Housing Horror Stories

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

You know that point in a horror film when the demented axe murderer sneaks up on the unsuspecting teenagers and you’re thinking, “Turn around! Turn around!” Haven’t a fair number of us been saying that about the frightening Auckland housing market for the last five years?

Why is it just now – when the axe is in mid-swing – that Finance Minister Bill English has turned around?

For anyone with beyond intermediate school maths skills it is obvious that the so-called “Rock Star Economy” was mostly the result of artificial house price inflation in Auckland and the Christchurch rebuild. Even Freddy Kruger knows this.

Maybe the “Rock Star” in question was Marilyn Manson.   Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 9.28.10 am

But now that the housing Ponzi scheme has so much momentum behind it that it threatens the nation’s economy, leadership is finally saying, “Oh, this is a little scary.” As with the enamored teenagers, government may have waited too long to turn around.

Like the plot line of most slasher movies, Auckland’s housing bubble has been totally predictable, yet the “unsuspecting victims” walk blindly into the path of danger. Additionally, the story line is a bit like a self-fulfilling prophesy: Now that the Nats have ridden the artificial rock star economy for years they can turn around and redirect policy and finances “to provide assistance to middle-income families if interest rates rose” (Isaac Davidson, 24-10-15, Wanganui Chronicle). Instead of free-market this sounds like market manipulation.

At the end of the day – aka “the witching hour” – its just another frightening aspect of housing in the land of the long white cloud, which drops a considerable amount of precipitation onto the compacted clay soils that surround far too many dwellings with poor drainage and inadequate sub-floor ventilation.

Dramatic musical interlude.

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Zombie-like, water vapour rises from the earth underneath unsuspecting households to stalk its living prey. Under normal conditions, each square metre of ground releases 0.4 litres in a 24-hour period. This translates into 60 litres per day for a typical 150 square metre house with a raised floor.

Rising damp is a major issue for hundreds of thousands of Kiwi homes yet it does not seem to be taken seriously. Very few health professionals appear to recognise the issue of cold and damp homes and what to do about it. “Turn around! Turn around!”

Just a reminder: Zombies and Mould are not normal conditions for a home.

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While I renovated my own House of Horrors – a Monster Mash-up to be sure – I spend most of my time these days visiting others. A few recent examples include one with a $1,000 monthly power bill and another with a $4,000 bill to replace mouldy blinds. Its enough to make you Scream.

Then again, both of these homes are contributing significantly to GDP so it must be a good thing, right? So too do hospital visits contribute to GDP. After the housing bubble pops, perhaps asthma and diabetes could be central to a new economic policy.

As someone who grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, it is difficult for me to adjust to Haloween as a spring holiday. I remember trick-or-treating in the cold, dark rain, not the bright sunshine. I get the same feeling when I look at poorly designed homes facing the wrong way. Perhaps they were designed by vampires who need to live in the dark.

Recently I had a look at a Jekyll and Hyde home. In other words, during beautiful spring and autumn days with light winds and fair skies, the house would be a fabulous place to live. That is the Jekyll.

But Mr. Hyde haunts the house during the rest of the year primarily due to poor design, which makes it uncomfortably cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Heating and cooling the structure effectively would mean Frankenstein power bills.

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The good news is that as a village we can choose to take up our pitchforks and torches to drive the beast of substandard housing from our midst and put and end to the Scary Movie.

Late Spring Permaculture Update

As we transition from the wet season into the dry season, the importance of water management is clear. We have installed a number of small water management features such as this swale.

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This filled during a 30 mm rain event. The water will feed the pumpkins planted along its length.

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We have also planted a vulnerable hillside with poplar poles seen here with blue protective leaves.

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Meanwhile, here is the neighbouring farm.

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Water management can also be as easy as mulching heavily.

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We’re also having great success tractoring chooks and ducks around the orchard and market gardens.

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Edges tend to be high maintenance so I like to use the birds to do the work.

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Recent signs of spring include pear blossoms.

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I have a real affinity for pear trees.    Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 6.15.38 am

Another sign of the season is Jersusalem artichoke starting to poke through.

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Love this time of year.

Peace, Estwing

Architecture Imitates Sport: Pushing the Limits and Showing the Card

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

“I don’t see a punch, I just see a fist in the face.”

