Category Archives: updates

No Return on Investment: Selling a Home at a Loss

Bang! Bang! Is it duck season or messenger season? From my observations over the last few months it is clearly the latter in Wanganui.

The overwhelming overreaction to the independent expert analysis from economist Shamubeel Eaqub appears to be indicative of why Whanganui is still spinning its wheels and failing to progress after decades of whinging: decision-makers in our city appear to refuse to accept all forms of constructive feedback and suggestions to adopt new ways of thinking.

When dialogue is shut off before it begins we are ensured that no change will occur. This is a consistent pattern I have observed while living here. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this what puts the P in Provincialism? Forget adding an H to Wanganui, let’s just go ahead and rename the city “De-Nile.” Egypt won’t mind.

I will admit that thinking different is not easy, but failing to do so can be expensive. Let’s take housing and renovation as an example. Conventional wisdom is that investing in property will always give a positive return because house prices always rise. Everyone in Wanganui knows this.

More convention urges us to put in new kitchens and new bathrooms as these add value to our homes and we will easily recoup the investment when it comes time to sell. Everyone in Whanganui knows this too. Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.10 AM

New Kitchen: No Return

Nek minnit, QV.

About a year ago I was taking photographs of the absurd process of bulldozing sand from Castlecliff Beach into the Tasman Sea when the driver walked over for a chat. We had a great conversation about sand, wind, waves, Council, America, and Detroit (my “home town”). But what really concerned him was the recent valuation of his home. After spending heaps of money renovating the valuation did not come close to reflecting his investment. Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.52 AM

Refurbished Lounge

Real estate agents tell me that many clients struggle to “claw back” any and every dollar they have spent doing up their homes. With rare exception, I suspect that most homes purchased and renovated within the last eight years are being sold at a loss. My family is looking at this very proposition ourselves, which is especially disconcerting because we invested heavily in energy efficiency in addition to the new kitchen and bathroom.

 Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.26 AM

Beachy Bedroom

When it comes to the energy performance of a home, QV does not recognize a price premium. In other words, if you spend $30,000 on solar energy, super-insulation, double-glazing, etc. don’t expect to recoup that investment when you go to sell. Even if that investment will save the next occupants $30,000 in power over ten years it is not recognized as a valued asset of the home.

Justifying this position, the friendly QV man who came to our home after we challenged its mind-bogglingly low valuation told me, “The market does not show that it values energy efficiency.”

Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.08.31 AM

Floor to Ceiling Native Rimu

But to what extent is this a chicken-and-egg scenario? If QV does not value eco-renovation then potential buyers will look at the valuation and be less willing to pay for what it cost to do the work in the first place. On the other hand, how many enlightened buyers will it take to prove to QV that the market does value energy performance?

To review, evidence suggests:

  • doing up a kitchen and bathroom do not increase the value of a home in Wanganui;
  • improving the energy performance of a home in Whanganui does not increase its value.
  • doing both…R.U. Nutz?

Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.39 AM

Repurposed Doors and Coal Range

So the moral of the story is that unless you plan to remain in your home for a very long time it is highly unlikely that you will break even on the costs of renovation. Of course this will not come as welcome news to many people in our community.

Go ahead and shoot me. It is a good day to die.

Peace, Estwing


Workshop: Low-Input / High-Productivity Gardening

Thoughtful design and management of a vege garden can increase productivity and decrease the hours of labour. Invest two hours in this workshop and save dozens of hours weeding your garden.

Sunday 9th November, 3-5 PM. Registration and deposit required.

06 344 5013,

Our Weekly Newspaper Column Marks Two Years

This weekend marks the two-year anniversary of this column – 104 weeks of eco-design thinking, advice, maths, science, Neil Diamond tributes, and the tiniest bit of constructive criticism. To mark the anniversary, I’ve decided to remind myself and readers how this column came about in the first place.

In February 2012, former editor Ross Pringle rang me to ask if I’d be interested in writing for the new-look Chronicle that would launch in late April. He said that a column I wrote for the weekly Conservation Comment – which appears on Mondays – in December 2011 struck a chord.

Funny thing, I hurriedly wrote that column for Peter Frost who was trying to fill a gap in the Conservation Comment rotation of writers because someone could not produce a piece that week. Here is just the beginning of that column from two and a half years ago followed by updates and an exciting announcement.

