Category Archives: energy efficiency

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

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:

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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.

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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.

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Peace, Estwing

Weighing up Your Best Heating Options

Last week I wrote about the balance between time and money in life and in renovation, and which heaters are good, bad and okay. To review, most of us trade our time for money and our money for time. (More on this later.) The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) recommends that homes have at least one energy efficient fixed heater with a low running cost. These may include a flued mains gas heater, a wood burner, a wood-pellet burner, or an Energy Star rated heat pump. On the other hand, what EECA does not recommend is the use of unflued gas heaters be they mains tied (usually in the hall) or LPG tank heaters. If you know anyone who uses these heaters please share the following sentence: These heaters make homes damp and release toxic gases, and LPG heaters are a fire risk and are THE MOST EXPENSIVE FORM ON HOME HEATING IN NEW ZEALAND. EECA sees no problem using plug-in electric heaters for short periods of time in bedrooms, bathrooms and other rooms that are used periodically. In my opinion it is better to use a dehumidifier in a bedroom on the south side of a home than an electric heater if there is an efficient heater in the lounge. Of course no heating decisions should be made for a home without first topping up ceiling insulation and addressing the huge heat loss from windows and glass doors. (More on these in the weeks to come.) EECA’s EnergyWise website lists the pros and cons of fixed heaters. Here are some highlights:

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 10.00.45 AM

Modern woodburners are good for:

  • low running costs, especially if you have access to free or cheap firewood
  • the environment – they produce very little pollution and use renewable wood energy as a fuel
  • heating large spaces
  • heating hot water in winter through a wetback system.

However, be aware that:

  • firewood must be dry to burn most efficiently
  • building consent approval for installation is needed

 Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 9.57.38 AM

Wood pellet burners are good for:

  • the environment – the pellets are made from waste products and burn very cleanly
  • heat control (better than a wood burner)
  • heating large spaces
  • heating hot water in winter through a wetback system

However, be aware that:

  • they won’t work if your electricity isn’t working
  • building consent is needed for installation

 Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 9.59.10 AM

Flue gas heaters are good for:

  • convenience – you can control the temperature and timing with the thermostat and timer controls
  • heating larger areas for longer periods

However, be aware that:

  • you may have to pay a fixed charge for reticulated gas supply
  • EECA recommends choosing  an ENERGY STAR qualified model
  • gas heaters must always be installed by a registered gas fitter Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 9.56.28 AM

Heat pumps are good for:

  • low running costs when used properly
  • producing instant heat
  • convenience – you can control the temperature and timing with the thermostat and timer controls.

However, be aware that:

  • they must be sized correctly – for the space and the climate
  • some are a lot more efficient than others – look for the ENERGY STAR® mark
  • they won’t work during a power cut.

What all of these heaters have in common are low running costs but a higher installation bill. In most cases these heaters will pay for themselves over time and afterward represent ongoing savings for you year after year. This is known as ‘payback period’ and can be applied to everything from LED lightbulbs to Energy Star refrigerators to heat pumps. After the initial investment they save you oodles of cash over the long run. See, time really is money.   Peace, Estwing

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.

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Peace, Dr. Estwing

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


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.

Screen shot 2015-01-16 at 5.48.02 PM

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

Keep Calm and Think Different: It Takes Money to Save Money, Part 2

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Last week I introduced a new variation on an old adage: it takes money to save money. Of course this idea is not new to most people, nor is it new to this column, which has focused on the concept of ‘payback period’ since it was first published two and a half years ago.

But this concept is long overdue for the New Zealand housing sector that is known for high running costs and low performance. According to Nick Collins, the CEO of the housing performance research organization Beacon Pathway, “Much of New Zealand’s existing housing is cold, damp and unhealthy which leads to poor social and health outcomes. Poor quality, poorly performing housing affects residents’ health, education and quality to life, the resources we use, and general community wellbeing.”

I would suggest Collins’ words describe the situation in Wanganui to a tee, yet this issue does not seem to get significant traction in our community. As a self-described “struggling provincial economy” it astonishes me that, ‘zombie-like’, we voluntarily send millions of dollars to power companies in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch every year when we could easily retain them in our community.

Maybe it comes from growing up alongside the dying city of Detroit, or maybe it comes from being an under-sized gridiron (American football) player, but I have always made it a point to stand up for the ‘little guy.’ I hate waste and I like supporting local businesses.

The process of renovating our villa in Castlecliff ‘stimulated’ the local economy to the tune of $35,000. This total sum will be ‘paid back’ through energy savings and low maintenance costs over the course of about 12 years. The exceptional level of sustainability of this property can be explained through exemplary levels of energy efficiency, long-term durability of products, and the high productivity of fruits, veges and fowl. The entire property has been designed and managed to be low-input and high performance, ie, it takes money to save moneyScreen shot 2014-10-10 at 8.09.50 PM

As regular readers are aware, the villa was redesigned and renovated as a passive solar home. Between April and August, morning sunlight reaches deep into the structure, bringing warmth inside early in the day when the temperature is lowest. An abundance of glazing on the northeast and northwest sides ensure that free sunlight energy heats the northern parts of the home on most winter days to 20 – 25 degrees.

Throughout the day some of the sunlight energy is absorbed within thermal mass, ensuring that the interior does not overheat while storing the excess warmth overnight when it is released into the home. This extra thermal mass takes the form of a second layer of Gib on the walls, a cast iron claw foot bathtub, and a multi-fuel cooker with brick surround. When the sun is not shining, the multi-fuel stove easily heats the northern part of the home to 20 degrees or above on a few sticks of wood, with the added benefits of cooking and baking.

Two-thirds of the home is easily heated by this combination of sunshine and a small amount of firewood. (The southern bedrooms are kept cooler as is common in most Kiwi homes.) A super-insulated building envelope ensures that much of the heat remains in the structure overnight. Temperature in the lounge, kitchen and bathroom rarely drops below 14 degrees overnight with no heaters running. Some of this energy performance can be attributed to a combination of double-glazing, pelmets, and floor-length lined curtains, Roman blinds and window blankets. This combination of window treatments performs to a level of triple-glazing or better.

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Other energy-efficiency measures we used in the home were Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and solar hot water. This combination meant that our power bills over the last year ranged from $17 to $35 per month. Contrary to what some of our critics claim, we do not sacrifice comfort or convenience. Solar hot water allows us to take long showers even in winter, while our appliances include the following: refrigerator, freezer, oven, toaster, electric kettle, cake mixer, wizzy stick, wifi, alarm system, clocks, radios, power tools, etc.

How’d we do it? By thinking different: it takes money to save money.

Peace, Estwing