom-made, as it is not available in Japan, at least not the way we envisage it.  We were inspired by an island we saw at Ikea and many other appealing island-counters like the one displayed here.

   Our architect reassured us that he would look into other options, including Kitchen House, another custom kitchen maker, as well as a trusted carpenter. We also requested a more detailed estimate from Takara. So far, we've made just a little progress:

- We received a slighlty more detailed invoice from Takara, but we no breakdown of costs for individual items such as panels, handles, countertop, etc...  Totally unsettling.
- Kitchen House gave us a higher estimate than Takara, so they're obviously out.
- The island and the hutch could be handmade by a carpenter for half the price of Takara.  That's probably the only good news.  But then again, we need to see if the door panels could match the rest of the kitchen...   Hopefully, we can outsource the cabinets from Takara or Ikea, like this beautiful glass cabinet. 

  TwoStyle has apparently never worked with Ikea so this will be a first for them investigating options for our kitchen.  Given that some of Ikea's kitchens really appeals to us, we'd be really happy!
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