With those words, Nigel Owens has created a meme that I hope will stand the test of time, and one worthy of such an outstanding rugby referee and human being.

I could easily write an entire column about him, but that’s not my niche here in the Weekend section. I write about housing, which has a whole set of memes unto itself. So instead of writing about the outstanding Welshman I’ll write about memes and houses.

According to Wikipedia, a meme is: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

The most popular memes that most of us are familiar with come in the form of catchphrases – think “Nek minnit” popularized by New Zealand skateboarder Levi Hawken.

Owen’s comment on the mild collision between the fist of French number eight Louis Picamoles and the face of All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw is just another way of saying “it’s a matter of degree,” but I think it’s an important reminder that life and architecture are all just matters of degree. It’s also a reminder that limits will always be pushed and we need impartial referees.

When it comes to designing homes, there can be a considerable amount of “pushing with a fist” rather than outright punching. In other words, architects and designers frequently push the lower limits of the Building Code Claus H1 – Energy Efficiency. There are various ways in which this is done, but at every turn a building control officer acts as referee.

When the limits of the rulebook on energy efficiency are pushed there can be three outcomes: red card, yellow card, or no penalty. Since building officers strive to be helpful with building professionals a common outcome is a yellow card, which simply means that the plan does not comply and that certain aspects should be reviewed before resubmitting. While this is nothing like being sent to the sin bin or being penalised, it is like a yellow card in that it provides time for reflection before rejoining the game. Needless to say, most architects hate this.

A great example of how Claus H1 can be pushed to its limit was illustrated in the Grand Designs NZ premier episode in which Southland farmer Lachlan McDonald builds his modernist concrete home in…Southland.  Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 9.53.06 am

From my perspective, it is hard to see how the design was signed off by a consenting officer, but somehow it was. I suspect there was a bit of pushing with a fist going on behind the scenes.

As a huge fan of Kevin McCloud and the original Grand Designs, I noticed a striking contrast in cultural memes in the first episode of the Kiwi version with its host Chris Moller. The most glaring contrast is that McCloud would have said something like, “Building in concrete has a huge carbon footprint.” Instead there was no mention.

We can also be sure that McCloud would have made mention of any and all green aspects to the building or lack thereof, with special emphasis on the extraordinary quality of the high performance windows which would have been custom made somewhere in Belgium and shipped to England with a team of expert installers. These types of comments were absent from Episode 1, and I suspect that the energy performance of the windows was best left unmentioned.

To be fair, Grand Designs has been going for 16 years in England and the cultural memes around housing are very different there. I read a report recently describing the New Zealand building industry as a decade behind Europe. From what I see on TV, that’d be about right.

The good news is that we have great role models to follow in McCloud and the English building code. Its just a matter of how fast we get there as a culture.

Anyone heard of pushing on a string?

Peace, Estwing

Whanganui Permaculture Weekend: Guest Post by Patrick

Permacutlure weekend:

Enthusiasm, second only to the flu, has been the most highly infectious thing to hit Wanganui recently. It was the annual Permaculture weekend here in Wanganui a couple of weeks ago. Kelly and I hosted a solar oven and rocket stove demonstration near the Whanganui River during the weekend market. We had incredibly positive feedback and drew a surprisingly large crowd of enthusiastic locals as well as visitors during our two hour demo. It was great seeing so much excitement surrounding this straight forward, highly effective technology. Both the solar oven and the rocket stove are wonderful for camping, summer days when you don’t want to heat up the house, emergency preparedness, as well as reducing your energy costs throughout the year.

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We also attended a fruit tree pruning and grafting demonstration conducted by Murray Jones where we learned heaps of useful information about keeping your fruit trees happy, healthy and productive. These things are achieved through attentive, and sometimes aggressive pruning, to insure the removal of all dead wood as well as branches that grow straight up or back into the tree, robbing it of nutrients that could be put into the fruit or productive new growth. Training branches to reinforce the desired shape (a vase in this instance) was also covered.

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Shaping your tree is done so that fruit is easy to reach and to insure that all areas of the tree receive ample sunlight. Additionally there is at least one more advantage, it becomes possible to stand inside the frame of the tree when pruning time comes around in following seasons.