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 9.44.28 AM

Twenty-Twenty Hindsight: A Year of Living Lightly on the Planet

“We are now over the 12-month mark of renovating an abandoned villa in Castlecliff into a warm, dry energy-efficient home. When we set out on this low budget / high performance retrofit we had no specific numbers in mind for energy savings and waste reduction. We simply wanted to push the envelope and do the best we could.

As it turns out, our power bill has averaged $20 per month (this includes the daily line charge) and we have spent a total of $20 in rubbish fees for the entire year. I’ve come to call this our “20-20 hindsight” but there is no reason it could not also be a 20-20 vision for others to work toward by the year 2020. Of course electric rates will increase by then, but that is all the more reason to invest in efficiency now. (At current rates of annual change, electric rates will double in under ten years.)”

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 9.39.19 AM

That was then and this is now. Our power bill has skyrocketed to $25 per month on average, but our rubbish fees have decreased to about $15 annually. 25-15 hindsight?!? Not so catchy.

But since it is an election year, I’ve decided to start my own political party. All important, as one would expect, is the name. It’s got to be something people recognize; something people like; something people will be remind of constantly.

The Chocolate Party? The All Blacks Party? The Sex Party – no, scratch that.

I know, I’ll call it the Internet Party. Everyone knows the internet. Everyone loves the internet. What could possibly be wrong with The Internet Party? Oh, taken already, eh?

Which leaves me with no option than calling it the Eco-Thrifty Party. Based on my calculations, we can offer our followers up to $50 per week (in power savings) in their pocket – almost as good as what Labour has pledged. We can pledge to out conservative the National Party by employing the Precautionary Principle when engaging any science and/or technology that may have consequences that ultimately outweigh the benefits.

Calling on my American roots, we also pledge a free-range chicken in every pot, home-grown tomatoes in every salad, an energy efficient light bulb in every socket, a bicycle in every garage, and free, independent ‘Healthy Home’ advice for every resident of Whanganui.

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 9.30.49 AM

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 9.30.40 AM

Seriously, we are offering free, independent ‘Healthy Home’ advice for every resident of Whanganui. No politics required.

Nelson Lebo is not the founder of the Eco-Thrifty Party, but does enjoy parties as long as he can be home and in bed by 9 pm. He is co-founder of The ECO School. 

Upcoming Events:

Warm, Dry, Healthy Homes. 19th April, 10 am – 1 pm. Drop in advice at the River Traders Market, River Exchange and Barter System (REBS) stall, Taupo Quay.

Seven Easy Steps to a Low-Energy Home, 22nd April, 6:30-7:30 pm. Community Room behind Gonville Library, 46 Abbott St.

Window Blanket DIY Workshop. 4th May, 3-5 pm. Duncan Pavilion. Please register.






Project HEAT Offers Free Eco-Design Advice

As much as I love living in Whanganui, I must admit that Palmerston North has impressed me. From the Palmerston North City Council website:

“Palmerston North has a strong focus on becoming a sustainable city. Reducing the city’s energy consumption is critical to this goal. Ensuring that homes in Palmerston North are warm and healthy will also build towards a sustainable community.”

From a job vacancy posted by PNCC:

“The overall purpose of council’s strategy is to facilitate a decrease in the amount of non-renewable energy used by households. This role plays a key part in achieving this through the provision of advice and information within the community on sustainable building, energy efficient retrofit and design on a one-to-one basis to residents.”  Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 7.17.53 AM

By contrast, two efforts to establish a similar programme with Wanganui District Council have been less inspiring. The first came in the form of a comprehensive Community Contract application with letters of support from six well-respected community groups. It was declined due to its lack of relevance to the WDC 10-year plan. (Never mind that power prices have doubled in the last ten years.)

The second effort came in the form of a visit from Richard Morrison, who serves the role described above for Kapiti Coast District Council. He presented to WDC and then to a small group of interested local professionals including myself. I may never forget the words of the council staff member representing WDC administration following Richard’s presentation.

“There is concern that the job title sounds too green.”

And with that definitive statement, effort number two bit the dust.

Job title: Eco Design Advisor.

The following councils have full-time permanent eco design advisors: Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Kaptit Coast, Hutt Valley, Nelson, and Invercargill.

Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 7.17.44 AM

In the wake of these two failed efforts to work with WDC to help Whanganui residents improve the health and energy efficiency of their homes, Project HEAT came into existence through a casual conversation followed by an anonymous donation.

Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) provides free, independent advice to Whanganui residents on how to save energy and money while making their homes healthier. Last year, over 400 Whanganui residents benefited from free presentations on eco-thrifty ideas for the home, free home energy audits based on the eco design advisor model, and low-cost DIY workshops.

Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 7.18.24 AM

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Of those who completed the survey following a home energy audit, all said they would recommend the service to a friend. Comments included:

Practical, objective, low cost suggestions from someone who isn’t trying to sell you any particular product. You feel like you are getting genuine well-researched advice that you can trust.

It made me think about how to keep the heat in versus keep heating a cold home.

Lots of different tips to save energy. It’s great to have a selection of improvement ideas. I’ll use different solutions in different areas. Awesome!

Practical, functional advice.

Practical solutions with a real space to visualize solutions.

Excellent explanations re: heat loss and cheap, effective solutions. How to fit a window blanket.

Thanks to additional anonymous donors along with other partners who have been recognized elsewhere in the local press recently, Project HEAT is back for 2014. Expanded programme offerings will include the above along with free drop-in advice at certain community events as well as the Saturday River Market – starting today!

Watch the sidebar to this column over the next four months for upcoming events.

 Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 7.18.11 AM


Free Eco-Design Advice:

Warm, Dry, Healthy Homes. 12th April, 10 am – 1 pm. River Traders Market, River Exchange and Barter System (REBS) stall, Taupo Quay.

Permaculture: Working with Nature: 13th April, 2 pm. River Room Community Arts Centre, Taupo Quay.

Warm, Dry, Healthy Homes. 19th April, 10 am – 1 pm. River Traders Market, River Exchange and Barter System (REBS) stall, Taupo Quay.

Update 3: The back half of the house

This is the third and final post in the Update Series, giving you a glimpse of our progress on the project over the past 8 months. The first post talked about the exterior of the house, the second about the front half of the interior, and this post will focus on the back half of the interior.

This part of the house, a lean-to added to the house around 1915-1920, was in a state of disrepair when we arrived. A previous owner, or several of them, had begun renovating the space. When we bought it, it had been divided into several small rooms on the north-eastern side and one larger room on the north-western side. We quickly made plans to swap this around to take advantage of the sun’s free energy (and to block it out when we don’t want it).

This is what the large room in the northwest looked like when we arrived. It had been used as a kitchen.

We constructed a wall (reusing the studwork from other walls we took down) to close off this room. It would be our new bathroom. We made sure to move the heavy cast-iron bath in before we put up the wall. (Every once in a while we go about things in the right order!)
We then removed the old kitchen cabinetry and brought in a toilet, vanity, washer and tub. Kiwi homes traditionally have a small toilet room separate from the bathing room. We opted against this, because we thought having one big room would allow us to use the space in more ways. We can now dry our clothes in here on damp days, and were able to position our heavy tub to catch the sun’s rays from a northwest window, acting as thermal mass.
We then removed the window that faced southwest. This was a net energy gainer in the summer and a net energy loser in the winter. Quite the opposite of what we were aiming for.

And finally, this is the stage we are at now. We’re fairly close to being done in this room (which is very exciting after living with only a camping shower since October). Just a few finishing details to get to before we have (finally!) a fully functional and beautiful bathroom!

Moving along the house, we get to the back door. Although, do you still call it a door when it is boarded up with iron so you can’t get out, but still manages to let a huge amount of rain in. Let’s call it our “back weather inlet”. First step was to reframe the door and fix the damaged wall.
We then built the bathroom wall, creating a back entry-way that would help insulate our cozy house against harsh winds and cold weather in the winter. It would also be a handy place to store garden tools, boots, our solar cooker, and potentially a hot water heater.
But it turned out that our solar hot water cylinder lives on the roof, so our closet can now get used for storage. It’s actually the only closet in the whole house. This picture is kind of confusing, but this is how the back entry way looks now. Our closet door is on the left and our two back doors (storm door and inner door) are shown under a home-made pelmet. Gum boots to the right and tools tucked in the corner to the left. We have yet to add a door to seal off this room, but when we do, I am hoping to find a glass one that will let the light into the hallway.

