I came to New Zealand almost 15 years ago, an American expat who’d fallen in love with a Kiwi. I’d lived in New Zealand before, in the majestic Central Otago in the South Island, but this time I was making Auckland my home. Auckland’s climate is fairly temperate, but I suffered through years of cold, damp, truly inhospitable homes until I said, “enough!” It isn’t uncommon for expatriates from much-colder climates, with better insulation requirements, higher building standards and central heating to be aghast – and rightly so – at some of the living conditions in New Zealand homes… especially back then.
So, five years ago, after years of dreaming and planning, my husband and I purchased a plot of land in a green-fields subdivision in a small town outside of Auckland. At the time, we had no idea of the incredible journey that our house building project would take us on – though, to those who know us, it really came as no surprise. You see, we’re the path-less-travelled people, the ones who thrive on challenges and love big projects.
True to form, very shortly into the process of developing ideas for our home, we decided instead of the somewhat vague “warmer, drier, healthier home”, that we were going to build a Homestar-rated and certified Passive House. Passive House would help us to achieve a high level of performance, and Homestar would assist with addressing many other sustainable features in the home, such as rainwater harvesting. We’d never built before, and though we had some peripheral experience with sustainable homes and Passive House, we truly had no idea the scope of the project on which we were about to embark.
It took us roughly two years from inception to completion – though, like all homes, things are never truly finished. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears and an incredibly steep learning curve for all involved. Some weeks we felt as if we were trapped in those inevitable cliff-hanger sections of the popular TV show Grand Designs. Passive House was still in its infancy in New Zealand at the time, as was Homestar, and the technologies and designs that we implemented in the house were often new to all involved.
There were highs and lows. Low-lights included hand-sorting the rubbish from the one skip bin used on site (I did this by physically crawling inside the bin – our contractors found sorting their waste challenging), installing by hand, through ropes and pulleys, our large second-storey window, and navigating banks and valuations. But the highs were really high, such as seeing our double-skinned wall develop from drawings to a real-life structure, experiencing the house for the first time with all the windows and doors installed and insulation fitted, and watching the roof and PV array get installed within days.
We’ve been living in the house for three years now, and I can wholeheartedly say that it was worth all the pain – we’ve even recovered to the point where we’d even consider doing it again someday! Our efforts were recognised by achieving a Homestar rating and Passive House Plus certification, meaning that in addition to meeting the rigorous criteria for Passive House, we can fully offset the primary energy demand of the house with our PV array.
While it’s nice to have a certificate, the reward is truly in being able to live in such a wonderful house. It’s hard to fully describe the wellbeing and contentment that our whole family feels, which is why we regularly open our house up for tours, to allow others to learn from our experience – both our successes and our failures – and inspire them to make better design decisions in their own house build or renovation.
If I had to summarise some of the best parts though: We have beautiful drinking water collected off our roof, we’re surrounded by native plantings that we planted as a family, we have vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and excellent interior daylighting. Our mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery helps to ensure a warm, dry house with excellent air quality. The house maintains between 20 to 25 degrees Celsius year-round. It’s a refuge from turbulent weather: as mentioned, the climate in Auckland is temperate, but it can be windy and volatile, particularly in the winter, and thanks to our super-insulated glazing and airtightness, we have wonderful shelter from the storm. In the middle of winter, our children routinely run around inside barefoot, dressed in summer clothes. And me? Well, I can’t say I’m barefoot in winter, but I no longer have to miserably endure the cold and damp… until I go outside of course!
Lee Ann Durbin is Development Manager – Residential Projects and Education at New Zealand Green Building Council
Read more about World Green Building Week 2017 here