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Why it’s Time to Build Better Homes in New Zealand

We all have a home. It might not be the place that you hunker down each night, but we all have a place we know of as home. We all have strong feelings for our home – and hopefully for most of us those are warm, happy fuzzies.

A home should be a sanctuary, a place that keeps us safe, and makes us feel safe. A place we value, a place in which we love eating, sleeping, listening, talking, laughing. Homes are important too because of the rent or mortgage we pay. For those lucky enough to own a home, they’re almost certainly our most valuable asset. But our homes should have values that soar above dollar values – places that provide memories that are priceless.

For far too many New Zealanders, the places in which we stay don’t keep us safe and healthy. It may be surprising for non-Kiwis to hear, but there can’t be a person in New Zealand who doesn’t know that too many of our houses are cold, damp, unhealthy places. They are not sanctuaries. It’s not just New Zealanders who know too many of our homes are poor quality. Leading international agencies are lining up to rightly criticise our Building Code. The Building Code outlines the minimum legal standards to which our buildings have to be constructed. And too many of our homes are poor because of our substandard Building Code.

Just last year, the International Energy Agency said, “The New Zealand Building Code is below the standards required of most IEA countries with comparable climates.” The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development chimed in too, saying the New Zealand Government “should consider modernising the Building Code; its standards are less stringent than those of many OECD countries.”

There are many areas where the building code under delivers, like no focus on thermal bridging, overheating, air tightness or water efficiency but let’s take one example – insulation – and compare New Zealand’s Building Code R values to those of the UK. An R value is a measurement of how much heat leaks out of a building. A higher R value is better than a lower one, and means warmer homes.

R Values

The Government has promised to build 100,000 new homes over 10 years, naming this ambitious project KiwiBuild. This has been accompanied by rhetoric around improving health and wellbeing, and a loud, far-reaching national conversation bemoaning the state of our homes and the damage they are doing to New Zealanders’ health.

Fortunately, we now have a once in a generation opportunity to make our homes better. Our homes might be cold, but they are the hot topic of 2018 here in New Zealand, and are constantly in the news.The UK has been progressively improving their Building Code equivalent, hence the better R values in 2013 from 2002. You don’t need to be a building engineer to see that the UK requirements are way ahead of ours. Our Building Code R values requirements are much worse than those of the UK in 2002 – and the UK Government have been steadily improving them ever since.

And right now, the Government rhetoric around building quality homes is just that: rhetoric. There’s still not nearly enough detail about the standards to which the planned 100,000 KiwiBuild homes will be built. What R values are we talking, for instance? Getting KiwiBuild right is bigger than the 100,000 homes in the programme. Building those homes better will mainstream higher standards, bringing down costs across the industry, and making it easier to build warmer, drier homes beyond just KiwiBuild.

But what about the cost involved here? Some may ask. Won’t building to a higher quality make homes unaffordable? It’s a really important point. It’s not much of a success if we build warmer, drier homes but most New Zealanders can’t afford to live in them. That’s why we asked New Zealand’s most famous economist Shamubeel Eaqub to look in this, and published a report comparing the costs and benefits of building KiwiBuild homes to the Building Code, and to a higher quality, independent standard run by the New Zealand GBC, called Homestar.

The report found that there is an upfront cost, as you’d expect, but “the private benefits outweigh the costs, and there are also substantial social benefits. There is compelling evidence to move towards higher quality homes.” The total benefit of building KiwiBuild to a higher standard could be a whopping NZ $682million. These benefits would include savings in electricity and water bills for those living in KiwiBuild homes, and the social benefits come through reduced climate change pollution, waste and water runoff.

Tens of thousands of homes are, right now, already being built to Homestar standards. It’s an industry accepted tool, it’s well established, and was developed with the building sector. It’s ready to roll-out for KiwiBuild right now.

As Shamubeel said, “Building at a higher standard is a no-brainer.”

Niall Bennett is Senior Communications Advisor at the New Zealand Green Building Council.