Japan’s Zero Emissions Fever

Sekisui House's Green First Home-It looks like a normal house, but take a closer look at those roof tiles...yup. PV.

Sekisui House's "Green First" model looks like a normal house--but take a closer look at those roof tiles. Yup. PV.

Since arriving in Japan almost a month ago, I’ve visited a “zero-emissions house,” a house that claims to be zero emissions but really isn’t (more on that later), and an “EcoHouse.” It’s fair to say the housing industry in Japan is going ga-ga over reducing carbon emissions. The obsession began a little over a year ago, when Japan’s largest companies (collectively known as “keiretsu“) came together to build the zero-emissions house.

The home, which purportedly produces zero or negative emissions over the course of its lifetime, was built especially for the 2008 G8 Summit in Toyako, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido (you can see my video tour of the home at KQED’s YouTube site). Originally nestled on a hillside overlooking a lovely lake during the G8 summit, the home has moved to more modest surroundings: It now sits in a drab parking lot outside Sekisui House‘s noisy prefabricated homes factory in Koga, 40 miles north of Tokyo. The home’s greenhouse gas-reducing technology includes:

- A 14-kilowatt solar array on the roof

- A hydrogen fuel cell which generates energy by taking hydrogen from natural gas and using the byproduct, heat, for the home’s hot water supply and space heating during the winter

- A window with photovoltaic (PV) film inside of it

- A ‘waterless’ washer/dryer, and of course, every energy-efficient appliance you can think of.

Kimikazu Kondo, spokesman for Sekisui House, tells me that nobody’s offered to buy the home yet. Until they do, it’ll be sitting in that parking lot, looking a little lonely.

The interior of the Green First Home. If this is prefab, sign me up.

The interior of the Green First Home. If this is prefab, sign me up.

Kondo also showed me Sekisui’s Green First home, the company’s newest prefab. Sekisui estimates that the average Japanese household spends around the equivalent of  $3,000 on energy per year. Kondo told me that if you buy the Green First home, you’ll spend around five hundred. The home’s roof tiles are made of PV thin film. The house has a hydrogen fuel cell, LED lights, etc. When I first toured the home, Kondo told me it was a zero-emissions home, too. But when I asked specific, pointed questions at how they arrived at that determination, he backed down and told me that over the life of the house, it would reduce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions over an average home in Japan. Not a true zero emitter, but not bad.

But I started to wonder how Sekisui House was marketing this home to Japanese buyers. Were they touting it as a “zero-emissions” house, despite the fact that it isn’t? Hmm. Sekisui’s Kondo did take me on a very interesting tour of his prefabricated home factory. I shot a short video there of a machine that punches holes through steel beams.

A control panel inside the Green First home which gives the homeowner information on how much electricity is being generated from the solar panels on the roof. On this day, it was only 340 watts. It was cloudy.

A control panel inside the Green First home which gives the homeowner information on how much electricity is being generated from the solar panels on the roof. On this day, it was only 340 watts. It was cloudy.

Each prefabricated home that Sekisui builds has more than a hundred thousand parts built for it in a factory. They’re actually more durable than your average site-built Japanese home. Prefab homes make up about 15% of the housing stock in Japan. Kondo told me Sekisui has no plans to bring its homes to the American market, but it is now starting to sell them in Australia.