© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2019

Half of NZ living in almost-igloos

Talia Mimilo

Cold homes have been a problem in New Zealand for years and the consequences are deadly. Who's to blame and what's the solution?

Bathroom tiles like sheets of ice, the stinging cold like knives. Damp air weighing down lungs. Piercing drafts whistling through window cracks. Burrowing under a mountain of blankets to only feel buried in snow. Wet clothes. Condensation. Mould manifesting. Blocked airways fighting for breath.

This is the harsh reality for 53% of homes in New Zealand. Roughly 830,000 houses in our country have no or inadequate insulation, and only 10% of homes have double glazing on their windows.

But inadequate insulation and thin windows are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this nationwide problem. Damp and cold homes are the cause of illnesses that claim the lives of 1600 New Zealanders every winter.

This year’s BRANZ Report researched the presence of insulation, ventilation, heating and mould in New Zealand homes. The data showed revealing statistics of how bad some of the owned and rented living environments are in our country.


So where’d it all start? A lot of New Zealand's housing was built at a time when insulation was considered an ‘optional extra’ oppose to today where it's considered a necessity. Greens MP Steffan Browning said, “New Zealand has unfortunately had a culture of under-insulating homes of many many many decades.” And he's not wrong, it wasn't till 1979 until insulation was mandated in new homes, and even then not everyone was choosing to install it. Energy was cheaper and insulation was not a priority.

The problem now? That a lot of these houses are still around and because they are older, they are often owned or rented by low income households. They have little or no insulation which makes it a lot more expensive to heat on a tight budget.

 


Cold homes have a serious affect on health

 It's not just a money matter, living in a damp environment can have serious life threatening effects. Research from University of Otago reports that 1600 New Zealanders die from illnesses relating to cold damp housing every year.  

Surely a simple cold isn't killing off this many kiwis every year? Well it’s more than just a cold. Ann Currie, a Health promotion Advisor for Healthy housing at the Canterbury District Health Board explains that living in a cold home can affect blood pressure and thicken the blood, increasing the risk of strokes in some people.

 Cold homes can also suppress the immune system, increasing the risk of infections and respiratory illnesses. (the flu, bronchitis, blocked sinuses etc.) Hector Matthews, CDHB Executive Director for Māori and Pacific Health said children and elderly are most at risk because their immune systems are not as strong.

“We're not polar bears, we’re not penguins our bodies are just not kitted out to exist and live in cold conditions” - Hector Matthews.

 Mental health is also affected. For low income households there is a lot of family stress caused by not being able to fully use all the rooms because it is so hard to heat them properly, and also worrying about finances to pay for heating. “Power prices are not cheap. Many people ration their heating or go without any heating. Many health professionals know that families are not able to heat their homes and end up at the doctors or in hospital more often than people whose homes are warm.” Ann Currie said.

Ann has also outlined how overcrowding in homes can also spread infection more rapidly, and when living in a cold environment, people are more likely to gather or crowd in a warm room, especially when they can't afford to heat the whole house.

 Hector Matthews has described illnesses caused by damp and cold homes like an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff, where the DHB tends to be the ambulance. He said the government should invest in prevention, like warming up homes rather than waiting for people to get sick.

 “If there were fewer cases of people getting sick in winter it means our health services can be used for people who actually need it and not for an illness that can be prevented.”  

- Hector Matthews, CDHB Executive Director for Māori and Pacific Health.

 

Mould growth on curtains
Mould needs to be cleaned as soon as it is spotted to prevent getting sick. Talia Mimilo

Hector Matthews, CDHB Executive Director for Māori and Pacific Health, said children and the elderly are most at risk because their immune systems are not as strong. Others at risk include people with existing health problems. He went on to add,

”We're not polar bears. We’re not penguins. Our bodies are just not kitted out to exist and live in cold conditions.”

Research carried out by the University of Otago undertook annual reports on various aspects of child health in New Zealand, making connections with seasonal changes.


 Mental health is also affected. For low income households there is a lot of family stress caused by not being able to fully use all the rooms because it is so hard to heat them properly, and also worrying about finances to pay for heating. “Power prices are not cheap. Many people ration their heating or go without any heating. Many health professionals know that families are not able to heat their homes and end up at the doctors or in hospital more often than people whose homes are warm.” Ann Currie said.

