Water Damage: Costly but Preventable

Hindsight, as we all know, is 20/20, and the leaky homes crisis in New Zealand lends itself easily to such clear retrospective viewing. According to Wikipedia, “The repairs and replacement cost that could have been avoided were estimated in 2009 to be approximately $11.3 billion.”

From an eco-thrifty perspective, this is infuriating because it represents such a waste of money and resources, mostly attributable to bad design and “changed building controls from a prescriptive system to a more self-regulated regime.”

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We all know what happened when world governments allowed banks to regulate themselves over the last several decades: they crashed the global economy. But instead of reigning in banks, the US and Europe have allowed them to get bigger and to reward their executives with ever larger bonuses.

Thankfully, the New Zealand government did not respond to leaky homes in the same way. Some say the NZ building code is now among the toughest in the world, and building inspectors are known to be thorough in their attention to detail.

During our renovation, our building inspector was thorough and helpful with advice and suggestions, as were other members of the Wanganui Building Control team with whom I spoke over the counter at the council building.

I have praised the building code on a number of occasions as quintessentially sustainable. After all, a sustainable home is one that won’t rot, won’t fall down in an earthquake, won’t burn down unnecessarily, and has a level of energy-efficiency.

Architects and builders have known for hundreds of years the importance of shedding water away from wooden structures, and it’s not just about roofs. “Flashing” is the term often used for sealing up all the bits around doors and windows as well as unusual junctures in complex roofs or around chimneys, flues, relief valves, etc. In these cases it is the attention to detail that is important because any seam in the building envelope is a possible entryway for water.

Good, thorough flashing costs time and money, but pays for itself in ‘cost avoidance’ in the future (ie, $11.3 billion and counting). It is almost always cheaper to do something properly in the first place than to pay to clean up the mess and make repairs later on. Water damage is expensive.

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To draw a parallel from housing to our greater community, the stopbanks (aka levees) along the Whanganui act as “flashing” for our city because they are meant to transfer floodwaters safely out to sea. Recently WDC reinforced the 50-year stopbanks along Anzac Parade while Horizons engineers have reported that because of climate change a 50-year flood is now a 25-year flood, a 100-year flood is a 50-year flood, a 200-year flood is now a 100-year flood, etc.

I’m sorry if this is all starting to sound like “The artist formerly known as Prince” talk, but it appears that we’ve entered a “new normal” that includes more frequent and severe droughts and floods as well as persistently high fuel costs to deal to the consequences of both.

This combination of more frequent damage to our local economy and higher costs of response would appear to require different ways of thinking than what local government has provided us with in the past. In other words, we may need ‘new thinking’ to address the ‘new normal.’

A prudent observer might say time is of the essence. With a halving of flood intervals, it appears the clock is now ticking twice as fast.


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