Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 2


Editor’s note: This is the second of an eight part series.


Last week I introduced the concept of passive design using the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde (Colorado, USA) to illustrate the point. In a nutshell, the “Ancestral Pueblo Peoples” – also known as the Anasazi – chose certain cliffs that excluded the hot summer sun but welcomed its warming rays in winter.

The Anasazi first occupied the caves over 1,000 years ago. Warm in winter and cool in summer: they were no dummies. Here is what we can learn from them: design for the climate; use local materials; harness free energy.

During the 1970s as small group of hippies used these same design principles in the same region of the US Southwest but in a radically different way. Using beer cans, old tyres and soil, they built what they called Earthships. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“An Earthship is a type of passive solar house that is made of both natural and recycled materials (such as earth-filled tires), designed and marketed by Earthship Biotecture of Taos, New Mexico. Earthships are constructed to use available natural resources, especially energy from the sun. Earthships are designed to use thermal mass construction and natural cross ventilation, assisted by thermal draught (Stack effect), to regulate indoor temperature.” Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 6.53.27 am

Both the Anasazi and the hippies figured out ways to live comfortably in a climate that ranges from 40 degrees in the summer and minus 10 in the winter by using passive design. An Earthship is designed to allow low angle winter sun to reach deep inside the structure but to exclude high angle summer sun. Once the winter sun enters the structure some of it is stored in what is called thermal mass, such as an earthen floor, bricks, tiles and even the earth-filled tyre walls.

Believe it or not, thermal mass is essential for keeping these structures from overheating in the middle of winter on cold, sunny days when the temperature outside is right at the freezing point. Thermal mass acts as a battery in that it stores excess energy (in the form or heat) during the day and releases it at night. Of course the Earthships also contain plenty of insulation to hold that heat inside the structure overnight. Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 6.53.11 am

All of this falls into the category of passive design because it requires no moving parts such as fans or pumps, or the electricity to run them. Passive means it just happens by natural energy flows and cycles.

Earthships also employ passive cooling systems, but I see I am out of words for this week and next week’s column is all about passive cooling with examples from the tropical nation of Nicaragua.


Peace, Estwing

Deadly Cost of NZ Housing

Talk radio was saturated at the end of last week with opinions on the tragic deaths of two toddlers. Chronicle readers are well aware of one of these deaths, which occurred in January and had its sentencing hearing at the High Court in Wanganui on Friday.

The other death occurred in August, 2014 at Auckland’s Starship Hospital, but the coroner’s report released last week blamed the cold and damp conditions of the family’s home in Otara as a contributing factor to the toddler’s death. Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 4.54.50 pm

Emma-Lita Bourne suffered from bronchopneumonia for days before her death, which Coroner Brandt Shortland identified had caused a septic embolism that lead to an acute brain bleed. “I am of the view the condition of the house at the time being cold and damp during the winter months was a contributing factor to Emma-Lita’s health status.”

Sadly, the coroner’s report did not come as a surprise to those of us who work in the fields of “healthy homes” and eco-design. The social and medical costs of poorly designed and constructed homes in New Zealand is well documented. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) estimates that unhealthy homes cost $400 million per year in unnecessary medical costs and $300 million per year in unnecessary energy costs.

On Tuesday this week, the death of 37 year-old Soesa Tovo was also linked to a cold, damp, Housing New Zealand home.

It is important to understand that it is not just Housing New Zealand homes that fall into the category of unhealthy, and that simply insulating a structure is only the first of many steps to improving its health, comfort and energy efficiency. Note that the ceiling of Emma-Lita’s home was insulated.

Cold, damp homes contribute to hundreds of deaths in New Zealand every winter, particularly elderly residents. There is no doubt in my mind that dozens of seniors in Whanganui have died prematurely due to unhealthy living conditions. Three years ago while assessing a home for a mother of five, she said she called because she was convinced the house had killed her mother-in-law who was the previous occupant.

Around the same time I visited a 75 year-old woman who rang because her house was frigid and difficult to heat. After assessing the home with her for an hour we both came to the conclusion that the best thing for her to do was to move out. The irony was that she had just bought the home six months earlier, but nothing short of a $50,000+ renovation would have made it fit for purpose. The house may as well have been her coffin.

While the premature deaths of seniors do not make headlines, our city could suffer a toddler’s death just as easily as Otara, and it would not necessarily happen in a state house either.

If and when that tragedy were to occur in our community, and the headline of the Chronicle were to echo that of the Herald – Damp house played part in toddler’s death – we would hear complaints that our daily paper only puts bad news stories on the front page. The story would be another black spot on our community spread by the national media painting Whanganui as a third rate city.

As someone working at the coalface of this issue, I can assure you that many of these deaths – and a massive amount of suffering, illness, missed school and work – is preventable. What people need is good, accurate, affordable advice. The other thing they need is someone to trust.

There is a significant amount of misunderstanding, deception, half-truths, bad advice, corner-cutting, and high pressure sales tactics in the housing sector in New Zealand, which I believe disempowers people when it comes to making good decisions. I see it everyday in my work with renters, owners, landlords, and public service agencies.

When my two year-old daughter sees me putting on trousers and a collared shirt she says, “Are you going to work?” I say yes.

“Why you go to work, papa?” I say to help people.

“Fixing their houses, eh?” I pause, and say yes.