Ann has also outlined how overcrowding in homes can also spread infection more rapidly, and when living in a cold environment, people are more likely to gather or crowd in a warm room, especially when they can't afford to heat the whole house.

 Hector Matthews has described illnesses caused by damp and cold homes like an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff, where the DHB tends to be the ambulance. He said the government should invest in prevention, like warming up homes rather than waiting for people to get sick.

 “If there were fewer cases of people getting sick in winter it means our health services can be used for people who actually need it and not for an illness that can be prevented.”  

- Hector Matthews, CDHB Executive Director for Māori and Pacific Health.

 


Its not all doom and gloom

80,000 homes here in Canterbury still need better insulation and CEA is an organisation who are doing everything they can to lower that number.

Community Energy Action is a charitable trust that offers free advice, energy checks and insulation quotes to ensure kiwis are safely living in their homes. They were established in 1994 and focus on making sure homes in Canterbury, and the West Coast are warm dry and healthy.

CEA deals with a range of people and organisations, low income home owners, landlords, businesses, schools and universities. Their main focus is insulation and through EECA, they can give the 50% subsidy to those who are eligible for it. Heating is expensive and CEA always looks for ways they can cost effectively help keep homes warm. One of their biggest sections is the curtain bank. 

 

 

Curtains make a significant difference when it comes to locking in the heat.


Problem....solution?

With all problems there has to be a solution. We know we can direct some of the blame on  the way a lot of New Zealand homes were built, so here's what the government is doing in attempt to ‘undo’ that mistake:

 The Warm up New Zealand programme was established in 2009 by the government and it’s administered by EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.) Since then, about 300,000 homes have been insulated through the programme. Despite being due to finish last June, budget 2016 allocated $18 million to extend  the programme for another 2 years, finishing in June 2018.

  • Last July a new legislation was introduced requiring all rental properties to have underfloor and ceiling insulation by July 2019 requiring landlords to take action.

  • Landlords renting to low-income tenants can get a 50% subsidy on underfloor and ceiling insulation.

  • On June the 28th the government also extended the insulation grants to low-income homeowners.

Energy and resources Minister Judith Collins said “Insulation reduces health risks caused by cold, damp housing and government grants will benefit our most vulnerable households.”

But CDHB Executive Director of Māori and Pacific Health Hector Matthews still thinks the government should be doing more. Yes they might be assisting in 'fixing' homes, but are they making sure new homes being built are up to standard? He thinks New Zealand's building code needs to be changed, making it compulsory for all new homes to have double glazed windows, efficient heating and ceiling, underfloor and wall insulation. Cutting the problem of cold homes off at the root.

 

Climate Zones Map
Climate Zones in New Zealand for building requirements Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment

The problem with the building code is that these are the minimum requirements and not the best practice requirements, resulting in some new homes not being inadequately insulated.

Hector Matthews explained that here in Christchurch we had an opportunity to start again; post quake. Building codes were changed, but only in terms of construction and stability - changes has nothing to do with insulation. “If we had a policy that said every single new house had to be double glazed, sufficiently heated and fully insulated with high R values, we would of changed our risks around health in homes for decades to come.”

Last year the government proposed changes to 32 Building Code compliance documents. Housing Minister Nick Smith said they need to ensure they maintain the standards of building work as the construction sector is grows at a phenomenal rate. "New and updated standards are part of our plan for addressing New Zealand’s housing challenge." 

The costs for changing the building code doesn't come cheap, Hector Matthews believes the government has continually ignored it and "preferred not to pass that cost onto the building and construction industry, leaving it up to individuals to make the call on insulation."

 

 

Extended Interview with Chief Executive of CEA, Caroline Shone


CEA Chief Executive Caroline Shone explained that not enough New Zealanders are properly educated on prevention of dampness and how to maintain healthy homes. Informing the community on ways to better improve the quality of their housing will be a safeguard for their future health.

“The problem of cold homes in New Zealand is like a jigsaw puzzle, there are multiple different pieces that, when put together, illustrate the extravagance of the issue.” - Caroline Shone CEA Chief Executive.