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Stop the rot

The Kiwi housing stock is a shambles: damp, drafty and usually facing south. Andy Kenworthy examines what it would take to jump-start a green housing revolution
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The Kiwi housing stock is a shambles: damp, drafty and usually facing south. Andy Kenworthy examines what it would take to jump-start a green housing revolution

New Zealand housing says as much about our world-famous ingenuity as it does about our tough pioneering spirit. Things like insulation, draft proofing and efficient heating systems have traditionally been frivolous luxuries—strictly for those lacking the singlet, shorts and gumboot-wearing grit to make it through our South Pacific winters.

The big shock of the leaky homes scandal was that houses are supposed to keep the wind and the rain outside, where the garden is. It provided a much needed wake-up-and-smell-the-mildew moment for a nation dozing in a damp patch. So how are we going to move on?

The recently released New Zealand Housing Survey is the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development’s attempt to bring us to our senses. It tries to work out who should pay to sort out the mess left scattered across the country from our extended slumber party.

This is no treehugger’s report on earth houses. The Business Council’s membership includes multi-national corporations and many of the country’s favourite High Street names. Chief executive Peter Neilson says the survey confirmed that there’s something in the national character which tolerates low-quality housing. He describes it as a “conspiracy of courtesy”.

“It seems New Zealanders are fairly stoic,” he says. “They will put on another pullover rather than fix their homes.”

Beacon Pathway, a research consortium of Building Research, Scion, Waitakere City Council, Fletcher Building, and New Zealand Steel is also working on this issue. “Perhaps because so much of our electricity comes from renewable sources we have typically said ‘She’ll be right,’” says Beacon general manager Nick Collins. “The response is first and foremost ‘Harden up, put on some socks or just heat one room.’”

Style over substance

The Business Council survey found that home-owners still overestimate how much it will cost to retrofit their property with the latest eco-efficiency measures. It seems buyers and tenants still tend to rate the style and location of a house over whether it will actually provide them with adequate shelter.

This has meant sellers and landlords prioritise cosmetic changes over efficiency—window dressing instead of double glazing—especially since they’re not the people who end up paying the power bills. It also means that marketing and communications, words and pictures, are going to be as important as bricks and mortar in winning the war of hearts and minds for better housing.

The Business Council reckons a renovation programme would add up to 180,000 additional work days—even at a minimum wage of $12 per hour, that’s worth at least $17 million per day

The Business Council and Beacon’s contribution to this is to call on the government to introduce mandatory performance ratings for all new homes when they are sold or let. This would be the equivalent to the warrant of fitness for cars. Similar schemes have been introduced with some success in Australia and the United Kingdom, and there is a mandatory standard across the European Union.

The idea is that the standard could be ratcheted up incrementally, beginning with basic requirements for maintaining healthy, year-round temperatures. The backers hope this will create the stimulus for genuine, large-scale improvements which the market has so far failed to provide.

After a time, government accommodation benefits would be paid only for homes meeting this housing ‘warrant of fitness’. This would effectively make bad homes less and less competitive. More taxpayers’ cash would be paid to landlords whose properties meet the minimum standards. This is intended to encourage them to shell out for the upgrades and prevent them passing the full cost directly onto tenants.

According to the Business Council and Beacon, this could be an effective way of reducing New Zealand’s economic losses from ill health and provide a big boost to New Zealand, Inc. Beacon equates the benefits to a direct, private economic gain to households equivalent to one percent of GDP annually by 2017, or about $2 billion. That’s the equivalent of powering more than 500,000 New Zealand homes for a year and annual water savings close to 130 million cubic metres.

The Business Council reckons it would add up to 180,000 additional work days—even at a minimum wage of $12 per hour, that’s worth at least $17 million per day. (For more amazing statistics about the benefits, see ‘Fix our sick house’ on page 45.)

Government nerves

So what does the government make of all this? Despite the Business Council claiming strong cross-party support for its proposals, the regulation-shy National government has been quick to slam the door. The new government has pledged $15 million to insulate state houses, but says it will not provide taxpayer assistance to private properties or support a mandatory home performance rating system. “There’s enough regulatory hurdles for landlords, for builders, for developers and for tenants as there is,” says Housing Minister Phil Heatley.

Sellers and landlords prioritise cosmetic changes over efficiency—window dressing instead of double glazing

In the past, the government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) has considered switching its Home Energy Rating Scheme from voluntary to mandatory and Housing New Zealand Corporation is working on a possible new baseline housing standard that will include energy efficiency. But with the new government those changes are unlikely.

Which leaves entrepreneurs to solve the problem. Across the country, energy-efficiency assessors, eco-estate agents, specialised manufacturers and trade installers are banking on rising demand for greening our homes. How big is the market? Well, the Business Council estimates the average spend to get every home to maintain a healthy temperature would be about $22,000 a property, and there could be more than a million of them. That’s the potential for a whole new industry, right there.

The cost would, of course, vary from house to house, and some homes are in such a state that it would not be cost-effective to bring them up to a mandatory standard. This could put the very bottom of the market in freefall, with properties that are otherwise cost-effective becoming impossible to sell or let.

