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The experience and technology to deliver heartfelt architecture

Interview - May 15, 2022

Subtitle: Daiken Sekkei operates as a design firm specializing in the comprehensive planning and designing of architectural structures as well as engineering. Since its founding in 1948, this company has been developing creativity and accumulating technical expertise, making broad contributions to society through efforts toward human-centered urban design and global environmental protection. This time, we had the pleasure to talk with Chairman and Representative Director Shokichi Hiraoka to learn more about their broad range of methods and technologies in rehabilitation as well as disaster prevention which can be applied overseas, together with some of their most outstanding projects.


Since the construction boom around the time of the 1964 Olympics, many of the projects and buildings in Japan are now aging and in need of maintenance, upkeep, and repair. At the same time, new builds in Osaka and Tokyo are still growing but will level up by 2040 due to Japan’s population decline. What is your assessment of the current construction needs in Japan?

Japan has had a huge demand for construction throughout its course of development. Developed countries will likely continue to invest 10% of their GDP in construction but will perhaps be more directed towards maintenance and renewal than new builds. We need to identify the needs of the market in order to cater to them. Unlike other developed nations, Japan’s mindset is to scrap old structures and build new ones, which is the approach reflected in the redevelopment of Osaka and Tokyo.


Honshu, Japan’s main island, is located at the intersection of three different tectonic plates making Japan subject to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis. As a result, Japanese firms have developed unique technologies to mitigate destruction in times of disaster. Your company conducts seismic assessments and evaluations to test different buildings for clients, what are the key technologies that Japan has developed for disaster prevention? What can Japan teach the world in that respect?

Japan takes pride in its anti-seismic construction methods that have been developed from the frequent occurrence of seismic activities each year. We can impart the anti-seismic structures and technologies that we have advanced throughout the years to the world. At the start, such technology was only meant for newly constructed structures, but it has recently been redirected to the rehabilitation of existing buildings. Going abroad with our broad range of methods and technologies in rehabilitation is critical in order to take the lead on the global stage as many countries face the challenge of structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquakes.

I have learned from my projects in Senegal, Guinea and Nicaragua. In fact, Nicaragua experiences earthquakes even more than Japan, and they are quite aware of earthquake hazards. But I was so shocked to see that their buildings were not anti-seismic. This may sound arrogant, but if we can transfer our knowledge to Nicaraguans, they will be in a better position to uplift their construction methods and build structures that can withstand earthquakes. When we went for a visit, the owner of the plot of land where we wanted to build a new school turned us down. But they later consented after I explained the potential dangers at the existing school when an earthquake occurs, saying “the existing school building might kill students.”


Japan's population is expected to continue to decline, and as such, the ability to hire new people in Japan will become even harder and harder. In terms of recruitment overseas and gathering global human resources for your firm, what efforts have you made in that respect?

It is very difficult to hire overseas personnel as well as to complete a project overseas. Not only developing countries, but also economically grown countries like China and South Korea, have somewhat a different level of sensitivity or mindset from ours. Wherever and whenever Japan is expected to work hard, we sometimes miss the right timing; but by overcoming those failures, we are able to learn and find new ways to try again. One thing that I am leaving to the company is the promotion and active hiring of overseas personnel and taking our staff overseas.


Daiken Sekkei is a design firm specializing in the comprehensive planning and designing of architectural structures as well as engineering. What would you say is the hallmark of a Daiken Sekkei project? What have you built your reputation on in the industry?

Let me first share the core values and mindset that we uphold as a company. We are not all about pursuing profit, but it becomes a natural by-product by being determined to conduct our business based upon diligence and sincerity to contribute to society. As our company grew, we have worked with several steel manufacturers, including Japan Steel. Before designing the steel manufacturing plant, we had to understand what steel manufacturing is. Shinkenchiku, the most popular architecture journal in Japan, has chosen to feature our plants among other aesthetically sound buildings. Those steel manufacturing plants are not much aesthetically, but they are the foundation of Daiken Sekkei. Owing to this construction and designing project, we have been able to learn how to capture and realize the needs of the facility. We now focalize more on functionality, for example, when building a hospital, we do not start with the outward design, instead, we contemplate the best way to make that we could make the hospital highly functional.

