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Japan’s Creative, Ephemeral Homes:

Would you buy a house that you knew would lose its value as years passed? That you would never be able to sell? That you might have to pay to demolish?
In Japan, this is the willing choice of many houseowners. In Western countries, a home is typically an investment that most people expect to one day sell at a profit. In Japan, a house is a consumer good that rapidly depreciates in value, like a car. Because Japanese house hunters prize new construction, they will pay a premium for land, but build their own home on it.
This model has one happy side-effect: a flourishing of some of the world’s most wonderfully bizarre architecture. You can live in a nest of tangled staircases designed to represent the Internet (named S-House), or inside plastic walls shaped like a Gothic arch (called Lucky Drops)—and only be concerned that it pleases you. “People have greater creative license to express their own taste because they don’t need to consider resale value,” said Alastair Townsend, co-founder of Bakoko, a Tokyo architectural practice. “There is a deep-set ephemeral attitude to housing here.”
Architecture in Japan is big business, with 24 architects for every 10,000 people, compared with 3.4 in the U.S., says the International Union of Architects. And Japanese often show extreme deference to experts such as architects. “Sometimes the clients don’t feel empowered to question an architect’s design,” said Mr. Townsend.
One of Mr. Townsend’s clients, Chiyomi Okamoto, 53, worked closely with the firm on her home’s details. She wanted a house that felt comfortable to her and to her Australia-born husband, Joe Gayton, 58, an exports manager for the Victorian Government Business Office in Tokyo.
They hired Bakoko to design a detached house in Onjuku, near Tokyo, in 2011. Their aim was “an Aussie beach shack” with traditional Japanese influences, Mr. Gayton said.
The couple spent ¥6 million, or nearly $50,000, on the land and about $233,000 on the building and fittings. Mr. Gayton said it took just nine months from planning to finish.
Ms. Okamoto dispensed with Japanese tradition and requested an open-plan kitchen for entertaining, rather than a formal tatami room. But she sought Japanese elements like the genkan, an area inside the front door where people leave their shoes, and a bathroom with tsubo-niwa, an enclosed garden, viewed from the bath.
The resulting home is a distinctive, asymmetrical, two-bedroom house, clad in Japanese cedar, resting some 300 yards from Onjuku’s surf beach. The 1,400-square-foot home has a sharply pitched roof for double-height living space.“I always wanted to design our own house to suit our lifestyle—a place where we could relax and enjoy life,” said Ms. Okamoto. She said building such a customized home would have been impossible in Australia on their budget.
Mr. Gayton said he would like the home to be passed down to their daughter—the architect says the building was built to last, if the cladding is resealed about every four years. But Mr. Gayton added that he accepts that it may be torn down. “We created a peaceful getaway from Tokyo close to the sea where we can swim, surf, garden, relax, explore, entertain and make friends.”
S-House architect Yuusuke Karasawa said the average life of a Japanese house is actually about 15 years. “Fundamentally, Japanese people do not like secondhand houses,” he said.
He said he designed his 1,117-square-foot vision of the Internet in Tokyo in 2013 for a university professor of philosophy who lives alone.
There are signs of price appreciation only at the real-estate market’s high end—mostly apartments in posh buildings, not detached houses. Otherwise, the land is where value is retained. (More than 90% of locations in central Tokyo surveyed by the Land Ministry saw price rises in the last quarter of 2014.) But a higher land price often means a smaller budget left over for the house, which can result in a poorer-quality building that deteriorates faster.
“This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Zoe Ward, CEO of Japan Property Central, a buying agency for overseas investors. She said because of the lifespan estimates, which were meant for tax depreciation, many houseowners stop doing upkeep.
It’s not so different in the U.S. and Europe, where homes are continuously renovated, said Yolande Barnes, director of world research at Savills. “The cost is counted in cash flow over a long period rather than as annual depreciation,” she said. “In Japan, they recognize that the bulk of a property’s value is in land, not bricks and mortar, or wood and paper.”