Because we are building a house from nothing, basically, the number of choices we were forced to make was sometimes overwhelming. If we had bought a house already built, we would have simply looked at what was there, decided what we didn’t like, and then replace it all. If the house was being built according to a builder’s plan we would have seen what was available and haggled over what we did want and what we didn’t. In a sense, A-1 was close to this model, but the main reason we chose them is because there were many more options involved, and not just in terms of design. But our salesman, N, did try to push certain items on us, presumably because he and and A-1 would get a cut of anything they sold. We’ve already talked about the visit to House Tec, the housing supply and service company that A-1 deals with, and how because of our budget we were limited to certain fixtures and facilities we didn’t really care for. Fortunately, we held our ground on the bathroom sink (no plastic vanity, which is A-1’s default), but were not as forthright with the bathtub and the kitchen cabinets. We ended up getting a unit bath, which we don’t like, but that probably couldn’t be helped because the custom made baths we checked out were very expensive, and we’re not really bath people, anyway. The cabinets may have been a mistake, though. When we went to House Tec to pick them out, because of our budget we were shown only the cheapest line, and we took it without really asking. Had we spent a little more we could have gotten better stuff–i.e., drawer cabinets instead of the conventional door types.
But for other fixtures we decided to tell A-1 that we would go about it ourselves, and not just because we thought it would be cheaper. For instance, the initial estimate included all lighting fixtures, which A-1 would purchase through its agent and then pass on to us. They told us outright that they could buy these fixtures cheaper and we believed them, but we have some lighting fixtures already that work fine and look OK, so it seemed like a redundant expense. In any case, we don’t like the kind of garishly bright overhead lights that Japanese people favor, so while we did have rosettes installed in the ceiling, most will be equipped with fans, not lights. A-1 gave us a catalogue of one of their lighting suppliers and we looked through that and then went on line and purchased the fixtures that we needed ourselves. They were sent to our apartment so we will just bring them over to the new house to have them installed when the electrical work is done.
Another, more important matter we decided to handle ourselves was the heating system. Since the house would be all-electric, the most economical means of heating would be air conditioning units for each room, but we don’t like using air conditioners for either heating or cooling, a preference, especially with regard to the latter, that always invites derision. Both of us grew up in homes that were not air conditioned, though we lived in places that got quite hot in the summer. One reason we chose this particular piece of land is that it is surrounded by trees and though the difference is probably only a degree or two the idea of “natural” air conditioning appealed to us. The artificial kind tends to make us ill, especially if you’re moving in and out of cold rooms all the time. As for heating, we don’t really like the typical air circulation method, which involves heating air and then moving it around a room by means of a fan. We prefer radiant heating, which is basically heating surfaces through infrared radiation. We thought about central heating, which is rare and expensive in Japanese houses, and also about floor heating. Our current apartment has floor heating, but only in one section of the living room. That room is relatively warm, but it’s very expensive since the heat is supplied by water circulated through pipes in the floor and heated in the gas boiler. We’d been told by others who use floor heating that they couldn’t live without it, but it’s difficult to judge based on our situation because the living room has a very high ceiling so it’s not the more efficient room to heat. In any case, we have to use electric space heaters in the other rooms, so our heating bills are very high.
What we wanted was heating that was even throughout the house at all times. After all, the upstairs is, not counting the bath, just one big room. The downstairs is two rooms separated by a wide hallway. Since we work at home, it makes sense to have a unified heating system rather than a component system, but when we checked into floor heating for the entire house we ran into a few snags. For one thing we would have to start right away since a floor heating system, using either water heated in the Eco Cute electric boiler we were having installed or electric elements, has to be incorporated into the basic design of the house. Another, more serious problem is that you need special floors for floor heating systems, usually veneer flooring, which we don’t like. There are floor heating systems made for natural wood floors, but A-1 doesn’t deal with them for some reason, which means we would have had to contract out for a specialist for just the floors, and that would have involved all sorts of inconveniences for A-1, and us.
So we decided to go with storage heaters, which are big boxes filled with ceramic bricks that are placed in a central location in the house. They absorb energy at night when the cost of electricity is low and then release it during the rest of the day as radiant heat. A-1 recommended this method because House Tec sells a system built by a German company. Based on the size of our house they recommented two storage heaters, one for each floor, which would have come to more than ¥500,000. We decided to look around ourselves and found a dealer in Narita that sells storage heaters made by a Japanese company, Aldi, which is headquartered on the Japan Sea coast, where the winters can get quite bitter. Storage heaters are popular in Hokkaido because air conditioners are not effective there. Air conditioners use heat pumps and heat pumps don’t work well below certain temperatures. Apparently, Aldi thought heat storage was also a good method for residences on the Japan Sea coast.
We visited the showroom in Narita and talked to the woman who ran it. She had one space heater set up in the main room of the office and it was intimidatingly big, about two meters long and 30 cm deep. She looked at the plans for our house and recommended a 50-kilowatt unit for the downstairs and 60-kilowatt for the upstairs. The heaters come in various sizes in stages of 10 kilowatts, the biggest being 70-kilowatts. She explained the physics behind the process and gave us an estimate that was almost ¥100,000 less than House Tec’s. Later we contacted A-1 and after a few days they came back with a comparative price—not as cheap as the Aldi but House Tec tried to make the case that the German model was better in that Europeans had been making these kinds of heaters for a long time. But we liked the idea of buying local, nd the warranty for the Aldi was five years. Even after that the company would provide regular service, virtually for life.
So we eventually decided to go with Aldi, but that meant coordinating between A-1 and the sales agent. The main difficulty with space heaters is the weight. Each unit is more than 300 kilograms, which means the floor under it would have to be reinforced. Also, special electrical outlets would need to be installed. Our problem, then, was selecting the best place for them. Since our house is small and these heaters are huge, we spent a few days going over the drawings. Actually, the only place we could put the downstairs heater was below the stairway, which was wasted space anyway, but the saleswoman told us that we might end up losing heat since it would just rise from heater up the stairs and into the second floor, where we decided to put the other heater against the wall to the right of the stairs, because that was the only place where it would not be in the way of something else. We compromised. Instead of a 50-kilowatt unit downstairs and a 60 upstairs, we opted for two 60s so that the downstairs would be heated more evenly. This would be made possible by installing ceiling fans to aid in air circulation, something we had already planned anyway.
Obviously, A-1 wasn’t pleased that we went outside to purchase a heating system since House Tec would lose a big sale, but they got over it pretty quickly. In any case, we bought the water heating system from House Tec, and the city subsidy for the septic tank had come through, so House Tec would be getting that sale as well.