Another possible side-effect of mandatory standards would be a hastening of the demise of the amateur landlord, as many would be unable or unwilling to make the grade. On this Neilson is unrepentant. “For many years, non-professional landlords have been getting involved as it has been seen as a one-way bet. In an era of negative equity and recession those people are going to have to think about whether they want to become professional landlords, or get out of the business.”

Any bid to jump-start this sector would need to avoid getting bogged down in expensive green tape. It’s all too easy for regulatory frameworks to stifle creativity by building a box you are then not allowed to think out of.

Another potentially positive proposal from the Business Council aims to reduce the burden of local authority regulations by calling on the government to test sustainable building systems centrally. The local authority would then only need to check the installation of those systems which the government has pre-approved.

“After the leaky homes issue, local authorities are extremely reluctant to be the first mover on new systems,” says Neilson. “The first question they will always ask is ‘Where else has it been approved?’”

For example, at this moment a simple solar water heater installation can require a professionally-drawn site plan, floor plan, roof plan and an elevation before it can be given the go-ahead. So another way of freeing things up might be to shift of responsibility back to the installers, with certified trades people and spot checks on their work.

The current downturn has already killed Orewa’s Kensington Park development, which in part was trading on award-winning energy efficiency credentials, and is likely to slow the rate at which people move home. That said, the fact that a green home is cheaper to run and better for the environment can only become more and more evident as we get crunched between the price of oil and the cost of climate change.

This means growth in this sector of the housing market is inevitable. Financial constraints will also increase the popularity of energy-efficient renovating or retrofitting over buying new for owner-occupiers looking to shrink their monthly bills.

How fast New Zealand’s housing market adapts to the conditions remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: the future will increasingly be in the hands of those businesses who don’t compromise on sustainability

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NZBCSD

The state of our houses

The New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development’s 2008 New Zealand Housing Survey clearly sets out the challenges facing the green wave of Kiwi property development. The group spent $300,000 asking 3,526 New Zealanders about the state of their homes and future home improvement preferences. These are some of its findings.

  • 45% of existing homes are mouldy
  • 16% of homes have no insulation at all
  • 21% of people aged 18–24 say their home is cold and uncomfortable
  • 84% of households say they don’t have the financial means to make energy-saving renovations
  • Typically more than one third of the energy used in the home is for keeping warm
  • Nearly two thirds of homes in New Zealand were built before insulation became a legal requirement in 1979—just over one million properties
  • More than a quarter of the nation’s homes could be making their occupants ill
  • More than 75% of people who rented or bought a home in the past two years did not check insulation, hot water cylinders, heaters and other water and energy efficiency appliances

The green housing revolutionary guard

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Design and Build: Ebode

Created in 2007 by Niel and Jette de Jong, who had already served three years on the frontline of green home design as directors of Heritage Design Group, the company specialises in design and build of sustainable homes from scratch, rather than building a home and then bolting on efficiency gadgets at the end. You can’t have an Ebode unless it is powered by photovoltaic panels and you won’t find a scrap of MDF, particle board or PVC inside one.

“We believe there is a big opportunity, otherwise we wouldn’t be going out of a limb,” says Niel de Jong. “Everybody says ‘you guys will be riding the crest of the green wave’. Well, I haven’t seen the green wave yet. It will all come down to how high it swells in New Zealand.”

 

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The eco-kit set: Lockwood

Lockwood has bet more than $1 million on its new line of EcoSmart kit homes. The passive-solar, sustainable timber designs are courtesy of Auckland-based architect Dave Strachan, who is himself a mover and shaker in this area.

Lockwood chief executive Bryce Heard says the future will be in wood. “The most important element of eco-building is the choice of materials. Using wood you begin with a carbon credit, rather than a deficit, and we know we can create buildings at least as efficient with wood as with any other material, so why not choose it? The future innovations will be in finding ways to use wood for everything, including ceilings, linings, high rises and office buildings.”

 

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Good Book: Green Architecture

To celebrate 25 years producing cost-effective art and design books, Taschen released 20 titles, including Green Architecture (Buy@Fishpond). Author James Wines is a renowned ‘green’ architect and a dean at University of Pennsylvania. The book is great for ideas and as a primer on the principles of ecological design. Cheap too!

 

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Whole home advisor: Right House

First created in 2007 by state-owned green electricity supplier Meridian Energy, Right House takes on a holistic view of home comfort and energy efficiency for home builders, renovators and retrofitters. The company offers independent expert ‘end-to-end’ advice on products, systems, installation and integration to ensure clients get the best overall solution for their needs.

 

 

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Educating and training: The Building Biology & Ecology Institute

BBE has been banging its head against New Zealand’s plasterboard walls with some success since 1990. The institute provides training courses, workshops, publications as well as forming an umbrella for a formidable stable of eco-home designers including renowned eco-architect Johann Bernhardt.

Bernhardt says: “The odds are stacked against a substantial improvement, but compared to what we had ten years ago we’ve come a long way. People generally are short of money, and if the choice is between investing in their homes and doing superficial things which may mean they can sell for more, they will choose the latter.”