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Murray also gave a brief explanation of why it is advantageous to perform bud thinning. This task is performed when your fruit tree is blossoming, you go through and pick a portion of the blossoms so that your tree will produce fewer fruit of a much higher quality. Also there are times when you will remove a specific blossom or blossoms from a cluster so that the fruit has enough space to fully develop. It was stressed that each fruiting species will have individual needs as to how and when to prune or thin blossoms, the focus of the demo was on apples, plums and pears.

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In addition to the pruning work shop we attended a community seed swap at the Quaker House in Wanganui. This was a really cool event and started off with each person introducing his or herself to the group of attendees and including a bit about their gardening history. As with the previous demos there was a really large and enthusiastic turn out. Experience levels ranged from seasoned veterans to novice level gardeners/farmers. Some of the seeds and plants available included fryer’s hat hot chili peppers, giant pink banana pumpkin, Jack be little pumpkins (whole fruit), zucchini, American Paw Paw, a large variety of corn and beans, sunflower, marigold, and even a Brazilian native tree that produces vibrant red flowers and is best utilized as a windbreak/bird and bee fodder. Everyone at the seed swap was incredibly friendly, enthusiastic and excited to learn or teach given their level of experience.

Next we went to a community screening of Inhabit, a documentary film showcasing North American permacutlurists and their properties. This film was hugely inspiring. There were projects and properties ranging from small urban settings up to a 106 acre organic farm in Wisconsin, all of which were tremendously productive and successful. One of my favorite aspects about the film was the attention given to people care, many of the featured projects were community efforts to rehabilitate polluted or unused urban blocks, as well as one project in California that offered ex-convicts a unique opportunity to transform land and themselves. Also it was really amazing to see the enormous yields of healthy food put forth from the execution of permaculture principles and way of life. It is about more than being less bad, we can be a positive creative force for our planet, that is a really empowering idea and one that resonates truth.

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Lastly we attended a tomato planting workshop hosted by Nelson Lebo. In this workshop we learned about selecting tomato plants, how and when to plant them, strategies for obtaining high yields from early to late season, fast economic ways to train your tomatoes, as well as shaping and feeding your plants. Again the turnout was excellent and full of people eager to learn, and one or two with some useful tips of their own.

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All in all the Wanganui Permaculture weekend was a really amazing, positive experience. So much information was shared about an astounding array of subjects, and some furious note taking will ensure that most of it will be retained, or stored when it will be called upon at a later date. Seeing so much energy put forth to promote such a positive way of life that is Permaculture has been so inspiring, I can’t wait for myself and Kelly to get to work on our own project. We have enjoyed our time at the Ecoshool immensely and will miss all of our new friends and hosts, but fear not Wanganui we shall return.

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Patrick Dorris

Editor’s Note: Here is another weekly column published in the Wanganui Chronicle.

Anyone who writes for any of our three local papers should be commended for their courage. It takes a lot more guts to express your opinions in a public forum than to talk behind people’s back. I don’t know the backstory to Kate Stewart’s column last week, but I agree with her that opinion pieces are just that: opinions.

Our city is blessed with a great number of writers who weekly share their informed opinions on some topics and random musings on others. In my opinion, the most important factor is not the quality of the opinion but rather the quality of the writing. Writing is a craft and some do it better than others. It’s the same with painting, surfing and cooking.

I have seen some shocking one-off pieces in the Chronicle, and even the periodic case of plagiarism. I hope we can all agree that plagiarism is the worst kind of bad writing, and that anyone should feel free to call those writers out in public for the indiscretion. I feel the same is true for factual misrepresentations – ie, “porkies.”

We know from the Letters page that the Chronicle will publish almost anything, but to write a regular column is a significant step up from that. Aside from quality writing, I think opinions that are original, progressive, and outside of the mainstream are more important to share in the press than those that simply reinforce the status quo or share one’s personal domestic affairs.

Interestingly, the best feedback I have received on nearly 300 pieces in the Chronicle was the one following up on Duncan Garner’s visit to the River City and some peoples’ reactionary response to it. “Spot on” summarises the feedback I got on that opinion piece.

Kate is a great writer and she has original thoughts. For these reasons she is fully qualified to write a weekly column. I suspect those that question her qualifications are simply jealous. Is it any wonder the photo accompanying Kate’s column showed a bunch of turkeys sitting on a fence?

