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A yen to exchange knowledge The introduction of a form of Private Finance Initiative and a refurbishment boom mean Japan has a lot to learn from Britain

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British architects have a lot to offer the Japanese and there are opportunities for those willing to pursue them. But architects should not feel alone when it comes to promoting themselves abroad. The Export to Japan Unit of British Trade International is there to help.

Recently the unit organised a mission to Britain of Japanese architects and engineers, run by Ron Marsh, export promoter for design and construction at the Export to Japan Unit. The visitors looked at a range of uk projects including the National Maritime Museum, the Great Court project at the British Museum, Bluewater and, of course, the Millennium Dome.

'The objective was to show the Japanese construction professionals recent projects in the uk which show trends in design and procurement,' said Marsh. This is part of an initiative to encourage strategic alliances between the British and Japanese.

Changes in the Japanese construction market are opening up opportunities that uk architects are well-placed to develop. A major change in Japan is the adoption of private-finance initiatives (pfi). Enabling legislation has just been passed through the Japanese parliament to allow a form of pfi. Having vetted a number of different systems and chosen the British approach as the most suitable, the Japanese will now have to work with it, and the experience of uk professionals could well be useful. Although the guidelines have not yet been published, they are due out shortly and Marsh believes that the general principles are the same as in the uk.

The more discrete changes in the Japanese context are being driven by the fall in the value of the Japanese Yen which, coupled with the fall in land prices, has made inward investment more attractive. But foreign companies are not prepared to live with the types of business relationships that have been prevalent in Japan and which are based on very long-term relationships. Some of these relationships between clients, trading houses and contractors in Japan have existed for more than 200 years. However, they do not constitute 'partnering' as we are beginning to develop it. For one thing, it is not as important, and inward investors would be looking for a much more open process. Marsh believes the Japanese will value the experience that the uk has to offer.

Another significant difference between the Japanese and uk construction industries is that in Japan the power lies with the contractors, whereas in the uk it still tends to be with the consultants.

'A company like Kajima, the largest Japanese contractor, has a design house in Tokyo of about the same size as Ove Arup and Partners in total,' said Marsh. So, the small contractors are going to feel threatened by new processes being imported into Japan. These changes will demand a significant cultural shift and, despite their technological reputation, the Japanese are a very conservative nation.

On their trip over here, it was clear that the Japanese visitors were interested in the management and procurement processes of projects and particularly in the adaptation of existing buildings. A journalist from Nikkei Architecture who accompanied the mission told me that in Japan refurbishment is becoming an increasingly important issue. The sorts of buildings that would once have been knocked down are now kept because they are made of more durable materials. Buildings that would have been destroyed by earth tremors are now more sturdy and are governed by stringent seismic codes. However, the Japanese have relatively little experience in adapting buildings. They were also interested in the way that British architects think about and approach design. It may be that the Japanese tend to be more formalistic in their approach.

It seems that it is in the differences between the uk and Japanese construction environments that the opportunities lie. The role of the Export Promoter for design and construction is to enable the uk industry to talk to the Japanese. 'It has worked very well in the past with materials,' said Marsh. Now that the Japanese are more interested in tackling the softer issues of design, management and procurement, the export unit is investing time setting up missions to take designers over to Japan over the next six months. The chance for architects to join in are there.

If you want to know more, contact:

Debbie Jones: 0207 215 4805; Ron Marsh (Export Promoter Design and Construction): 0207 215 4314, Action Japan Website: http://www.actionjapan.org.uk

E-mail: debbie.jones@xpdv.dti.gov.uk

Fax: 0207 215 4981

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