Boom in detached houses
In the history of Korean architecture, the year 2012 will probably go down as the year of the detached house.
After years of languishing in the shadows of condo-centered development, detached houses are attracting new interest. Across the country, people are building new houses, including hanok (traditional Korean-style houses), and refurbishing older properties. Why the sudden change?
Two megatrends have come together to cause the change: demographics and education. As has been widely reported in the media, the population of Korea is aging at an increasingly rapid rate.
An aging population, however, is different from an old population. The percentage of the population over age 65 is still smaller than Japan and most European nations. The Korean population is aging because the huge baby boom generation of people born between 1955 and 1970 is aging and the birthrate is very low.
The aging of the baby boomers means that a large percentage of the Korean population is moving toward empty-nest status. As in other developed countries, empty nesters often change their living arrangement after children leave to start families of their own. The move often includes downsizing or moving toward a quieter setting.
Access to educational opportunities, one of the most important factors for younger parents, is no longer relevant, which increases the range of choices of location. Freed from the need to live in a large condo in an area with plentiful educational opportunities, empty nesters are free to move to more interesting and (often) cheaper housing.
The baby boom generation, particularly those born after 1960, is the first in Korean history that attended university in large numbers. Until the early 1980s, the government limited the number of entrants to university, making all schools competitive.
In the early 1980s, the government allowed a major increase in the size of universities, causing the number of students to swell. The sudden increase in the number of students in the 1980s created the first mass university attendance in Korean history. Political turmoil in the 1980s ensured that this generation of students was politically aware and skeptical of authority.
Flash forward to the present where student skepticism of authority has become a willingness to question the status quo, which naturally leads to questioning current lifestyle trends. This has led to an interest in a simpler life closer to nature, which stirs interest in various forms of detached houses.
Increasingly, people are returning to farming communities even if they only farm part time. Others live in the countryside, but continue to work in the city. Likewise, hanok have become increasingly popular.
The number of hanok nationwide has increased from 55,000 in 2008 to 89,000 in 2011 and the number is continuing to grow. The vast majority of these hanok were built in rural areas. Refurbishing detached houses in large cities is often problematic because many are located in redevelopment districts but the trend is growing.
The above demographic suggests that the boom in detached houses will continue until the baby boomers start to move back to condos in urban areas with easy access to medical facilities. This trend is particularly noticeable in Japan, where central areas of cities have become highly desirable as their interest in the suburbs and rural areas has declined.
The boom in detached houses and the future boom in condos in central areas mean that the growth of Korean cities is over. Cities will contract and reorganize themselves around denser cores that offer easy access to a variety of services. The process will lead toward decentralization as people move from urban to rural areas. This will be followed by recentralization as they move back to central areas.
All of which means that, in the long term, suburban and rural areas will decline. This in turn suggests that the boom in detached houses will not undermine the hegemony of the condo as the dominant form of housing in Korea.
The percentage of people living in detached houses will grow, but as long as economic activity, educational opportunity and diverse services remain in the cities, condos will remain the most efficient form of housing more people in places they want to be.
Finally, there is climate. The Korean climate is one of extremes. Winter is cold and long, whereas summer is hot and short. Between spring and summer sits the rainy season that brings flooding, landslides, and loss of life every year. With the exception of a few typhoons, the rest of the year is dry and often sunny.
Detached houses must be built with these extremes in mind, which adds expense and worry. The condo, by contrast, offers an efficient solution. Together these realities suggest that the boom in detached houses is a hobby rather than a paradigm shift.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at email@example.com.