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Street: Leaky buildings: addressing health impacts

Hon Maryan Street
Minister for Housing

28 February, 2008 Speech

Leaky buildings: addressing the health impacts
Address to University of Otago Centre for Sustainable Cities seminar

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your conference today.

It’s a pleasure to be among so many people who have such a depth of knowledge in such an important area of work.

We can only benefit from your expertise which I know is respected and valued by housing authorities up and down the country – and by local and central government.

As Minister of Housing I hope to be able to give a little bit of context to the issue of leaky buildings, clear up some misconceptions and update you on some of the policy initiatives the government is developing.

First, I think it would be helpful to take the opportunity to distinguish between what is now commonly referred to as a ‘leaky home’ and homes that leak.

The term ‘leaky home’ began to be used 10 or so years ago to refer to a particular type of home, built between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, which had been constructed in a particular way, typically using inferior materials used inappropriately by poorly-trained builders.

The phrase crept into the Kiwi idiom as more and more people came to use it to describe what became an increasingly common problem.

Of course, it then became firmly entrenched when the media began using the term ‘leaky home’ as a quick and easily-understandable description of what we now know to be, particularly following the Hunn Report, a complex systemic failure to construct weathertight buildings.

I don’t intend to dwell on this area but it’s important to take this opportunity to say to this audience that the Government is committed to delivering a comprehensive, lasting response to this problem.

It is proactively helping home owners deal with the damage that is continuing to emerge and working with industry and local government to strengthen the building sector. I will touch on some of these developments later.

As I mentioned earlier, we should distinguish between ‘leaky homes’and ‘homes that leak’.

We all know that homes can spring a leak from time to time, even modern ones, built to high standards.

What we are addressing here today is a problem which is perhaps unique to New Zealand – adverse health effects caused by cold, damp and poorly insulated wooden homes not suited to our often severe weather conditions.

We often experience cold, wet weather. The harsh reality is that houses we have been building for generations now are not the houses best suited to our environment, and that needs to change.

By international standards, our houses are cold for the climate we live in. And that is not just uncomfortable, it is a health problem and it needs fixing.

Kiwis are a hardy lot, but in this area we need to acknowledge that cold houses are doing us no favours at all.

There is a growing body of evidence clearly showing a link between poor quality housing and poor health.

Your very own Otago University School of Medicine produced a recent study showing houses with better insulation have measurable health benefits as they are drier, warmer, healthier houses.

And those are the kinds of houses this Government wants New Zealanders living in and raising their children in.

I want to pay tribute to the work of Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman who is a leader in this important area of study.

She is a highly-regarded academic and her own research and publications into the impact of air quality, housing insulation and income inequalities on health are well-balanced and authoritative.

Her own efforts, and the efforts of others, are welcomed as they provide a significant evidence-based contribution to the issues as they exist in New Zealand.

Her recent report “Potential Health Impacts Associated with Mould in ‘Leaky Buildings’”, which was commissioned by the Auckland City Council, confirmed a situation that the Government was already aware of: there are adverse health effects from living in homes which leak.

Indoor dampness generally - not just in ‘leaky buildings’ - is a public health problem.

Mould is present in over a third of New Zealand homes.

High levels of dampness exist in New Zealand houses due to:

- high outdoor humidity
- relatively poor housing stock
- inadequate insulation
- inadequate heating

The Government has initiated a range of measures designed to tackle these problems and prevent others arising in the future.

Research commissioned by the Department of Building and Housing shows that there has been a statistically significant increase in the public’s consideration of weathertightness as a factor when buying a house – from seven per cent in 2006 to 43 per cent in 2007. When prompted by the research interviewer, recollection rates increased to 97 per cent last year.

In addition the research shows that while dampness and leaking is considered by some people to be acceptable – to be part of New Zealand homes and weather conditions – the proportion of the population who believe this to be the case is changing.

The number of people who believe this historical reality to be acceptable shifted from 40 per cent in 2006 to 27 per cent in 2007.

So what is the Government’s response ?

A number of important initiatives led by my colleague the Minister for Building and Construction are underway.

We introduced the new occupational licensing scheme last year, which is a registration and quality assurance scheme for builders, designers and carpenters which assesses their skills and experience.

It aims to give consumers greater confidence in the service they buy and product certification which demonstrates a building material does exactly what the makers say it will do. This will go a long way to addressing poor building standards.