Alright, so finally we get to the new kitchen. As you can tell from the below pictures this was all studwork when we arrived.

It was tough to get a full shot because it was so narrow and dark, but this is a view moving down the length of the room, ending at the pièce de résistance.
In a show of manly strength and strength of stomach, Nelson removed the toilet and the water damaged wall beside it.

He then framed out the doorway for our custom aluminium french doors. These will provide a second entrance to the back of the house, while simultaneously letting more light and warmth into the northernmost corner. The new exterior doors, combined with an added doorway from this room into the lounge, creates a much more light, warm, and livable living space.
Then it was time to add the insulation.

And finally, this is what the kitchen looks like now, panning along the same view as the combined shot above.

We have since plastered and painted an undercoat. As I write, Nelson is pouring the foundation for our Shacklock multi-fuel stove, which will serve cooking and heating functions. We still have decisions to make about cabinetry and flooring, but we’re getting closer.
And so that’s where we’re at. The 8 months have gone by quickly, and to be honest it is surprising to see the progress when we lay it out in pictures like this. It’s a bit of a motivation booster! I think we can, I think we can. The finish line is in sight (although given my husband’s love of creativity, I have a feeling this house will never really be “finished”).

What have the past 8 months brought your way? What are you most proud of accomplishing since November?

-June Cleverer

Update 2: The front half of the house

Here is the second of three posts designed to bring you up to speed on the scope of this project so far (here’s the link back to the first post). This post will focus on the southern four rooms of our house. These rooms actually make up the original part of our house, built around 1910. The northern lean-to, which I will talk about in my next post, was added on about 10 years later.

The original house consisted of four rooms and a central hallway. These are the bottom four rooms in these layouts. They are the ones that have received the least amount of demolition and rebuild, but that’s not to say that the transformation is not dramatic.

The first time we walked into our house, we saw a hallway that stretched the length of the house. It was filled with dust, rubble, and long lengths of Hardiplank.

We have since sealed up an old doorway that was halfway down the hall and have hung a door in it. This has effectively sealed off the southernmost two bedrooms, and created an airlock in the hall entryway. Now when you walk in the front door you stand in this entry, and are greeted with our coats and boots.
When we moved in, the two southernmost bedrooms were filled to the brim with rubbish. I hate to disappoint, but they are still filled with rubbish. Only now its our rubbish. One of the rooms is serving as our indoor tool shed and the other as our indoor bike/ surf shed. They are too messy to picture. Maybe another day.

Moving down the hall (through the new doorway) you arrive at our bedroom on the left hand side. When we arrived this is how it looked:
It was stuffed full of windows, cabinet units, bathtubs, even a kitchen sink! Now it is a cozy little nest with gold curtains and a down comforter. Yummmm.

Across the hall is a room that we called “the dungeon” when we first arrived. It was dark and gloomy with dirty old carpets, moldy curtains, a massive boarded up window, and a giant hole in the floor. We didn’t do any work in here for months. I think we were afraid.
But now, thanks to some demo work, we have converted the dungeon into a great open-plan lounge off of the kitchen. There is still tons of work to do here (like flooring, wall coverings, and doors), but it is already a nice sunny place and joyful space to live in.

I think what amazes me most, is how light can play such a critical role in the transformation of a room. The rooms in our house that were originally our favorites to be in are now the ones where we spend the least amount of time. And ones that we avoided initially, have become our living spaces.

Our intention was to design based on the principals of passive solar, making the most of the sun’s energy to heat our home. But through the remodel we have ended up with a house that is not only warmer and lighter physically, but also more comfortable and joyful emotionally.

So what do you think? Are you surprised by our progress? Did you think we’d be further along by now? Any words of advice as we get to the “finishings”?

-June Cleverer

Update 1: The Exterior

We are getting to a point in this project where a lot of the major work is done. Since October, we have knocked out walls and built new ones. We have re-wired, re-plumbed, and re-inhabited this 100 yr old abandoned house. Before we get onto the finishing details, I thought you might appreciate a look back at progress so far.

The first of these update posts will take a look at the exterior. From the beginning until now.

The back of the house:

And the weed infested lawn turned garden:

If you think those are dramatic, wait until you see the inside!

-June Cleverer