Sustainability : Curing Our Million Sick Homes

Our houses are sick. But business and the community stand to make billions from improving them.
Some 1.04 million of the country’s 1.6 million homes are not properly insulated.
Drafts are still blowing through the floors of 64 percent of them and heat is leaking through the uninsulated ceilings of seven out of 10 homes. The other three out of 10 still have no ceiling insulation at all. And 45 percent are mouldy.
Five people day are being admitted to hospital by illnesses caused by this (at more than $3700 per night stay), and it’s resulting in 188,000 days year off work.
For nation renowned for its down-to-earth common sense, we’re doing some silly things. By not adopting sustainable renovation model, we’re paying an extra $470 million year in power bills trying to warm homes lacking insulation and double glazing, and we’re wasting 23 million cubic metres of water year. (In most areas there’s no charge for actual water used, so no direct incentive to stop spreading the bill for inefficiency across all your fellow ratepayers.)
While big health and community gains can be made from improving home performance in lower income areas, the well paid are not immune: 19 percent of business decision makers surveyed nationwide say their homes have caused health problems for those living there.
Why haven’t they done something about it? Sixty-six percent say they can’t afford to, and 15 out of every 100 say they don’t know what’s necessary.
The other paradox is that we know how to build warm, comfortable and more energy and water-efficient homes. But it’s not happening to scale? Why?
There’s literally lethal combination of causes, including:
• A lack of consumer knowledge: only three percent of 3343 New Zealanders surveyed in November knew energy- and water-efficient homes cost just five percent more than an ordinary home to build, while 35 percent thought they cost 30 percent to 50 percent more.
• Companies are busy selling individual products, not total solutions for better performing homes.
• Individual builders and installers don’t know what consumers understand or want.
• Leaky building-spooked councils are being over cautious and costly when it comes to approving new innovative designs for high-performance homes.
• The market gets no signals on high-performing home’s value: landlords have no incentive to upgrade, tenants don’t know if they’ve moving into an unhealthy trap, and home seekers have no way of easily checking on performance before they buy (only 11 percent of buyers say they visited the property on cold, wet day; only 16 percent checked insulation levels, 18 percent checked the condition of the hot water cylinder, and only 11 percent the efficiency of water appliances), and there’s no nationally agreed government, council, building-sector and home-user strategy to knuckle down and deal with the issue quickly and effectively.
A New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development-funded $300,000 research project concludes the government should fund market research for the small scale operators in the renovation industry; come up with joint strategy to offer what consumers will accept; provide “green tape” process to pre-approve innovative designs to replace councils’ red tape; support home performance rating system; target government accommodation allowance benefits to tenants and landlords owning and renting performance-rated properties; train the builders and others to offer better solutions when dealing with more than 80,000 renovation projects year; and, offer interest-free loans to upgrade homes through the government, banks and others – the loans being repaid by energy bill savings, or the owner’s estate.
This range of innovations, including proper insulation and using appropriate appliances, venting, water conservation and metering – could deliver $2 billion community benefit to households over the next 11 years, on top of the $2 return for every $1 invested for home owners.
Do you want the business and the benefits?
Do you want the 40 to 50 percent reduction on wheezing, colds and respiratory illnesses when family gets warmer insulated home – and gets to spend the energy savings on better food and clothes, and keeps the kids in the same school longer because they don’t have to find better accommodation?
Does the country?

Peter Neilson is chief executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development. The Business Council’s “Better Performing Homes for New Zealanders” research report is available at

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