So will an updated industry-wide building code which recommends better materials and building techniques and an accreditation scheme for local authorities aimed at boosting their ability to apply minimum building standards.

People rightly want better buildings and the building industry wants an environment in which they can supply them.

To get there social, economic and technological development is needed in equal measure, development that requires innovation, problem-solving, and co-operation across the sector to succeed.

Smart problem-solving is the key. We’d be lying if we said costs were not associated with some of these changes, because they are. But many of these costs can recouped and in many cases, money gained by energy savings.

For example, in most parts of New Zealand, double-glazing of windows will be necessary. In the warmer climes of the Far North it may not be necessary to achieve the same level of interior heating.

Again, we are talking performance-based realities. The Building Code says this is the level you need to meet, and the means to meeting it is left open, allowing for innovation in both function and design.

But the bottom line for the Government and the Department of Building and Housing is that we are raising the performance bar to get warmer homes without increasing the energy bills.

It is estimated that this will add $3000 to $5000 to the construction of the average new home – but that initial cost will be defrayed in a few short years through lower power and gas bills, and in the longer term with maintenance benefits from less condensation forming on windows.

And because this is important – and particularly in terms of health benefits – we are moving on it quickly, bringing the improved insulation requirements to the coldest parts of the country first.

This was rolled out in the South Island and the Central Plateau in October last year. It will come into effect in the rest of the North Island up as far as the Auckland region from June next year, and, finally, from north of Auckland in September 2009.

The second substantial change on the home front is that the Department of Building and Housing will now publish a new Compliance Document on solar water heating installations.

Until now, requirements around installing solar water heating – something we want to strongly encourage – have been handled on a case-by-case basis by local councils, leading to delays and unnecessary costs.

But the public has a role too. Demand for good buildings in New Zealand must be driven by the people who live in them.

That’s why the Government is investing in several consumer education programmes to make sure that people have the information they need to make smart, informed decisions. The programmes cover everything from what to look for when buying a home to protecting investments made in housing stock.

To improve the sector, we must look across government, industry and consumers, because the future of our buildings and our lifestyles doesn't recognise them as being separate and that, as this gathering would certainly be aware, is increasingly a global reality.

There is also a lot happening in my own area – the state housing sector.

Housing New Zealand does have some older houses in need of refurbishment and insulation. These houses are a legacy of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, before insulation became mandatory.

In 2001, the Corporation began an energy retrofitting campaign targeted at all state houses built prior to 1977.

A retrofit encompasses the installation of ceiling insulation, hot water cylinder wrap, insulating hot water pipes in the cylinder cupboard and under floor insulation.

The programme also involves improving the heating and ventilation of the houses to promote a healthy living environment.

By the end of the 2006/2007 financial year, 15,010 energy efficiency retrofits had been completed at a total cost of $23.6m, and the programme is continuing.

We can’t retrofit all state houses at once, but we are moving as quickly as our resources allow.

This financial year, Housing New Zealand is aiming to retrofit 6 state houses a day, a total of 2278.

The total number homes upgraded by the end of the 15 year programme is expected to range between 36,000 and 47,000 houses.

How can we help those on lower incomes who may be forced to experience poor housing conditions in the non-state sector?

The Prime Minister recently announced a comprehensive plan of action which is to be steered by the Corporation to help families into home ownership by boosting the supply of affordable homes.

Essentially, this involves plans to develop large-scale housing developments involving partnerships between, central and local government and the private sector to increase the amount of affordable housing being built.

Similar initiatives overseas have seen the creation of commercially viable, sustainable housing developments, with a focus on high-quality, heathly building design.

We will also support the not-for-profit sector to provide more affordable rental and owner-occupied houses for lower-middle income families or individuals in high-cost areas.

My Cabinet colleague Hon Shane Jones has already committed his department to increasing flexibility and tackling regulatory costs so that it easier to build better starter homes.

The building sector reforms this Government has introduced will ensure New Zealanders have access to quality homes and buildings that meet their needs, reflect our environment and are sustainable. We want Kiwi homes to be better designed, better built, better heated and better insulated.

In summary, the Government wants to be able to assist those people who are interested in building new homes by:

• Providing guidance for standardised plans
• Making the consent process easier and more efficient
• Helping councils refocus their consenting practices, by matching scrutiny with risk
• Educating designers and builders to better overall understand the building consents process

We welcome the input and interest of those with the knowledge and expertise to help ensure we are successful in this endeavour.

Thank you all for coming here today and keep up the good work!


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