At the hospital in Ōokayama, we finished the walls in green, it may be the only hospital in the world located on top of a station. As building stations for railways is one of our strengths too, we understand functions and requirements of railway facilities. And that enabled us to combine a hospital and a station according to both needs. As manifested in our aquarium projects, our approach to design is being thorough and diligent in every component to enhance our capabilities. Even if only 30% of the aquarium is visible to visitors, and they do not see the water treatment facility, we have applied our experience from the steel manufacturing plant in the water supply, sewage, and piping. 


Digital tools such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and AI software are being widely adopted in construction to help clients not versed in architectural drawings get a better picture of a building’s potential. Can you tell us more about the tools that you are adopting, and how you are helping clients better visualize your projects?

The global trend is moving towards the use of BIM. Though it is not a widely used digital tool in design yet in Japan, we need to learn to apply it in our process. BIM is an excellent tool because it manipulates information from planning, designing, and actual construction to maintenance. And BIM endorses the uniqueness of data throughout the project, which is the most powerful point of this tool. The constant communication between concerned persons is, however, quite important, because many specialists from various fields are involved in the stages of designing and construction, and we face many newly revised requirements, until the building is completed. It is important to utilize BIM, keeping communication of specialists and valuing unfettered thought, even on advanced stages of projects. As an architect, we are still pondering over how we can better apply BIM.


The Suga administration announced their target to reduce carbon levels by more than 26% relative to 2013 levels by 2030. The construction industry is adopting new, green technologies, helping their clients build carbon-neutral buildings. What are the key technologies that you foresee as necessary for carbon-neutral construction? 

Aichi Gakuin University is a great example of our environmental approach. We always take into consideration environmental concerns before proceeding with any building projects meant to be used for decades. In reality, unfortunately, owners prefer to reduce the cost of construction. However, we must spread awareness to our clients that constructing environmentally sound, and Zero-Emission Buildings (ZEBs) will ultimately contribute to their brand.

There are a lot of restrictions in introducing the latest technologies for rehabilitation, so we are focusing on new builds where we can use cutting-edge technologies. Sometimes it makes me sad just thinking about how much the construction industry can contribute towards carbon neutrality. The dilemma is even though the construction industry is working towards carbon neutrality, we must look at the bigger picture. People need to change their mindsets and adjust their way of life in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions.


For the Hakodate Arena in Hokkaido, you worked together with T & PULSE. Are you looking to do more joint ventures for your business as you expand internationally? 

Rather than compete with the specialties of other companies, we are positively looking for collaborations, partnerships, and joint ventures to complement our specialties and strengths. Recently, there have been many consulting companies, but we first need to see if they are adept.


How will you further solidify your global network to do business internationally? 

Currently, we are not going abroad much due to some reasons, when some other designing firms have many projects overseas. But we are always trying to hire global personnel with valuable overseas experience and skills like speaking multiple languages. It is a fact that we have many overseas experiences in our history. For instance, we have won the competition for Tsoying Station in Taiwan, we designed Beijing Aquarium in China, and we have been getting a lot of offers from worldwide clients regarding steel manufacturing plants. Our experiences that verify our company's capability helped us to expand overseas. Based on the know-how that we have accumulated, we will continue to work together.

We want to fully utilize the capabilities we have developed in Japan and take them overseas, especially in areas such as stations, aquariums, plants, and others. Continuously, we are working together with Japanese ODAs and other types of contracts. Specifically, I would say we are targeting Africa and Latin America. I, myself, have had some construction experience there, and I believe that knowing the locality is crucial in running a business. 


Imagine we come back in six years for your 80th anniversary and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? And what goals would you like to have accomplished as the chairman of this company?

I always ask what the existence of the company should be, and it is not all about making a profit. Rather, it is more about contributing to society with our professional skills, expertise, and diligence in this specific field.  I never fail to share this mindset with our employees to encourage them to apply such approach to our customers. I am not certain how long I will take on my current position as Chairman, but I want society to plainly see and recognize the contributions and environmental efforts of Daiken Sekkei