Business

ALTERNATIVE TO COSTLY READY-MADES

Cooperative-style condos let owners realize dreams

by Kikuyo Komesu

New condo owner Emiko Kaji says her brand new color-coordinated kitchen keeps her happy while she slaves over the stove cooking for her family.

The 36-year-old housewife and her husband, a 38-year-old company employee, moved into their fully customized 72-sq.-meter condominium in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward in August.

“It’s my dream kitchen and I love it. I don’t feel lonely while preparing dinner while my husband and son watch TV in the living room,” Kaji said.

In consultation with their architect, she handpicked everything from the ceiling, cupboards and cooking range to the refrigerator and the cork floor. Every detail, including the doorknobs and wall tiles, was given the same consideration as the floor plan.

Despite the extensive work, however, Kaji and her husband did not have to spend ridiculous amounts of cash to realize her custom creation. In fact, they paid between 15 percent and 20 percent less for the entire apartment when compared to ready-made properties in the same area, she said.

These new custom-designed units are a new breed of condos called cooperative houses, in which future residents of the complex form a construction union to jointly purchase the land and have the structure filled with rooms built to their specifications.

Unlike typical ready-made condos that often come with windowless kitchens placed in claustrophobic corners, Kaji’s open kitchen blends seamlessly with the spacious living/dining room, just as she intended. It somehow resembles a kitchen out of a Martha Stewart magazine.

“By directly buying the land and placing orders with the construction company, future residents are able to slash the overall cost as a result of eliminating middlemen such as developers and agencies,” said Kazumi Kobayashi, spokesman for Tokyo-based Urban Design System Co., which manages construction of the new units.

Although coordination and other optional fees for custom-made interiors account for 6 percent to 8 percent of the overall cost of the new types of rooms, the overall cost is still lower, Kobayashi said.

Urban Design System, established in 1992, has overseen the construction of 14 condos, including Kaji’s complex, and has another 15 under way. The company now has 2,500 registered members on its waiting list.

“People nowadays want to pick and choose and coordinate interiors of their houses like they do with their own clothes,” he said.

In the coordinating process, the company finds a suitable block of land, drafts a general construction plan and accepts applications from members after sending them information on each property.

After the future residents are chosen by lots, the company consults with them on forming the union, taking care of legal matters and coordinating between residents and an architect.

“We cut out the complicated side of purchasing a condo to allow residents to concentrate on the planning of their new home,” Kobayashi said.

Although cooperative housing has been around in Japan for some 30 years, it was never popular because of the complicated processes residents had to go through, often without the benefit of having technical knowledge of housing construction.

Only some 6,500 individual condominiums were built between 1969 and 1998 in Japan, according to a survey by the Co-op Housing Promotion Association, while in Germany, between 10 percent and 20 percent of condominiums are built under such schemes.

Hiroshi Kokaji, a 40-year-old company employee and a neighbor of Kaji in the complex, said learned about co-op housing while living in Germany several years ago.

However, he said he never realized it also existed in Japan, where the housing situation is so bad that homes were once dubbed “rabbit hutches” in foreign news reports.

After two years of intensive searching, he and his wife, Minako, 30, found one that met their taste.

Kokaji, who admires modern architecture and stainless steel, designed his block using stainless steel along the hallway walls and entrance floor, glass blocks in the living room and bathroom walls, as well as several skylights to give it a modern feel and lots of natural light.

“For me, spending such money on an ostentatious kitchen system or doors, which you find in those ready-made condos, was a waste of money. I wanted to allocate my limited budget to what matches my lifestyle — living in an urban area with interiors designed to suit my taste.”

He said he is 100 percent satisfied with the condo, but what he also likes about living here is the close-knit community among the residents. “I never expected that in an urban Tokyo apartment. We never knew what our neighbors were doing at the apartment where we used to live,” Kokaji recalled.

The residents here have developed a sense of community through discussions and cooperation during the 18 months of the construction process, he said.

“We became so close that now we often have parties together, invite each other over for dinner or they even bring side dishes when I’m short of dishes for dinner. It’s just like the ‘nagaya’ row house communities that used to be common in urban areas and I feel comfortable about that,” Kokaji said.

Kaji feels the same way.

“Since my son has no brothers or sisters, being able to communicate with and be watched over by the residents gives him sense of security and fends off loneliness.”

Kaji said participating in such events as “jichinsai,” a Shinto ceremony for sanctifying the ground before house-building, and the roof-raising ceremony “foster a sense of ‘our house’ because that is something you do when you build a detached house.”

Kobayashi said many residents in other cooperative houses they have helped in building have said the same thing.

Although many other companies are entering the business, the supply of such condominiums is not catching up with demand, according to Urban Design System.

It expects demand to increase further in line with the growing trend for people to regard condominiums as a lifetime investment instead of simply as an interim stage before buying a detached house.