Category Archives: Eco Thrifty Renovation

Hybrid Post and Beam Emergency Shelter

This is a cool project. I have been working with an amazing social enterprise called Reclaimed Timber Traders. They have a huge yard full of wood that has been diverted from landfill. Part of their mission is to provide building materials post disaster around the world. But instead of sending a shipping container full of wood, I had the idea of pre-assembling an emergency shelter that can be put together by two people in half a day using only hand tools.

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The design is a hybrid post and beam using dimensional lumber to form the mortise and tenon joins. Here is a post made from three 2x4s nailed together. (Note this has been screwed together quickly for a photo op with the local newspaper.)

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This prototype can be used as a model to ‘mass produce’ structures that can be flat-packed and shipped around the world or sold locally as a sleep-out or garden shed.

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A great day and lots of trigonometry!


Peace, Estwing


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.

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

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.

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

No Depression in New Zealand…and no cold, damp homes either.

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

John Maslin recently wrote an editorial for the Chronicle titled: ‘Get real’ on heritage protection. Given the number of heritage buildings in our city and the cost of strengthening them, a realistic approach is certainly in order for progress to be made.

After reading Maslin’s piece I was driving to work and heard that the song, “No Depression in New Zealand” was up for the missing Silver Scroll award from 1981. It seemed an appropriate ‘get real’ anthem:

There is no depression in New Zealand

There are no sheep on our farms

There is no depression in New Zealand

We can all keep perfectly calm

Blam Blam Blam did not win the Silver Scroll, but I am happy to honour the song for the rest of this column as it reminds us to be suspicious of spin doctors and their reluctance to recognize facts.

Not long after Maslin’s editorial we were treated to David Scoullar’s insightful piece on managing decline: Accepting decline best way for cities to plan for future. Scoullar points out examples of “cutting-edge” urban policy overseas and that they are “not on the radar of Wanganui District Council.”

WDC policy appeared on the front page of the Chronicle last month: “No Decline here, Duncan.”

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

Another ‘interesting’ narrative that has come under scrutiny lately has to do with the cost of building homes in New Zealand. A recent 3D investigation on TV3 asked the question, “Are we paying too much to build our homes?”

While the popular narrative points the finger at land prices and council fees, the ‘get real’ answer points to exorbitant prices paid for building materials. From the 3D investigation:

Tony Sewall , head of Ngai Tahu, the biggest developer in the South Island, has sent teams around the world to investigate building materials prices.

“We’d be paying around 30 percent more than in Australia, probably 60 percent more than the United States,” he says. “And the United States’ product is better.”

Quotable Value statistics indicate that identical medium-sized homes built in New Zealand and Australia cost Kiwis $20,000 to $32,000 more than Aussies. This is not because Australia has higher regulatory costs. Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.16.56 am

Cheaper Option: On and off the shelves just like that. 

The programme revealed exclusive arrangements between building materials manufacturers and certain retailers and builders. One example used was wallboard, and how one dominant brand controls 94% of the domestic market. A rival product briefly made an appearance in shops at a much lower price, but then suddenly disappeared. Meanwhile, all parties deny a “special arrangement.”

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

One final issue on the ‘get real’ front for this week. The Whanganui Regional Health Network (WRHN) recently flooded all three local papers with the same article asking for money from philanthropic organisations to support an insulation programme that has been under-funded by the current government. At the same time, we have a local MP who never hesitates to point out how many homes in the District have been insulated under his watch.

To be clear, here is a government agency asking for private donations because The Government has not provided enough funding for a government programme. Meanwhile, a representative of The Government is taking credit for the grand success of the programme.

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

Additionally, it appears that the WRHN has misidentified insulating floors and ceilings as “Healthy Homes.” A famous case recently linked the death of a toddler to the home where she was living that was insulated. As Labour housing spokesperson Phil Twyford stated, “When you insulate a cold, damp home it is still a cold, damp home.”

But on the other hand, this could all just be hype. After all, there are no cold, damp homes in New Zealand.

Side bar: Want to ‘get real’ about healthy homes in our community? A group has formed to look into the possibility of forming a trust that will address the issue of housing performance while creating jobs for local youth. Please contact me if you are interested.

Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 12

At the end of the last column I promised to include some more examples of thermal mass this week along with a photograph. As a reminder, thermal mass is part of the trilogy for passive solar design, which also includes solar gain and insulation.

Thermal mass absorbs heat from sunshine slowly during the day and then releases it at night. In this way it is a bit like the opposite of a night store heater, which stores cheap electric heat at night and releases it throughout the morning.

In modern houses, thermal mass can take the form of an insulated concrete foundation slab, but retrofitting a 100 year-old villa is a different story. Because an old villa has a raised floor (ie, built on piles) adding thermal mass inside of the thermal envelope is more of a challenge. During the renovation of our villa we added mass in three ways.

The first and easiest way we added thermal mass was to add a layer of plasterboard (aka “Gib”) to a number of north-facing internal walls that receive direct sunlight during the winter months. If you have ever lifted a sheet of plasterboard you would know it contains lots of mass. In other words, it’s heavy.

The next way we added mass was to install an iron claw foot bathtub in our northwest-facing bathroom. Like the extra layer of plasterboard, the iron slowly absorbs the sun’s warmth during the day and releases it at night.

Finally, and most dramatically, we installed an old Shacklock 501 cooker in the kitchen. The placement of the Shacklock ensures that it receives direct sunlight three times a day through three different windows during winter. The cooker weighs 300 kg, and is surrounded by another 300 kg of bricks. The insulated hearth accounts for another 100 kg. Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 12.07.04 pm

All in, the 700 kg heater/cooker works great as thermal mass during sunny winter days. It moderates the kitchen from overheating during the afternoon and helps ensure the morning temperature is a little higher than it would otherwise be.

Oh, and on cloudy days we stoke the Shacklock with wood and cosy up with a big pot of soup on top and a loaf of bread in the oven.