To those turkeys I would simply say, “put up or shut up.” In other words, have the courage to write a weekly column yourself and see what feedback you get on the Letters page.

The letters page is a valuable part of the Chronicle and a number of our community members use it as an informal weekly (or more frequent) column while others treat it more like a Twitter account. Any way you slice it, our local press is an invaluable forum for us to share almost any opinion.

Another great place to share opinions is in the comments section of online articles. I especially love reading the comments that accompany articles relating to home building in New Zealand. The following comments followed a recent article in the Herald titled: Videos of building horror stories no surprise, council inspectors say.

Here is one: “What a shock the most unreliable profession in the country does shonky work, who would have thought!”

Here is another: “When money can be earned as a fast rate by getting the job done and moving onto the next one, particularly in the housing market, then quality falls out the window.

When apprenticeships are ignored in favour of hiring cheap inexperienced labour, in the same market, then quality falls out the window.

When every man and his dog can get a basic qualification from a technical school, in many trades, then quality people are few and far between.

Just a few points that impact on things like new houses or buildings that show cheap often overrides quality. Why do a job properly when you can do it cheaply and unfortunately in New Zealand, we love cheap.”

A point of clarification regarding the difference between cheap and thrifty, and specifically eco-thrifty:

Cheap in the short run is almost always expensive in the long run.

Eco-thrifty in the short run is almost always cheap in the long run.

In my experience, more problems that occur with buildings are caused by poor design rather than poor construction. While there may be some shonky builders out there, most of the shonk falls firmly on the shoulders of architects and designers – in my opinion.

Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Internship Opportunity

We have had amazing success with interns over the last five years. Our recent amazing interns have departed and we are keen for someone to join us from early November to early January.

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We can offer an exceptional opportunity to learn whole systems design, land management, organic agriculture and horticulture, eco-renovation, water management, solar energy, resilient design, and community education.

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The application process is rigorous, and we expect a lot of work from the interns including digging, cooking, and playing with our two children.

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Our 5 hectare farm in on the outskirts of Whanganui. Although we have been here for just over a year, it is well on its way to becoming a premier permaculture property.

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Contact us on: theecoschool at gmail dot com

Peace, Estwing

Before ‘Villa Wars’

Before “Villa Wars” there was the Eco-Thrifty Renovation.

As newlyweds, Dani and I started renovating an abandoned Castlecliff villa in 2010. The roof leaked. It had no power or water. Half of the windows were smashed. The hot water cylinder and copper wiring had been stolen. It was our honeymoon.

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The four villas on this season’s The Block NZ look like luxury accommodation compared to what we shifted into five years ago. A reasonable person would have torched the structure. We decided to save it.

Despite it’s condition when we took possession, the old girl had potential – solar potential to be specific. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would never consider buying a home in New Zealand with the living spaces facing south. It just makes no sense.

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Far and away the best use of solar energy in the housing sector is passive heating. This is followed by solar hot water. Other forms of solar energy have yet to prove themselves as being cost effective in the residential sector.

While The Block NZ makes for entertaining television, from a Whanganui perspective it must be taken with a grain of salt. While house prices in Auckland have skyrocketed over the last five years, prices in our River City have fallen. Many people in our community have done up their homes only to see the valuations drop.

From what I have observed, renovation is less of a factor for increasing a home’s value compared with a thriving job market or foreign investment. Until we see one or the other locally, there won’t be significant increases in valuations.

In our community, renovation needs to be more of a labour of love than anything else, especially if you plan to invest in energy efficiency and/or solar. It appears that most valuers do not understand solar energy and are unable to place accurate figures on it. Unfortunately this holds back a cultural shift toward high performance housing in New Zealand.

This is not to say that we should not renovate our homes. We should. It’s just that our focus needs to be a return on health and comfort rather than on ‘climbing the property ladder.’ Additionally, smart investments in energy efficiency will reap ongoing financial rewards for homeowners and the local economy. Intelligent communities around the world have realised up to 20% savings in domestic power usage. Imagine all of those dollars circulating in local economies rather than being sent away to power companies.

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One final note on renovation that may come as a surprise to some: the building inspector is your best friend.

