Category Archives: window treatments

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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Would You Buy This House? Part 1: Energy

Sustainability at 10 Arawa Place

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.

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Part 1: Energy Efficiency

10 Arawa Place has been 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.

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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. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.01.59 AM

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 for overnight when it is released into the home. Beyond the mass already in the structure, we added approximately one thousand kilograms of thermal mass that receives direct winter sunlight from sunrise to sunset through three large windows and the French doors. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.00.21 AM

This extra thermal mass is essentially invisible because it takes the form of an extra 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 benefit of cooking and baking.

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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.

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The walls in the northern parts of the villa are insulated to R-2.8 and the ceilings are insulated to R-3.6 above the kitchen and bathroom and to approximately R-5 above the lounge and all three bedrooms. These all far exceed the building code. (The underfloor insulation is incomplete at the moment.)

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We spent two winters in the small bedroom and never used a heater. Our body warmth alone kept the room above 15 degrees all night long. Temperatures in the lounge, kitchen and bathroom could drop to 14 or maybe 13 on the rare morning with a frost. Some of this strong 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. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.02.07 AM

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 three years ranged from $17 to $31 per month including the daily line charge. The appliances we operated were: refrigerator, freezer, oven, toaster, electric kettle, cake mixer, wizzy stick, wifi, alarm system, clocks, radios, power tools, etc. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.02.16 AM

The solar hot water system is set to a winter sun angle to maximize performance when hours of sunlight are shortest. The 240-litre tank allows ample storage to bridge three winter days without sun. We placed the temperature monitor in the hall next to the bathroom so it can be easily referenced. Over three winters, we only turned on the electric boost for the hot water a handful of times for 20 to 30 minutes each.

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To be continued…


Part 2: Durability

Coloursteel Maxx roof, November, 2011.

New, low-maintenance exterior cladding, 2012.

High quality exterior paint.

Walls braced against earthquake and wind.

Sistered bearers and joists fro added strength under floor

All floors treated for borer

All new wiring, November, 2011

Capping on fences to protect end grain from rain

Wind-hardy trees to protect netting from long-term UV damage

Earthen pizza oven protected from rain and wind

Brick patio instead of wooden deck

Driftwood – durable native hardwood timber for landscaping


Part 3: Productivity

Topsoil: 6 cubic metres for garden beds, trees and top-dressing lawns.

Wind protection: double-layer of wind cloth with new treated posts.

Rainwater collection

Compost: 8-10 cubic metres.

Native plantings for privacy and wind protection.

52+ Fruit trees: 7 feijoas; 11 olives; 13 apples; 5 peaches; 3 plums; 1 apricot; 2 guavas; 4 grapevines; 2 figs; 1 banana; 1 tamarillo; 1 orange; 1 loquat; plus rhubarb, cape gooseberry, strawberries, summer and autumn raspberries,

Vegetable gardens:

Rotational grazing of ducks and chooks:




First Things First: Health & Comfort

In any home, there are two major factors for winter comfort and health: temperature and humidity. A warm, dry home makes the human body feel good, and keeps the immune system strong. Conversely, cold, damp homes do just the opposite. Unfortunately, New Zealand housing is known more for the latter than the former.

It has been easy to forget about the sad state of NZ housing while living in our passive solar, super-insulated villa in Castlecliff. The temperature never dropped below 14 degrees even when a frost carpeted the ground outside, and the relative humidity never rose above 50%. It was easy to maintain a healthy home for our young daughter while paying power bills in the low double digits.

Now that we have shifted, we are confronted with the challenges of living in a cold, damp, draughty home. While the new house and property have huge potential, the living conditions during our first weeks of residence have been a shock to the system. We have had a few mornings of 10 degrees in the lounge, and a relative humidity consistently around 70%. It has been difficult to keep our daughter’s bedroom above 16 degrees overnight, and I suspect the high humidity contributed to her recent illness. I anticipate that our first power bill will be well over a hundred dollars – more than three times dearer than our previous high.

Taking possession in the middle of winter has added an element of urgency to improving the health and comfort of the home. With limited time and budget, I had to prioritize the first best steps to take. Using eco-thrifty thinking and an understanding of how energy and moisture flow through a structure, I focused on a number of low-budget / high-performance strategies.

Shifting from a villa on free-draining sand to a bungalow on clay has meant that rising damp has gone from a non-issue to a huge concern. Up to 40 litres of water vapor enters the average Kiwi home every day from the ground beneath it. A lack of adequate ventilation under our bungalow may mean that we receive even more than that daily dose of damp. While the long-term option for dealing with this is to install polythene sheets as a vapor barrier, a short-term solution to get us through this winter was to break out a piece of Hardie board opposite the access way to allow the wind to cross ventilate.  Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 6.08.30 PM

The next low-budget and high-performance weekend chore I undertook was simply trimming back a vine that was blocking midday sun from entering the lounge. The winter sun is a free heater and the vine was acting like a wall plug switched off. Ultimately, a number of trees to the north will also need to be felled to improve passive solar gain. Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 6.08.40 PM

With more free heat entering our home, the next important thing to do is to hold onto it as long as possible. As described in last week’s column, that meant topping up our ceiling insulation with wool/fiberglass blankets to an R-value of over 5.0 – nearly twice the requirement of the NZ building code. Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 6.08.49 PM

But as that extra warmth is held in by our ceiling, it “stacks” downward only to radiate quickly through the single-glazed windows (R-0.15). Windows and glass doors are the weak link in most Kiwi homes, and until we can all afford double-glazing, we endeavor to use curtains to their greatest potential. Just as we layer up with clothing on a cold day, we should cover our windows with a minimum of two layers of fabric and strive for three.

