Low-Input / High-Performance is a Matter of Design

Last week I described how architect and eco-designer William McDonough worked with the Ford Motor Company starting in 1999 to redevelop the historic River Rouge manufacturing plant in Detroit. While the energy performance of the renovated million square metre facility is impressive in and of itself, what is truly remarkable is that McDonough somehow got William Clay Ford Jr. – great grandson of Henry Ford – to embrace eco-design thinking.

Of course when the win-win-win outcomes of eco-design are so easy to document it should not be difficult to convince reasonable people of its value. Here is how Ford’s charitable trust describes the company’s new outlook:

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

(Source: TheHenryFord.org)

With a few tweaks to the language used in the list above, our renovated villa in Castlecliff ticks all these boxes. It provides a healthy living environment at low annual energy costs while reducing ecological impacts.

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Lounge Before

As you may recall, I often refer to this as “low-input/high-performance design,” and I apply it to both housing and food production. When people ask me what I do for a living I say, “I design low-input and high-performance systems.” Imagine the looks I get!

Maintaining warm, dry living spaces throughout winter improves the quality of life and financial security for occupants of high-performance homes, which also reduces personal stress and family tension. Research performed in New Zealand by Beacon Pathway found that families who shifted from cold, damp homes to warm, dry, low-energy homes feel better physically and emotionally. Three families interviewed had the following to say:

“Being warmer has made us happier: we were on edge before, and cold. It was a nightmare. This has taken a weight off us.”

“We are happy here, which flows through everything else. Everything has been better since being here.”

“No one has been sick since arriving in the house and we no longer needed our asthma inhalers.”

Those are powerful testimonials, and ironically the opposite of what my family experienced this winter shifting from our warm, dry, low-energy villa to a cold, damp, draughty bungalow. While a change in my employment status (removing the ‘un’) prompted the move, the July timing could not have been worse. Fortunately we had plenty of firewood to get us through until I am able to make the types of improvements that made our villa so cosy.

Drawing on research from Beacon Pathway, BRANZ, EECA, and other housing research organisations, Auckland Council developed a ‘Theory of Change’ document for its Retrofit Your Home programme. The expected outcomes of the programme include:

– Financial savings from decreased electricity consumption

– Improved quality of life and life expectancy

– Increased feeling of satisfaction with living situation

– Improved relationships within the family

– Increased educational achievement

These win-win-win outcomes are clear enough to the largest council in the nation to drive its support for improving the quality of housing for residents. But for some unknown reason, the push for warm, dry, healthy homes struggles to get traction in New Zealand as a whole. I speak with native Kiwis and immigrants all the time about this issue, and to me it is all just a broken record playing over and over again: “there needs to be a major shift in attitudes about housing in this country.”

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Lounge After

For me, the bottom line is quality of life. Our cosy Castlecliff villa provided us with an amazing quality of life for three and a half years and once our new home is improved it will do the same. I feel sorry for the millions of Kiwis living in sub-standard housing and suffering from poor health and emotional strain. But at the end of the day it is up to each one of us to stand up and say, “I am going to improve the living conditions of my family.”


Peace, Estwing

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