community, journal, ofunato, photos, research, sumita, temporary housing, wood

a research trip to sumita cho on my day off

several months earlier, i had hear about the temporary housing in the town of Sumita cho from my sensei. the mayor of Sumita had already had a plan (before the earthquake) that if there was a disaster and need for housing reconstruction, they would use the local timber industry. and after march 11, they did. the temporary housing in Sumita is made of wood, which makes it much more comfortable than the steel or pre-fab housing, which is hot in summer and cold in winter. i’m also pretty sure that it’s a more pleasant living environment both inside and outside these small houses.

temporary housing is the second step of the process of Japanese disaster recovery housing, and are built using money from the national government, with the local municipality contracting out the construction to private companies.  they are usually modular, may be reusable, often steel or prefabricated. they cost a lot of money to build, and a lot of money to dismantled. they are designed to be lived in for up to 5 years, which allows them to be built without following the building code requirements for permanent housing. in the case of tohoku, the scale of the housing loss and the unknown factors in permanent housing reconstruction mean that it’s impossible to know how long people will live in these units, which are still being built 5 months after the tsunami in an attempt to meet demand. however it’s almost certain that people will be living in them for more than 5 years.

temporary housing units are small, less than 30 square meters or 830 square feet. the cheapest and lowest quality ones built of steel are especially hot in summer and cold in winter. after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, temporary housing was built in large numbers in remote and locations outside the city, and people were awarded a unit based on a lottery system, which prioritized older or vulnerable people. the result was that community connections were destroyed, as old neighborhoods scattered and people were randomly assigned to new temporary houses. this was later compounded by a similar process for those who entered the new disaster recovery public housing in high-rise apartment buildings. the loss of community connections was especially severe for the older generation; many elderly lost all connections to friends and neighbors, and died a solitary death without anyone noticing their absence.

on the individual house scale, the design and implementation of temporary housing can also give residents more control over their own rehousing process.  the temporary houses in Sumita are small but detached single family units, grouped in clusters at each of 5 sites located around the town. the houses are arranged in several rows, with a main path and space to grow flowers in containers. these little wooden houses can be moved and reused later, or they could be expanded to be part of a larger more permanent house.

on tuesday, which is all hands’ day off, i went on an little excursion to try to see these wooden temporary houses. i successfully found out which bus to take and where, and after a 30 minute bus ride up into the mountain (towards tono) i got off in sumita, which is a basically a 1 street town. however, as i had heard before, it’s very true that weather can quickly change, and be completely opposite at the coast and up in the mountain. so whereas when i left ofunato, it had been bright and sunny, when i arrived in sumita, it was thundering and in the middle of a downpour. and it a completely brilliant move, i had brought neither my umbrella or rain coat. the wonderful old lady at the little tabacco shop by the bus stop didn’t sell umbrellas, but she very kindly loaned me a umbrella, and after dashing into a number of tiny shops on the shopping street, i would up with a rain poncho as well. i set off for the city office (across the river), where they obliged my request for a map of temporary housing. although i got a little damp, i was able to visit the 2 sights that were in walking distance, and catch the bus back to ofunato. and even chat with some local folks on the street, who wanted to know what i was doing. i think if i had stayed in town another hour, i might have been invited to someone’s home for dinner.

About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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