Sustainable housing in New Zealand – challenges and progress

January 21, 2016

We are striving to improve the quality of the UK’s homes and reduce fuel poverty.  It is often useful to consider the state of housing in other countries and the policy leavers being used to generate change. 

In March 2015, Andrew Eagles, Managing Director of Sustainable Homes, investigated the state housing in New Zealand and what they are doing to improve.  This blog is a summary of the current context and the reason for the lack of progress.  A second article published here sets out some of the more successful innovative initiatives to drive change.

Context

New Zealand has a total housing stock of 1.8m. This compares with more than 25 million in the UK. Over nine hundred thousand, 50% of the homes are particularly poorly insulated.

A view of New Zealand homes

The total New Zealand housing stock is 1.8m; however more than 50% of homes are poorly insulated.

The sustainability of the built environment is very interesting to analyse in a number of ways. On one level you could say, New Zealand homes are very low carbon. Over 80% of the energy used in New Zealand homes comes from renewable sources.

This may though for some be too much of a get out clause. Surely even when renewable are plentiful it would still be useful to ensure homes are energy efficient. This also has the dual purpose of ensure healthier homes with lower bills. There are also other elements to sustainability such as materials, ecology, water efficiency. How does New Zealand fair in these areas? Not well I am afraid.

On the energy efficiency front it is fair to say the homes are far behind where they should be. For a long time the NZ climate was considered temperate. Only one-third of New Zealand’s current housing stock was built after 1978 when mandatory insulation was introduced (Howden-Chapman, 2009).

The issue, which is particularly bad in state housing, is often made public. Here is an extract from the Waikato Herald

“I live in an old state house and it’s been nicely renovated. Our landlord is lovely and the house is quite well oriented towards the sun. The problem is that the heat pump costs a tonne of money to run, there’s no insulation in the walls, and the windows are single-glazed.

This means that any heat we pump into the house – at great expense – follows the laws of thermodynamics and bolts through the walls and windows….” 

What about other environmental issues? Perhaps New Zealand homes have strong performance in areas like water efficiency or waste. Homestar, a standard developed by the NZ Green Building Council measures the performance of homes against these wider environmental areas. It is the New Zealand version of the Code for Sustainable Homes in the UK.

When I travelled to New Zealand 56 homes had been accredited against that standard. That includes new build or existing homes. Those 56 homes are certified to a range of levels. This compares with the over 500,000 homes certified against the Code for Sustainable Homes in the UK.  

Later I will be writing about some superb policies helping to improve homes. It is though fair to say that the state of New Zealands homes is relatively poor.

Why is the progress so poor?

Discussions were starting about improving energy efficiency through regulatory mechanisms when the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquake took place in February 2011.

Since 2011, a huge amount of Government time and money has been focused on rebuilding Christchurch. In the last two years a new pressure has focused minds. A lack of supply of homes is making housing inaccessible for many in Auckland. This lack of supply has resulted from record migration into Auckland and scarcity of land in and around Auckland

What has all this meant in real terms? It means that homes energy efficiency never gained the attention it needed. Many New Zealand homes are still of a very poor quality.

False starts

Some attempts were made to make improvements. As an example there is interest from Christchurch District Council to build homes to the Homestar rating. Senior Officials confirmed that this was likely to be scuppered by the Minister leading the Christchurch rebuild, Jerry Brownlee, who is against regulation. He perceives, in an echo of UK decisions, that sustainability elements may reduce supply.  

Auckland shows more promise. The regional plan has a requirement for homes built in special fast track planning zones, to be built to Homestar standards. The issue here, the New Zealand Green building Council noted is that exemptions may mean some homes do not comply, even with low levels of the Homestar rating.

If you would like to find out the policies revolutionising the state of New Zelealand’s housing, click here to be directed to the second blog piece of this article.

Daniel Navarro