Read the abbreviated version on p.22 in the Property Professional Magazine, Spring 2017. pp_mag_spring_2017_18
Read full article below.
“Heating Up NZ Homes,” by Annabelle Numaguchi
After five freezing winters in Queenstown, my husband, two kids and I decided to commit to living here indefinitely. We loved many aspects of the place, with one big exception. The cold housing. We moved here from Utah during the height of the mortgage crisis and ensuing GFC, so we weren’t able to sell our house to buy in New Zealand. This ended up having a silver lining as it allowed us to rent and try out different homes and locations.
Coming from high desert plateau, I wanted beautiful blue lake views and wasn’t too fussed about sun. We got just that in Marina Heights, a three-bedroom facing south towards the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu framed by the magnificent Remarkables range. I hadn’t been one bit intimidated by the alpine climate because I loved winter.
Now when someone says they love winter, I’m always reminded of the quote from Richard Adams’ Watership Down, ““Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.” I love playing in the cold outside as long as I can come inside and warm up.
Imagine my surprise in discovering this was neither a common expectation nor a possibility in most Kiwi homes. In fact, there are many immigrants or returning Kiwi ex-pats who don’t need to imagine as they have encountered the same hard reality.
Our first home in Marina Heights had double-glazing but the gorgeous view of the lake and mountains was completely obscured by condensation on a winter’s morning. A diesel heater allowed us to bring the living area up to World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended temperatures, but the bedrooms remained could have been an igloo.
The next home we rented was on the opposite bank of the Frankton Arm, since by this time I was clued into why “winter sun” ranked higher in priority than “lake view” in property descriptions. This home did indeed benefit from passive solar heat. But the moment the sun went down, so did the temperature inside. It was a race to close thermal-curtains, light the fire and put on an extra layer of merino.
The day we decided to buy a home in the Wakatipu was exciting until we began viewing properties and realized most agents look stupefied when we asked about central heating. We felt that they would try to distract us by showcasing unnecessary fourth bedrooms or beautifully tiled bathrooms that you knew would drip with moisture in the winter.
When I discovered there was a construction company specializing in energy-efficient homes, I knew we were going to build. When I met the Contracts Manager, I wore high heels, something I only do for weddings and job interviews. I was so passionate and excited about what Evolution, a division of Rilean Construction, was doing, I wanted to be a part of it.
In order to ensure my family and I were going to spend the rest of our time in Queenstown in a warm, dry, healthy home, I switched careers and built a home.
Wanting a better home is a fair expectation; expecting the consumer to become experts in building science to get one is not fair.
Most homes in New Zealand are still being built to the minimum code, which essentially translates into the worst home we are legally allowed to build. A minimum code is just that; a minimum, not a target.
We are in the period of greatest activity in residential construction. Nick Smith, Minister for Building and Housing, states “The past six years has seen the longest and strongest growth in housing investment ever, from 15,000 new homes in 2012 to over 30,000 currently. “
The emphasis remains on quantity over quality. This is true in terms of a pressing need to deliver more affordable housing and in terms of a temporal belief that larger, four-plus bedrooms will command a higher price in the market, regardless of performance.
“Experts agree that leaky homes are still being built in New Zealand, and the health costs from them could reach into the billions – yet very little study has been done into the looming health crisis,” according to Tom Hunt in a report for the Sunday Star Times, June 18, 2017.
So, what’s the alternative to building to code?
The term “passive house” is recognized but not necessarily understood by the public. Passive House is a stringent certification and it represents international best practice. Whilst achieving this outcome would be ideal, targeting between minimum code and Passive House is more realistic.
The Principles behind Passive House can be applied to all typologies, from apartment living to single family dwellings. The five key aspects are the following:
- Increased and Improved Insulation (minimize thermal bridging)
- Better performing Windows and Doors (minimize thermal bridging)
The residential construction sector needs to focus on outcomes and collaborate to achieve these cost and health benefits. There is no one method for building, but rather there can and needs to be flexibility by target between Minimum Code/3604 and Passive House principles.
We need to recognize the challenges to building above minimum code. The three key reasons why 3604 remains the standard are costs, expectations and education.
If professionals associate with residential property colloaborate to tackle these challenges in reverse order, each solution will help solve the preceding issue. For example, if people are well-informed and can rely on good research, particularly through organizations like BRANZ, their expectations will improve. The demand for better performing materials and methods will make it profitable to increase the supply. In turn, the price of these higher-performing materials will come down.
A good example of this principle is the introduction of double-glazing in New Zealand. Now that this is a ubiquitous expectation, mandated by the code, consumers are ready to take on the expense, which has become reasonable since there are many suppliers and choice available.
Double-glazing is a particularly good example, since this is only part of the solution to managing condensation in a home. Aluminium joinery will always be a poor choice of material for window frames due to its high conductivity of temperature, increasing the chances of condensation forming. The optimal solution of timber frames remains outside the average home builder’s budget, but were that material to become the standard, an increase in suppliers and supply would bring the cost down.
The most effective catalyst to make this a reality is to create an expectation of higher performance in window joinery through education.
The property market needs a succinct method to rate a home’s performance, and this already exists in the New Zealand Green Building Council’s Homestar tool. This ten-star rating immediately translates the performance and sustainability of a home, imbuing it with greater value on the market.
The benefits of an independent rating include premium returns on the market, better health outcomes for the occupants and an independent buyer assurance.
The general public wants to good changes, but enacting those changes can be daunting. It is imperative that all entities influencing residential building from national and local government to real estate agents and valuers, deliver the same message to the consumer, which is simply let’s live in better homes.
If consumers demand this, the construction sector will deliver.
Who benefits from this increased quality in housing. We all do. Every one of us who is lucky enough to go home to a roof over our heads is a consumer. If we demand homes that keep us healthy, use fewer resources and require less maintenance, we all win.