While I love my job and thrive off of the positive feedback I get from clients everyday, it is discouraging that I must travel away from Whanganui to do it. There is huge need in this community and no one wants another “negative headline” putting us in the national spotlight.

Above all else, improving the housing stock of New Zealand and of Wanganui is a matter of will. As yet that will has not emerged in our community to any significant extent. Will it take an Emma-Lita to shock us into action?

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 4.54.22 pm

Peace, Estwing

Changing Times: Estate Agents and Light Bulbs

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to top up ceiling insulation and a time to lay ground vapour barriers; a time for real estate agents to recognize that more and more discriminating house hunters will be looking at warmth and energy performance, and a time to buy domestic LED light bulbs;

Ecclesiastes 3:1 King James Modified and Updated Version

How refreshing it was to meet with the team from a local real estate agency recently and see a room full of nodding heads. Our scheduled 30-minute meeting ran to 40 minutes due to a steady stream of questions, but I am used to that. I often say, “The future of buying and selling homes will increasingly include health, comfort and energy performance.” It is inevitable, but the shift won’t necessarily be rapid.

Four years ago I approached a number of local agencies and the President of the Chamber of Commerce on this exact issue. To say there was zero interest at the time would be an understatement. As Bob Dylan has told us, “The times they are a-changing.”

As often is the case, the change is being driven by consumers (house-hunters) instead of sellers or those in the real estate industry itself. However, savvy real estate agents recognize the change and will place themselves at the forefront of the market. That is just smart business.

Rarely do we have the opportunity to witness a so-called light bulb moment in someone else. Less than a week before the meeting described above I found myself poking around a very large, beautiful home valued at roughly twice the Wanganui average with a then skeptical but friendly estate agent.

I had been asked to look at the home by a couple that wanted to ascertain the warmth and comfort of the structure before considering an offer. With camera in hand, we took a tour of all the home’s thermodynamic shortcomings. I could tell the agent was annoyed.

But sometime between minute 30 and minute 50 the proverbial light bulb switched on, and less than a week later I was talking to the agency’s entire team.

Screen shot 2015-06-05 at 9.59.18 AM

My experience with LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) is more than twice as long as my experience with local estate agents, but the stories are similar. Over a decade ago I learned about LEDs in specialty applications such as museum lighting and emergency lighting, but they were not available for household use.

About six years ago when domestic LEDs started to be imported into New Zealand the prices were high and the quality was variable. They were available only through specialty suppliers. I waited.

About four years ago they started turning up in shops with price tags around $30 each. At that price it was better to stick with CFLs (Compact Florescent Lights) at $5 each. I waited.

Late last year I saw more and more LEDs in the shops with prices under $20 each. I bought two to trial and they worked brilliantly.

In April I bought six more at under $10 each to go into the renovated kitchen of our new home. We worked with a local lighting shop and the best sparky on Earth to come up with a beautiful and cost effective lighting design that my photos can’t give proper justice. The new LEDs provide excellent illumination at a fraction of the cost of traditional incandescent bulbs without the awkward spiral shape of most CFLs.

Attractive, affordable, and efficient: the light bulb moment for domestic LEDs has finally arrived.

Screen shot 2015-06-05 at 9.59.08 AM

Peace, Estwing

Around the World in Eight Designs, Part 1

Editor’s note: This is the first of an eight part series.

Good home design is not rocket science. Some would say it’s a matter of common sense. But sometimes a lot of bells and whistles get in the way of common sense and we have to step back for a moment. As long as we’re stepping back, let’s step way back – 1,000 years back – to Mesa Verde, Colorado and the cliff dwellings of the “Ancestral Pueblo Peoples” also known as the Anasazi.

Mesa Verde is located in the Four Corners Region of the U.S. where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. Temperatures can reach 40 degrees in summer and minus 10 in winter. In an average year snow can fall during parts of seven months.

Given the building technology available in 1015, what constitutes good home design and how did the Anasazi accomplish it?

One reason that Mesa Verde was attractive to them was a series of south-facing (toward the equator) cliffs that were warm in winter and cool in summer. “What’s this?” you say. How so?

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 6.45.01 am

It all has to do with sun angles. During summer the sun is high in the sky and is largely excluded from the caves in the same way that wide eaves exclude the hot sun from a well designed home.

In the winter, however, the sun is low in the sky and its warming rays can penetrate deep into the caves providing warmth and light to the occupants. This would also be true of a well designed home, but unfortunately we do not commonly see it in the existing housing stock of the entire country for that matter.

In design language this is called “passive solar design” because it involves no fancy technology or moving parts. It is passive – just like a cat napping in a sunny window or a sun worshipper lounging on a beach. A well designed passive solar home keeps it’s occupants warm in winter and cool in summer using no power other than the sun.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 6.44.50 am

Of course new homes can be designed and built to harness free solar heating in winter while excluding sunlight in summer, but many existing homes can be renovated to improve their solar performance. It’s free energy delivered with no service fee. Why not sign up?

So what have we learned from the Anasazi about good home design?

  • It should be appropriate to the climate.
  • It should harness free energy.
  • It should be passive.

Next week we’ll fast forward 1,000 years to the same region of the southwestern U.S. desert and see how designers and builders have taken lessons from the Anasazi and added a few of their own.

Peace, Estwing