Passive Houses: A conversation with Kevin Meyerson

While doing research for our November 2014 Home Truths column in the Japan Times, we talked to Kevin Meyerson, who has lived in Japan for 25 years and recently sold his web design business in Tokyo and moved to Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, where he built a passive house. Our conversation about his new home lasted more than an hour, and, obviously, only a small part could be used in the article. Here’s a bit more.

-How did you find out about passive houses?

We bought land in Karuizawa in 2010 and I was going to commute to Tokyo. I wanted to build an environmentally friendly house. My company had gotten ISO 14001 certifications several years before and I became more aware of energy efficiency and environmental issues concerning the use of energy, so I wanted to build an energy efficient house and looked at Japanese smart houses. There’s a new Japanese standard being considered for 2020 and I looked into those houses, and then I found out about LEED in the U.S., which is similar to CASBEE here in Japan, and I talked to the LEED architect for a while and found out through him about passive houses and that there was an architect who just brought the standard to Japan. She built the first one in Kamakura in 2009. There’s about ten now in Japan and a bunch more under construction. It’s going really fast, actually.

The LEED architect’s comment sort of blew me away with regard to passive houses. “I could probably build you a house that could be heated by a single candle, but why would you want to do that?” But my thinking was, if you can do that why wouldn’t you? So I contacted the architect who brought the passive house standard to Japan and she was quite busy but we were in a rush, and about nine months later her schedule became open and she decided to take on the project.

-Is LEED a company?

No, it’s a standard in the U.S. In Japan there’s a similar kind of system, though it’s not really a standard. It’s a checklist: Do you have solar panels on your house? Do you eat organic? There’s a whole bunch of stuff indirectly related to environmentally sound living. It’s been adopted by some architects who want to make environmentally friendly structures.

-Is it like LOHAS?

It’s a bit more formal than that. The passive house is a very simple standard in that it’s extremely focused on energy consumption on a per-square-meter-of-floor-space basis. If you have a square meter of floor space in your house you can only use 120 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. There are a couple of other standards besides overall energy consumption, but it’s focused on reducing the amount of energy you use per square meter while maintaining a comfortable living environment. The LEED standard, like CASBEE in Japan, is broader. It’s not just about energy consumption. It’s about a whole bunch of things. Some people think that’s a better way to do it, but if you build a house that’s LEED-certified it still can consume a lot of energy, so some people have been criticizing LEED and CASBEE as being a means of looking environmentally friendly without actually being environmentally friendly.

-When you first decided to build a passive house, did you have a model you looked at?

I looked up a bunch of stuff on the net and found that the passive house standard is quite common in Europe. And it’s becoming more common in the U.S. as well. And in all the cases the comments of people who lived in passive houses was that they never knew how comfortable a house could be, or now that they live in one they couldn’t live anywhere else. Read More


One of our main bugbears with used houses is the obsession with a southern exposure. Though we perfectly understand the rationale–Japan is in the northern hemisphere and thus a southern facade provides more natural heating in the wintertime–we can’t fathom the insistence of builders and designers that all rooms in a house will face south and all “utilities,” meaning bathrooms and kitchen, will be located on the north side of the structure. Given the normally small plots of land in Japan, this results in a kind of domino distribution: all houses in a development “face” south, which inevitably means facing the “north” side of your neighbor. When we’ve asked builders about orienting a house toward the west or even north in order to take advantage of some attractive natural feature of the land, we’re invariably met with consternation and concern. It’s entirely possible, they say, but inadvisable. Some things just aren’t done.

Our reasons for shunning southern exposures are mostly aesthetic, but a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun suggests that maybe southern exposures are not economical or even healthy. The University of Tokyo Engineering Department built an experimental house on the roof of one of its buildings to study the effect of direct sunlight on interior environments. Like almost all modern Japanese housing, the part of the building facing south had large plate glass windows so as to allow more light in. On sunny winter days when the exterior temperature was 10 degrees C, the interior temperature was as much as 35 degrees C, which is actually bad for the people who live there. In essence, the large windows make it difficult to control the interior temperature, which means the home owner may actually use more energy. According to the professor in charge of the project, it depends on the type of glass that is used, but in most houses the windows allow visible and near infrared light to pass into the house, where it is reflected off of the floor in the form of far infrared light, warming the room. Far infrared light cannot pass back out the window and thus more heat is trapped in the room. Direct sunlight contains a great deal of energy. Moreover, at night, when temperatures drop even further and there is no sunlight, more heat escapes from the house because of these big windows. Read More


Planned obsolescence

Moving house is a pain in the ass, but it can also be a rush. Basically, you shlep your entire life to a new abode and in the process assess that life in concentrated form. Inevitably, you are forced to pick and choose what you want to keep from it and what you want to discard. Some things you get rid of simply because you want to get rid of them, and some things you get rid of simply because you have to.

Yesterday we threw away two perfectly good heaters because we can’t use them in our new apartment. We also can’t sell tor even give them away, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was somehow planned to be this way. The heaters are made and sold by Tokyo Gas. Unlike standard gas heaters, which directly convert “city gas” piped into your home into heat, these draw hot water from your boiler (or, to use the redundant Americanism “hot water heater”). In that way they function in much the same way that baseboard heating does, except for one very significant difference. Baseboard heating is built into a house or apartment, and is generally designed in such a way that it doesn’t get in the way. These water heaters, on the other hand, are stand-alone boxes that do get in the way since they connect to wall outlets via thick hoses. Ideally, Tokyo Gas wants you to buy one for every room in your apartment, and priced at between ¥28,000 and ¥45,000, they can add up to quite an investment. Read More