Garden states: looking good on the outside

One problem with designing your own house is that you don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be like until it’s finished. The company we hired to build ours doesn’t make model homes the way some housing companies do. It’s one of the reasons we chose them, since models add to the price of the product. All we had were two-dimensional printouts based on computer models.

It wasn’t a big problem. Our design was simple, basically a box with three rooms on the first floor and one large room on the second. But because we weren’t sure what it would be like in its finished form, we left off a lot of things that most housing companies tend to include as a matter of course, such as landscaping and other exterior (gaikō) features. We wanted to see the actual building in its environment before we made those decisions. The housing company could have thrown in an approach and a parking space for a little extra, but it would have been standard issue. If we wanted something more idiosyncratic, we would either have to do it ourselves or contract out. In either case it would be more expensive than what the housing company would have offered.

When you buy a home from a developer, landscaping and exterior features are usually part of the deal. The buyer will have some leeway in terms of materials and maybe which trees are planted in the garden, but in most cases exteriors in a subdivision are uniform since the developer can buy materials in bulk and have the same landscaper design everything. In those cases, we found, exteriors cost between ¥1 million and ¥2 million, depending on the size of the plot. Ours is 22 sq. meters, and we wanted to pay up to ¥2 million.

Once you opt out of the housing company’s exterior work, you have to pay for everything separately: design, labor and materials chosen a la carte. Sticking to the principle that guided our house design, we decided to keep the exterior simple as well, and so we sketched a few designs on our own. The first decision was a common feature in Japan: Surround the house with a 1-meter wide moat of gravel (jari). When it rains, the falling drops kick up mud that splashes against the side of the house, something that gravel prevents. Shrubbery would solve the same problem, but gravel is cheaper and easier to maintain. After that, matters became more complicated.

Three of our neighbors decided to avoid future hassles by covering all the empty land on their property with gravel or cement, and then delineating the border with a cinder block fence. This is another standard exterior gambit in Japan, and we considered it ourselves. We also wanted a bicycle port.

First we went to the exterior department of a local discount home improvement center and asked what it would cost if we did cover everything with slate, cement and gravel. The estimate came to more than ¥6 million. Cement aprons are more expensive that we thought, and it has nothing to do with size. A large patch of cement doesn’t cost much more than a small one. Spreading cement requires labor and equipment, so it’s already expensive. Our budget was ¥2 million, and once the salesman heard that he lost interest, since it wasn’t really worth his time. In any event, they wouldn’t have an opening for another four months due to the construction boom brought on by the consumption tax hike.

We then asked the company that built our home if they could help us, and they brought in an outside contractor who inspected our land, listened to our ideas and made some of his own suggestions, including a concrete car port. But, again, it ended up being way above our budget.

We decided to take a different approach and went to one of the nurseries attached to the home-improvement center. They do full landscaping, including items like approaches and carports.

Naturally, as we hashed out a design with the elderly woman who managed what turned out to be a family business, she lobbied for lots of plants and trees, a design that was less mineral and more vegetable. She pointed out that grass was not only cheaper than covering everything with cement and flagstones, but it would also make our house cooler in the summer since it wouldn’t radiate heat, which was important to us because we don’t have air conditioning.

Eventually, we came up with a design that incorporated a small, contained garden in the front and grass or gravel everywhere else. They would build an approach with red brick — also cooler than cement — and the base of a bicycle port using concrete pods in a bed of gravel. They would also place yellow slate squares in the gravel moat as stepping stones all around the house. Instead of a carport, two long railroad ties would be embedded in parallel in the front lawn near the road. The estimate came to about ¥1.7 million, including labor. That price did not include the aluminum lean-to that would form the bicycle port, since the nursery didn’t do that kind of work, but we could have it done directly from the manufacturer, YKK, for¥100,000, so altogether we were within our budget. The nursery said they could finish the whole thing in a week.

That was almost a year ago. The only problem with the design turned out to be the functionality of the railroad ties. The way they were positioned doesn’t make them practical as a parking space, but we don’t have a car anyway. Initially, we were concerned that the emphasis on plants rather than stone and cement would make our lives more difficult. Neither of us has what you might call a green thumb, but the garden has been a continual source of pleasurable distraction, and will always be a work in progress. The grass requires frequent watering in the summer, but we use well water, which is free and, compared to an American “lawn,” ours is tiny.

In an attempt to save money, we actually ended up with something more aesthetically satisfying, as well as an unexpectedly fulfilling pastime.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at

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