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Why do we live in cold houses?

As we draw closer to winter, with the clocks going back next weekend, have you ever wondered why it is that our houses are so cold? And have you also wondered why it is that we take it for granted that they will be cold, and we just have to suck it up???

New Zealand colonization largely occurred during the 19th Century. Homes were built out of timber to reflect the British style; with little understanding of the different thermal qualities of the stone and brick homes they had left behind.  Stoicism, and discomfort were part of colonial life, leading to a situation where it was customary to heat a kitchen with a coal range, and living room with a fire, with all other rooms left cold.

The masculinity of the frontier culture meant you would be considered weak if you admitted pain and discomfort through being cold. Being only a few generations behind these original pioneers, this distinction remains strong.

As a more recent immigrant, the contrast between UK and New Zealand cultures is even more apparent. Central heating is considered the norm in the UK. Fuel poverty (which is when you are required to spend over 10% of your income on fuel), is around 10% of the population in the UK (2018), that means 1 in 10 households are living in temperatures below the World Health Organisation recommended 18°C. This is rightly considered way too high a price to pay for society.

But in New Zealand this situation is far worse. In 2008 Dunedin Fuel Poverty was 47% of households. What does this mean for Queenstown, where the cost of living is much higher, and the climate is much colder? And what will happen as electricity prices continue to rise.

The benefit to society of creating warm healthy homes is estimated at 6:1, with fewer deaths, less illness, less time off work and school. 1600 people needlessly die each year due to cold houses in New Zealand. That’s over 4x the number of deaths on our roads each year. Its over 8x the number of people killed in the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, and 32x the number killed in the recent Christchurch tragedy. It happens every year, and it happens unacknowledged. And it’s likely to get worse.

So, what do we do about it?

Acknowledge it’s a problem and it’s not good enough. By saying this is not good enough standards have to change. Building Codes have to be increased. WOF’s on rental properties will be compulsory. And standards will change for those that need it most.

If you are building, don’t build to the Code Minimum, especially in Queenstown. When you build you are creating a legacy for several generations. Do the best you can to increase levels of insulation, put in thermally broken windows, and if you can - make your home airtight. For more information on why this makes a huge difference read here:  

Consider making your home smaller, and way better. Since 1990 the average size of a NZ home has increased by over 50% and build costs have increased by at least 30% since 2008. So, we are building way bigger and at a much higher cost. How can we increase quality if this continues? Smaller homes are easier to keep warm, and with rising building costs the money you save by building smaller could be spent on more insulation, airtightness, or a better heating system.

We can do better, and we can do something now. There is a housing shortage which means this is the time to influence many more new homes. We need to build better. We all have the ability to do it if we change our thinking.