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Billions in benefits in curing million sick homes

Op-Ed

Monday 1 December 2008

Billions in benefits to flow from curing our million sick homes

By Peter Neilson

Our homes are sick.
They are cold, uncomfortable and use more energy and water than they need to.

Our newer homes perform much better.

Homeowners, business, communities and the country stand to make billions from improving the older stock.

A million of the country's 1.6 million homes are not properly insulated.
Drafts are still blowing through the floors of 64% of them, heat is leaking through the uninsulated walls of seven out of 10 homes. Three out of every 20 homes still have no ceiling insulation at all. And 45% are mouldy.

Fifty people a day are being admitted to hospital by illnesses they cause (a bed night at a public hospital costs $3000), and they're costing 180,000 days a year off work.

For a nation renowned for its down-to-earth commonsense, we're doing some silly things: By not adopting a sustainable renovation model, we're paying an extra $475 million a year in power bills trying to warm homes lacking insulation and double glazing, and we're wasting 23 million cubic metres of water a 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).

A major new survey of 3,526 New Zealanders' experiences with their housing, conducted in October and November this year, indicates the poor state of our housing is making people ill in more than 410,000 homes. People talk of living in the lounge during winter to avoid mouldy and damp bedrooms; families talk of contestant asthma and respiratory infections they put down to cold, damp and mouldy homes. Some say their poorly performing homes have contributed to deaths.

New Zealanders report their children are particularly suffering. Those who have moved into improved homes report major health improvements, apart from lower power and other bills.

While big health and community gains can be made from improving home performance in lower income areas, the well paid are not immune: 11% of business managers and 17% of professionals and senior Government officials say their homes are have caused health problems for those living there.

Huge numbers of Kiwis are renting and buying homes without checking their performance first. Only 16% have checked the level of insulation before deciding to occupy, 24% heating, 18% the hot water cylinder. Only 11 out of every 100 went to see the property on a cold and wet day.

Some say they've paying a high price as a result.

Some renters say they didn't - and still don't - have a choice: "Check lists are the stuff of dreams really," said one tenant.

While 83% of people say their homes could use energy for hot water and heating more efficiently the biggest barrier for them is the cost: 69% say they can't afford to, and 15 out of every hundred say they don't know what's necessary.

The paradox is that we know how to build or renovate to deliver warmer and more comfortable and energy and water-efficient homes. But it's not happening to scale. Why?

There's a literally lethal combination of causes, including:

• a lack of consumer knowledge: only 3% of 3343 New Zealanders surveyed in November knew energy and water efficient homes cost just 5% more than an ordinary home to build, while 35% thought they cost 30% to 50% more

• companies are busy selling individual products, not total solutions for better performing homes

• individual small-scale builders and installers don't know what consumers understand or want

• councils, cautious because of the leaky building problem, are slow to approve new innovative designs for high-performance homes

• the market gets no signals on a 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, 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:


• introduce a mandatory performance rating for all homes (rewarding home owners for improving property performance

• target Government accommodation allowance benefits to tenants and landlords of performance rated properties (giving renters immediate information on the performance of the property, and landlords a reward for investing to make properties warmer, more comfortable and healthier)

• fund market research for the small scale operators in the renovation industry, who undertake about 80,000 renovations a year, to come up with solutions consumers will accept

• usher in "green tape" - pre-approving innovative designs, to replace councils' red tape which often sees builders settle for designs which meet the Building Code, but which may not produce the best performing home

• Develop a joint Government - building strategy to use the market research and accelerate the massive national home performance step-change that is needed.

The building industry needs to stop just selling individual products - and start marketing solutions for individual homes. There will be a ready demand: Business Council research shows 91% of homeowners say they will benefit from an expert advisory service which saves them from "green wash" and "cowboys" and gives them the best combination of products, and ensures they are competently installed.

A comprehensive response, from using appropriate insulation, appliances, venting, water conservation and metering - could deliver huge cost savings and health benefits to households over the next 10 years.

Do we want the business and the benefits?

Do we want the 40 to 50% reduction on wheezing, colds and respiratory illnesses when a family gets a 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?

If so, then we need to look at improving our housing stock as one of our major infrastructure upgrade projects. The social and economic rewards will be immense.


• Peter Neilson is Chief Executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.


• The Business Council's "Better Performing Homes for New Zealanders" and "2008 New Zealand Housing Survey" research reports are available at www.nzbcsd.org.nz


ENDS

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