Top Japanese Design-Build Firm Hosts American Architects

By Jeremy B. Altman Assoc. AIA posted 11-24-2011 19:19


As part of the Meiji restoration and the westernization of Japan, the government encouraged the study of western construction techniques among its artisans and craftsman.  Several companies came to have the expertise to build Western style buildings – it had been these same companies, known at the time as carpenter families, which the Shogunate had employed to build all governmental buildings.  In order to meet modern challenges, these carpenter families evolved into architect, engineer and contractor all in one or what we would call a design-build firm.  Of all Japanese construction contracts, about 50% are design build and the number is rising as clients demand quicker delivery times and increased collaboration between disciplines.  There are 5 top design-build firms who are reported to make up a large chunk of the Japanese construction economy. Taisei Corporation is one of the top five.

Taisei opened its Research and Development campus up for a tour as part of the Crafting the Future conference.  Guided by Shigeru Yamaki and Yutaki Kobayashi, American architects ventured to Yokohama to review the multi-building campus.  The facilities include myriad areas to research building component parameters such as: wind force, wind pressure, air flow, structural testing, loading tests, loaded heating tests, combustion tests, geotechnical centrifuge, foundation settlement, multi-directional wave generator, daylight analysis, temperature distribution, energy utilization, acoustics and electromagnetic wave behavior.  In addition, they run behavior tests to see how people react during a fire as well as experiment with turf grasses that will adapt to the climate of Japan and retain a green-color throughout the year.

The facility also features a virtual reality (VR) lab.  Depending on the level of detail, a virtual reality model can be converted from Revit in a couple of days.  Taisei makes use of the VR technology to help get client buy-in on design decisions.  As an example, Mr. Kobayashi showed us a model of a hotel where, with the click of a mouse, the floor material could be changed to various photo-realistic options.  Use of the VR was instrumental in helping the clients discover that they didn’t prefer a highly reflective, glossy surface after all as it became clear that, for skirt wearing users, personal privacy may become an issue.  It was also used to show us a comparison between a standard building and an identical building equipped with Taisei oil dampers during a magnitude 9 earthquake.

Innovations that have been used by Taisei include the Ductile Concrete product called “Ductal”, felt based carpet tile which allows air movement thru it in a raised floor application so no diffusers are necessary, Taisei-Personal air: task ambient HVAC system to allow personal control of thermal comfort which, depending on code conditions, may make use of lightweight, cardboard ductwork which can be shipped flat and installed very easily. Ductal is an ultra high strength fiber reinforced concrete which achieves a compressive strength of over 24,000 psi.  It uses no aggregate and has many the same characteristics of a metal, yet is very resistant to air-borne salts and acid rain – two important environmental concerns in Japan.

The office building on campus recently completed a renovation and was awarded a plaque for carbon offsets.  Japan does have a version of LEED known as CASBEE which has similar categories such as new construction or renovation.  It is a government based system with the regulations due to be finally established next year.  It is anticipated that tax incentives will be granted for achieving certain levels. 

Taisei employs roughly 800 design staff based in Shinjuku, Tokyo.  The architectural department is organized in groups that specialize in certain building types.  The software used is Revit, though we were told that they are still trying to figure out how to use it on the construction side – it is used by approximately 50% of the design staff.  Interestingly, there sounds like there is a trend towards hiring more female designers (architecture students are now 50% in Japan): the current hiring ratio at Taisei is approximately 40% female to 60% male.  Taisei encourages staff to pass American and British licensing exams and provides support to do so.  They also engage in a kind of exchange program with overseas firms where they will send a staff member overseas for about a year and the other firm will do the same.

Taisei corporation seems to understand that part of crafting the future means investing in the research to employ innovative techniques as well as providing for the professional development of junior staff.  Is there connection between this understanding and the company’s roots in craftsmanship?