Japan’s Astonishing Lack of Building Energy Standards

There’s an elephant in the tatami room – Japan has absolutely zero mandatory building energy efficiency standards.  This nation’s buildings consume about 40% of all primary energy, and about 70% of all electric power.  Simply improving building efficiency would dramatically change the electric power demand side of the equation in this nuclear catastrophe challenged nation, and yet there is no building code regarding efficient energy usage.

Japan is no stranger to strict building standards, it has some of the worlds toughest quake resistance and fire proofing building code. For some reason the government has never found it necessary to create efficiency requirements by law.

Many other countries have very strict building energy efficiency requirements. For example, Germany will require all new buildings to be Passivhaus certified by 2015. Other EU countries are also implementing stringent energy consumption building code.

Japan on the other hand, has let the free market reign and the results have been buildings which are incredibly inefficient. Experts have called for improved building envelope insulation performance, double glazed windows, and other improvements for years. The current situation is that even the “Next Generation Energy Efficient Smart Homes” promoted by the housing industry are woefully inefficient compared with modern standards such as Passivhaus or Zero Energy Buildings.

To understand the scope of the problem, modern energy efficiency code could reduce building energy consumption by 80% to 90%. As about 70% of building energy is used in HVAC, water heaters, and lighting, efficiency code could reduce a huge portion of the nation’s energy consumption as well as green-house gas emissions. Building use more energy than industry or transportation. Buildings are by far the largest consumers of energy.

Further, Japan’s housing stock has a typical lifespan of only 35 years, other larger buildings are usually replaced every 50 years or so. Japan’s older buildings could be replaced very quickly compared with other nations which have longer lasting building stock. For example, about half of all of Japan’s homes will be replaced over the next 17 to 18 years.

The situation hopefully will change. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) announced vague plans to create mandatory building energy efficiency standards by 2020 – some eight years from now. Hopefully the ministry will not try to re-invent the wheel regarding the standards and will implement world leading standards rather than the weak half-baked current code in place.

MLIT also needs to take a look at building refurbishment energy efficiency. More enlightened energy policies in other countries motivate building and home owners to make energy efficient modifications to their properties. Japan currently has little in place to encourage owners to improve to save energy.

I’ll try to write more about this important topic as more information becomes available.

4 thoughts on “Japan’s Astonishing Lack of Building Energy Standards

  1. Interesting, I had the impression that there are some regulations. But maybe not yet. Was astonished years ago to learn that in the Kanto region, double glazing windows were not permitted (!) until 1996. Some home makers included airtightness testing in their construction specs but omitted to design airtight layer in the buildings. Architects need training, and so do electricians and plumbers to retain the design properties and not leave drafty holes around their installations that let indoor air escape and condense within the walls leading to mold or structural damage in the cold season. Ever wonder why a house in Japan is worth nothing after 30 years?

    Such construction defects also admit outdoor air losing additional energy and causing very dry indoor air in winter. You can check drafty outlets, switches and other openings by running the kitchen fan with all windows closed.

    Legislation frequently has side effects but free markets are not free of perverse incentives either. As for safety and energy efficiency laws are necessary, because in many cases the owners or investors do not benefit from lowering the energy consumption, the tenants do.

  2. Kevin,

    Indeed, building energy consumption is one of those elephants in the room people ignore. I have this presentation I give where a show people a picture of a factory, an SUV, a plane and then an innocent looking family home….then I show what proportion of national energy consumption and carbon emissions each is responsible for, many people are shocked to realise how much of the UK’s carbon emissions (about 40% last time I checked) can be traced to buildings.

    I did an article recently about Japan and its post Fukushima options (see link below) and I discussed how improving building standards and efficiency are key to bringing down carbon emissions, and certainly would be my first recommendation (then again, I’ve been proposing passive building standards in the UK for years!).

    I had to guesstimate certain numbers (such as Japan’s level of heat energy consumption) based on available figures as I couldn’t find any reliable sources (in English!) online related to building energy consumption in Japan. Any chance you could point me in the right direction?

  3. I just built a pretty efficient Japanese house, after doing tons of research and engineering. I am not happy with the performance of it though, because of the windows.

    IMO windows are the big problem with Japanese building efficiency. That is, you have to specifically ask for Low-E glass. It should be the default standard. And the aluminum frames do not have thermal breaks and conduct a great deal of heat. Moreover, the overwhelming preference for sliding windows means that airtightness is sacrificed.

    I think there are a number of factors in this window story. First of all, the end-users are technically ignorant, features-obsessed, and blase about energy efficiency. They also tend to eschew air tightness, in the belief that a house is supposed to “breathe.” Secondly, the window frame makers are locked into some sort of “aluminum triangle” among the smelters, the hydroelectric operators, and METI. Finally, the glass industry is a similar story, and is apparently heavily protected. Users end up paying a lot more for options that should be standard, like Low-E and tempering.

    60% of a building’s cooling load comes from the windows, and it’s that cooling load that creates the Peak Load problem in the summer, which creates the sense of crisis. Nobody seems to care about the much greater energy consumption in February, (which is where your building envelope insulation standards (standard of 7 cm of fiberglass in most regions) really hurt) since much of the heating load is taken up by burning fossil fuels, in most cases using 100% efficient unvented space heaters.

    And there’s more…

  4. Pingback: Japan Adds 4 Nuclear Reactors Worth Of Renewable Energy | KMB48

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