Japanese fall for ye olde cottage industry

ANNE SPACKMAN

It is the ultimate souvenir of a trip to Britain. After tartan, Barbours and Wedgewood china, we are now selling the Japanese English country cottages, complete with exposed beams and inglenook fireplaces.

Several British firms who build timber frame houses have had inquiries from Japanese customers keen to construct a traditional English cottage. It doesn't yet compare with our demand for Japanese cars and electronic goods, but it is a good start for an industry running short of domestic customers.

A Herefordshire-based company, Border Oak, is building about 25 half- timbered houses a year in Japan. Charles Macrae, a building firm in Inverness, had one customer who even kitted out his interior from an Inverness store.

Yesterday the leading self-build firm Potton were visited by a delegation from a construction company, Meishon, keen to view its heritage and rectory designs. Meishon plans to become Potton's agent in Japan, where it has built one of Potton's most cottagey styles as a show home on a 40-unit site.

Terry Mahoney, Potton's business development manager, said English style was very fashionable in Japan. The first suggestion this might extend to homes came from a Japanese antiques dealer based in London who told Potton he thought its designs would go down well.

Japan has an insatiable market for new homes with 1.5 million built every year. That has increased as a result of January's earthquake in Kobe which destroyed 150,000 buildings. "With them needing to build so quickly the biggest benefit of timber-frame construction is speed," Mr Mahoney said. "The cost here is around pounds 45 a sq ft. You can treble that for Japan."

Ken Farnes, a Japanese expert at the Department of Trade and Industry, has been helping British firms establish a foothold. He said there was a new inquiry every week from builders wanting to link up with English firms.

Around 70 per cent of Japanese people are owner-occupiers. But while they may like our old-fashioned styles, the Japanese have no inclination for doing up old properties.

"The average Japanese gets bored with a house quickly," said Mr Farnes. "The largest Japanese house builders offer a scheme whereby you move into one of their temporary homes for 50 days while they knock down your old house and build a new one on the same plot. There is hardly any DIY market," he added.

Potton is one of six British firms going to the Kobe Interhome trade fair next weekend, supported by the DTI. The Japanese government has agreed to the import of 50,000 homes a year, to satisfy consumer demand and pressure from Western governments.

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