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As quick as a tsunami: Chinese pre-fab homes

Koji Sasahara / AP

One-year-old girl Rin Yokota, right, is accompanied by her grandmother Tomoko Igari, 63, as they walk in the compound of their temporary housing in Otama village, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan on Thursday.

ICHINOSEKI, Japan – We’re on the Iwate coast of Japan this week, looking back on the devastation wrought here nearly a year ago by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that flattened coastal communities and killed nearly 20,000 people.

The cleanup we have witnessed on our frequent trips back here since the disaster is simply astounding and is a testament to the strength of the communities that remain. In fishing towns like Otsuchi, Kesennuma and Ichinomaki, NBC News has documented the gradual steps to recovery, from search and rescue, to the clearing of rubble, to the sorting and removal of debris from city streets.

One thing absent in our coverage though: reconstruction.

My colleague Ian Williams earlier in the week wrote about the issues facing the town of Otsuchi, where 10 percent of the town’s population of 16,000 is dead or missing and nearly 70 percent of the town was obliterated by the tsunami.

Today, all that stands in much of Otsuchi are the foundations of the buildings that once stood there – skeletal remains of sleepy neighborhoods that once occupied these parts. In the surrounding hills around, small communities of short-term, pre-fabricated homes for the displaced have sprung up, granting a small degree of normalcy to residents who had spent months living in schools, recreation centers and other temporary camps.

When the government will allow, much less begin, construction of new permanent homes in these areas is difficult to predict. In communities like Otsuchi, the debate seems to be centered on whether residents should be allowed to begin rebuilding now or must the town’s coastal defenses be strengthened before development can begin.

With many of these coastal towns having disproportionally older populations – a result of the departure of many younger residents to other parts of Japan for work – the desire for quickly built, affordable housing is a popular sentiment among people here.

It was with that backdrop that I watched a video yesterday released in early January of a 30-story hotel tower being built in China in a shockingly quick 360 hours. 

Could a 30-story hotel be built in 15 days? The Chinese construction firm Broad Sustainable Building released video to show how they did it.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen such feats from China, or from Chinese construction firm, Broad Sustainable Building (BSB). Two years ago, the three-year-old company shocked the world by constructing a 15-floor hotel in two days.

This time around they doubled down on the aptly named T-30 Hotel.

Not only that, but they gave viewers a unique look at a style of building construction that has been employed by the West for some time, but with unique adaptions that BSB developed and hope will help launch the style throughout Asia.

Pre-fab solution?
BSB’s system of pre-fabrication involves constructing segments of a building in advance at an indoor factory. There the basic building blocks of a modern building – things like ventilation, water pipes and electrical wiring – are pre-installed, allowing for the segments to be uniformly stacked at the construction site and assembled like Lego blocks.

The savings in construction time is perhaps the most note-worthy thing. An interesting piece done on BSB and its latest feat by the Los Angeles Times quotes one expert on pre-fabricated architecture who noted that such construction techniques can shave a third or a half off building schedules in western countries.

BSB sliced off between one-half and two-thirds of construction time on T-30.  Not to mention 20 to 30 percent off building costs through reduced construction times and greater efficiencies.

And since much of the construction is done in the relative safety of the factory floor compared to many stories in the air, BSB’s on-site accidents noticeably dipped.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Elderly Japanese, whose homes were destroyed in last year's tsunami and now living in temporary housing, mingle at a community center in a temporary housing site on March 5, 2012 in Minamisanriku, Japan.

The company also claims a number of innovations in its designs that would certainly appeal to rebuilding residents in northeastern Japan. After all, the inspiration for BSB’s formation were reconstruction efforts in China’s Sichuan province after an 8.0 earthquake rocked the region in 2008, leveling cities and leaving towns in such disrepair, they were forced to completely relocate.

According to the video, which was released by BSB, the new hotel is designed to handle earthquakes up to 9.0 on the Richter scale and incorporates design advances like external solar shading, three-stage air purification systems and improved insulation techniques that make the building five times more energy efficient than other Chinese buildings.

Pre-fabricated building techniques are already in use throughout the affected regions of Japan as a form of temporary housing. In fact, Japan was already moving residents into pre-fabricated houses just eight days after the quake and as of last week there were 52,620 temporary houses built in 911 locations throughout the country.

However, much of this housing is built on school sports fields and other public spaces – often contracted out for two years before the temporary housing must be disassembled and the space returned.

That’s a point not lost on the residents we talked to this week. Many living in short-term housing are older and have no meaningful income. So they live off pensions with no realistic means of building or renting new homes.

To deal with this issue that will seemingly boil over in 2014, Iwate prefecture alone has announced they will construct between 4,000-5,000 permanent public housing units for the displaced.

Where and when these housing blocks will be built in this nation where land is at a premium is one that will certainly keep urban planners here busy for years to come.

The lessons learned from the T-30 exercise should not be lost on municipal governments up and down the Iwate coast. Pre-fabricated housing once viewed as a short-term fix can now be the answer to a very long-term problem.

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