© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

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.

When did it all start? Many New Zealand houses were built in a time when insulation was considered an ‘optional extra’ and single glazed windows were the norm. Greens MP Steffan Browning highlighted that New Zealand has had an unfortunate culture of “under-insulating homes for many, many decades.” And he's not wrong. Energy was cheaper and insulation was not a priority. It wasn't until 1978 when the building code specified that insulation was mandatory in newly built homes.

The problem is that these houses are still occupied, and because they are older, they are often owned or rented by lower income households. These houses have little or no insulation, and because it's harder to keep the warmth locked in, this makes them more expensive to heat. All of these factors result in cold and damp homes which have serious health effects on the people living in them.

Cold homes are killing in cold blood

Many New Zealanders are unaware of the connection between illness and substandard living environments. Research from the University of Otago (Wellington Campus) found that 1600 New Zealanders die from illnesses relating to cold, damp housing every year.  

Surely a simple cold isn't responsible for all these deaths?

Ann Currie, CDHB Health Promotion Advisor for Healthy Housing, 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.) If these illnesses are not treated they can develop into more serious conditions like pneumonia. Mould growth is also a leading cause of respiratory illnesses.

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 by damp and cold living conditions. Ann Currie believes that for low income households, family stress is increased by not being able to fully use all the rooms in a house. This is because it may be too expensive to heat multiple spaces. There is worry around 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.”

But it’s not just adults who carry the burden of substandard housing. Research compiled by Ann Currie suggest that children are also marred. “Cold housing negatively affects children’s emotional well-being, resilience and educational attainment. Children who live in homes that lack affordable warmth are less likely to have a quiet place to do homework, reflecting increased clustering of family members into fewer rooms.”

Ann has also explained that overcrowding in homes can increase the spread of infection, causing a whole family to get sick.

Hector Matthews has described the treatment of preventable illness caused by damp and cold homes being like an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff. He explained that the DHB is the ambulance, trying to fix the problem. He believes 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.


It's 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 Cantabrians are living healthily in their homes. CEA was established in 1994 and their focus is ensuring that Canterbury and West Coast homes are warm, dry and healthy.

They also work closely with the Canterbury District Health Board to better inform the community around the health risks of living in a cold and damp home.

Insulation is their top priority. Heating is expensive and CEA always looks cost effective ways to help keep homes warm. One of their biggest departments is the Curtain Bank. 


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

A case of the blame game?

The government is well aware of the multiple consequences arising from substandard housing.

The Warm Up New Zealand programme was established in 2009 by the government and it is 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 a further $18 million to extend the programme for another 2 years, finishing in June 2018.

In addition, the government:

  • Introduced a new legislation last July requiring all rental properties to have underfloor and ceiling insulation by July 2019.

  • Allowed landlords renting to low-income tenants to be eligible for a 50% subsidy on underfloor and ceiling insulation.

  • Introduced Insulation Grants to low-income homeowners on June 28 2017.

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

However CDHB Executive Director of Māori and Pacific Health Hector Matthews still thinks the government should be doing more. He understands the grants assist in ‘fixing’ existing homes, but questions if 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 insulation in ceilings, walls and underfloor.

The insulation requirements in New Zealand’s building code vary for different parts of the country. New Zealand is split up into climate zones, and for each zone, there are different 'R values', the minimum requirement of thermal resistance. The higher the R value, the better the insulation.

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

The problem with the current building code is that these are minimum requirements and not ‘best practice’ requirements, resulting in some new homes having inadequate insulation.

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 had 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 have changed our risks around health in homes for decades to come.”

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

Now that rental properties need to be properly insulated by July 2019 landlords are urged to be proactive.

The Green Party also feel that the government isn't doing enough. Political and Media advisor Francisco Hernandez states,

“What the Green Party would love to see is a housing warrant of fitness on houses to ensure that all homes are safe, warm and healthy for all New Zealanders. We also want to see more effective enforcement of existing regulation  - landlords are required to upgrade their buildings with insulation now, but the Government isn’t actually doing much to ensure compliance.”

However, not all landlords are averse to the new regulations. Chief Executive of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation, Andrew King said they did a study of their members and 92% of their properties were already insulated.” Despite this, he still understands the extent of the cold and damp housing problem in New Zealand.

CEA believes that pointing the finger fixes no problems. They are aware that lack of knowledge also plays part of this nationwide issue. 


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.