No Really, I Am a House Doctor

Editor’s Note: This is my regular weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.   For three years I have strived to provide topical and accurate advice and commentary on eco-renovation, healthy homes, edible landscaping, solar energy, composting, organic gardening and creative reuse, as well as on local issues of sustainability or lack thereof. That’s 156 consecutive weeks, and as far as I recall there was only one instance in which I have been corrected: a case of writing about a change to the New Zealand Building Code that had been reported inaccurately to me. (I should have done my homework.) The point is I would never intentionally mislead readers and I go to lengths to cite my sources where appropriate. The legitimacy of columnists relies on the accuracy of the information they share. And so it was with great surprise that I opened last Saturday’s paper to see hash marks around my educational prefix: “Dr.” Although the extra punctuation was probably an error during sub-editing, I want to ensure Chronicle readers that I am indeed a Dr without the inverted double-commas. My father says I’m “not a real doctor” because I do not practice medicine, but I am at least as much a doctor as Dr Russell Norman, co-leader of the Green Party. It is widely recognized that Dr Norman has brought a new level of legitimacy and acceptance to the Greens since he assumed a leadership position. If it means bringing legitimacy and acceptance to the concepts of healthy homes and energy efficiency then call me “Doc.” Hardly a week goes by that we do not hear something in the news about the major challenges related to housing. In last week’s Chronicle it was Chief human rights commissioner David Rutherford who urged all parties to come together over this “very serious” issue. He called for the provision of adequate housing which “would reduce the incidence of childhood illnesses due to cold, damp, overcrowded accommodation, and the call for more of our elderly to be cared for in homes which are in many cases likely to be unsuitable for elderly habitation to name just a few of the issues.” Just before that article appeared, Melissa Wishart reported on Professor Paul McDonald’s visit to “Wanganui” during which he discussed a holistic approach to the health sector that addresses social issues first: “Most people think that health is a series of medical challenges that sometimes have social consequences…health is a series of social challenges and opportunities that sometimes have medical consequences.” Both Rutherford and McDonald undoubtedly draw on the work of Dr Philippa Howden-Chapman, professor of public health at Otago University, Wellington. She is widely recognized as the premier ‘House Doctor’ in New Zealand, heading up Healthy Housing/He Kainga Oranga, a housing and health research programme, as well as the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities. If Dr. Howden-Chapman is the brain surgeon of healthy homes in New Zealand I would qualify as something like a general practicioner. In my day job I visit up to four homes a day (yes, I do house calls) to discuss with residents the things that constitute a healthy home and what are the first and best steps for them to take given their budget and lifestyle. Every home I visit is different and every family is different. Being able to provide the most up-to-date independent advice specifically tailored to a young family or retired couple is a rewarding way to make a living. The strength of my advice relies completely on trust, as clients rely on my diagnosis of problems with their home, and my prescriptions for how to address them. In this way, I do very much feel like a medical doctor. It is an honour to serve society in this way, but also a great responsibility to maintain the highest levels of accuracy and integrity. As we roll into winter 2015, I will be happy to answer your questions on insulation, ventilation, heating, moisture and condensation, mould, heat transfer, household appliances, and even light bulbs. Submit questions to Anna Wallace, Deputy Editor, Wanganui Chronicle.

Screen shot 2015-04-24 at 10.49.47 AM

Peace, Dr. Estwing