Blockaholics know that Peter Woflkamp is revered as the watchdog of the programme. Although he is the butt of many jokes, his role is indispensible. In the same way, our building inspectors play critical roles in overseeing works. They too are maligned, but at the end of the day they are the most important people on a job site.

The legacy of leaky homes – a period of time when building oversight was weakend in New Zealand – will end up costing the nation tens of billions of dollars. Watchdogs are important on TV and in real life.

More Signs of Spring

The signs of spring just keep coming. What a great time of year. The garlic looks to be a bumper crop with all of the rain and a good blanket of mulch.

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We are also eagerly anticipating strawberries.

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Other residents have different tastes.

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We discovered some overlooked potatoes yesterday.

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Grape vines are growing by the hour.

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The first plums are forming.

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   Although some of the plums look very strange. Any suggestions?    Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 1.34.48 pm

And we really need to start eating more rhubarb.

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Peace, Estwing

False Prophets – False Profits

“Beware of false prophets,” said John Boehner as he unexpectedly stepped down as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives last week. It was a move that surprised everyone, especially coming soon after his audience with Pope Francis.

But it doesn’t take a papal encyclical to know there are some wacky people making outrageous claims about any number of issues in the world today. Here is one: “Clean Diesel.”

Volkswagen introduced the concept of “Clean Diesel” into the United States in 2009 as part of its third attempt to break into the lucrative U.S. market. Up until recently it appeared to be working as the company overtook Toyota in July of this year as the world’s largest carmaker. But in all came crumbling down in a lets-not-let-the-truth-get-in-the-way-or-a-good-story moment.

For the German company it appears to be a case of false prophets and false profits, as billions were wiped off VW stocks in the days following the admission of wrongdoing, aka “cheating.” Up until that point VW had denied any wrongdoing. In other words, they spent a lot of time lying about their cheating because they thought the storm would pass.

This is called “doubling down” and the reason that companies, politicians, and government bureaucrats do it is because it works. They rely on the public and/or media to lose interest if they wait long enough or wave a shiny thing to distract their attention.

Many suspect that the current flag referendum is an attempted case of distraction from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the Government desperately wants. The National Party prophets promise profits to the nation.

However, in a strange twist of fate it could turn out that a small engineering firm in America could sue New Zealand under intellectual property rights law if we choose the Red Peak flag that appears to be a clear knock off of the company’s logo. Meanwhile, Kim Dotcom stands trial in Auckland (actually, sits in a very large Lazy Boy chair) awaiting potential extradition for intellectual property rights infringement. If we vote for Red Peak will the Prime Minister face the same fate under the TPP? Will a secret international tribunal decide his fate?

I digress, but believe it or not this rambling introduction has lead this column to where it is meant to be: tenancy tribunals and false prophets.

I was recently contacted by a couple facing a $4,000 bill for replacing all of the mouldy blinds in their rental property. The agent claimed it was their fault. The couple tried unsuccessfully to clean the blinds. The agent doubled down on their insistence that the couple pay. That’s when the couple contacted me to go have a look. I offered my independent advice and now the landlord is taking the case to the tribunal.

The reason I bring this up is that Monday is International Tenants Day, and many tenants have been mislead in terms of the health and comfort of the homes they occupy. To draw a parallel to the VW scandal, German engineers rigged cars to give better emissions readings only under testing conditions. In the same way, some rental agents use certain techniques to make homes appear better when being viewed by potential renters. In both cases the car/home only needs to perform as a one-off, and then return to its usual low performance.

There are some great agents out there, but others make claims that a home is “warm and dry” even when it’s not the case. Some will say, “It’s insulated” knowing that the tenants will never look to verify the claim. Another phrase used is “No previous tenants ever complained about it.” The agents that use these techniques know they will usually shut down ‘difficult’ tenants.

But there is brighter future for renters across the country as landlords begin to feel the pressure of the coming Warrant of Fitness programme along with a constant stream of bad press from the media.

I was pleased to read in the Chronicle last month that a car buyer was awarded a cash settlement by the courts for a false fuel economy claim when he bought the car. Of course the first response from the automaker and dealer was to double down on denial. Good on this ‘consumer’ for pursuing his claim in court and ultimately winning.

Tenants can take this as a lesson and refuse to be bullied into silence. Mould is not a normal condition of living in a home and it is mostly up to landlords to sort it.

Peace, Estwing