Damn Liars and Architectural Awards

There are liars. There are damn liars. And then there are architectural awards.

Last week the Dominion Post reported on the award-winning council apartments in Miramar, Wellington: “Elderly residents freezing in draughty Wellington council flats.”

Congratulations to the Wellington Architecture Awards for administering such a high standard in the competition. Perhaps the trophy was a statuette of a little old lady shivering while she uses duct tape and cardboard to keep out draughts.

From the article: “The 75-year-old has black tape plastered around the windows to keep the draught out, and a broken-down cardboard box stuck to her range-hood was the only thing keeping an ice-cold breeze from blowing in to her Wellington City Council flat.”

The block of flats was completed in January. Yes, you read that correctly. An award-winning residential building finished in 2015 is cold and draughty. The sad thing is that I’m not necessarily surprised. I see weak home design all the time. What does surprise me is that Kiwis as a whole have not risen up to demand a higher standard. We don’t need to tolerate intolerable or barely tolerable living conditions.

Up until recently I thought the poor performance of New Zealand homes was just a matter of bad design, but then I attended a seminar hosted by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) called “Key to Quality.” The seminar was an eye-opener to say the least. Here are some findings from BRANZ research on houses completed in 2014 compared to their earlier surveys:

Widening gap between performance and client expectations.

Decrease in the proportion of clients that would recommend their builder.

Increase in the proportion that would speak critically.

New owners expect better follow-up.

Call-back rates increased.

Final cost disputes up by 2.2 percentage points (to 17.3%).

This trend in negative feedback is what prompted BRANZ to develop the “Key to Quality” seminar in the first place. A growing sense of “buyer’s remorse” is tainting the building industry and so BRANZ has an obvious interest in addressing the issue with its stakeholders.

While the BRANZ research shows increased dissatisfaction with builders, I think the root cause still goes back to the architects and designers, who appear more interested in making pretty buildings rather than water-tight, energy efficient buildings. Too often, pretty buildings leak water and/or leak heat, and while the immediate finger may be pointed at builders, the truth is that at times they are being asked to do things beyond their skills or that they have worked with insufficient construction details.

At the end of the day, buyer’s remorse is buyer’s remorse, but what of renter’s remorse? What of the pensioners freezing in Wellington’s award-winning council flats?

Residents have petitioned Wellington City Council – wait for it – to put up curtains. The article quotes 75 year-old Jean Gray:

“I wanted to get curtains up to keep the heat in, but they said they don’t want screws in the walls.”

“All our complaints have been falling on deaf ears. They think we’re idiots,” she said.

Petition signatories wanted better insulation and permission to install curtains, another resident who didn’t want to be named for fear of being kicked-out said.

“When I pull the blind down you can see it moving. There’s a draught under the door in the door-jamb, too,” she said.

“One lady, she’s 85 and on a walker, and she sits and freezes.”

That a professional architect and Wellington City Council do not understand curtains are essential beggars belief. Are they too busy admiring their awards? Does “fit for purpose” mean anything when building accommodation for – wait for it – old people?

We know that seniors spend more time at home and suffer disproportionately from the cold. Were these considered in ‘the brief’.

Aluminium double-glazing is a low-performance window product, not so much greater than single-glazed timber windows. Leaving them uncurtained is like going for a walk on a winter day in shirtsleeves. It’s doable but certainly not comfortable for most people.

For a thorough description of curtain performance, see: http://www.fix.com/blog/more-efficient-curtains/

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