By luck I found some ready-made Roman blinds deeply discounted and bought the lot. It took about 20 minutes to install each blind behind the existing curtains.

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One weekend’s work and less than $1,000 has improved the health and comfort of our new home by leaps and bounds. And this is just the beginning.

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Peace, Estwing


Coming 7th – 14th September: Adult & Community Eco-Literacy Week.

Free Events.

7th September, 1-2 PM Eco-Design for large properties. 223 No. 2 Line

7th September, 2-3 PM Eco-Design for small properties. 223 No. 2 Line

9th September, 6:00-7:00 PM. Solar Energy. Josephite Retreat Centre, Hillside Terrrace.

10th September, 5-6 PM. Growing vege on sandy soils, TBD

12th September, 5:30-6:30 PM. Best ways to use your heat pump, TBD


The Best Innovations Are Free

Innovation, someone once wrote, is in the eye of the beholder. Oh wait, that was me last week. How innovative!

See what I mean?

Someone else – I’m serious this time – once told me that perspective prejudices perception. In other words, the angle at which we look at something heavily influences the way in which we internalize it. This person was Eliot Coleman, a famous American market gardener and author.

I met Coleman about ten years ago, and found him very much of the eco-thrifty persuasion. We got on famously.

It will come as no surprise that the eco-thrifty perspective on innovation is very different from the infinite-growth-without-consequences perspective. The latter, what Australian author Clive Hamilton calls “Growth Fetish,” appears to be the dominant perspective of Wanganui District Council, made evident by the stacks of cash it throws at chasing this outdated paradigm.

Innovative councils across the country and around the world see beyond a reductionist vision of growth, and have reaped huge rewards. Name any vibrant, dynamic city on the planet with high quality of life for residents and you’ll find innovative planning, programmes, and services provided by local government. Last week I briefly described the Eco Design Advisor service offered by seven councils in New Zealand.

The service helps local residents make their homes warmer, dryer and healthier while saving on their power bills and supporting local businesses and trades persons. It is a win-win-win proposition that is about doing more with less, while simultaneously protecting the community from future price rises in energy and health care.

Doing more with less is a philosophy that we have engaged for the last three and a half years while converting a draughty villa into a cosy, healthy, low-energy home. This process involved lots of innovation…depending on your point of view.

One successful way we do more with less is by using window blankets in our home. These consist of bits of scrap wood and old wool blankets, but can perform as well as double-glazing. I’ve written about window blankets before, and there is a free DIY workshop coming up tomorrow (see side bar). If you plan to attend the workshop, please measure the width of one window in your home (inside the window frame), bring a piece of wood of corresponding length, and a wool blanket or polar fleece fabric. Wood dimensions should be in the range of 12 mm by 70 mm or 45 mm by 45 mm.

Another innovation that has helped us do more with less involves turning an open top curtain rail into a closed top curtain rail. The reason for doing this is that in most cases an open top curtain rail allows warm air to drop behind the curtain and cool off once it finds itself against a cold window. This air cools and sinks, pulling more warm air from the ceiling and the cycle continues all night long.

Put simply, you could have the best, most expensive, custom-made curtains in the world but if they are not installed properly they are not effective at holding in heat. I would estimate that 70% to 80% of all the curtains I see in NZ homes are not hung to maximize warmth retention. What an unnecessary waste!

The photos I’ve included show the before and after, but the process is quite simple. 1) take down the curtain rail and brackets;

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2) pre-drill holes in the rail and bin the brackets; 3) reuse the screws from the brackets to screw the rail directly to the window frame or wall;

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4) turn the curtain hooks around and re-hang the curtain;

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5) be warmer and enjoy lower power bills; 6) praise eco-thrifty design thinking.

If you have questions, come along to one of the events listed in the sidebar.

Peace, Estwing


Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training)

Free Events

13th – Window Blanket DIY Workshop. 2:00 – 4:00, Duncan Pavilion. For materials info, see above.

16th – Drop-In Healthy Advice. 4:30-5:30, Central Library.

Window Blankets: The Ultimate in Eco-Thrifty

Double-glazing is great. Secondary glazing is awesome. Thermal curtains are sweet-as, if they are fitted properly. And pelmets are da bomb!
We have incorporated all of them into a diverse strategy for improving the thermal comfort of our home in Castlecliff while keeping costs low by using eco-design thinking. The eco-design process takes in a multitude of factors and plans for efficiency, effectiveness, and redundancy. When applied to the built environment, good eco-design includes what some call the ‘Green Rule of Energy,’ which goes something like this: Saving energy is cheaper than producing energy.
My New Hampshire (USA) farmhouse inspire me to think about keeping warm on a budget.  
For example, a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) uses just one quarter as much electricity as a standard incandescent light bulb while producing the same amount of light. If a 25-watt CFL were run next to a 100-watt incandescent for 10 hours per day, the difference in running costs for one month would be about $5. The difference in running costs for a year would be – you guessed it – $60.
The dramatic difference shows the power of the Green Rule. Imagine the savings by changing two light bulbs, or five, or every light in your home or business. And, as an added bonus, CFLs last about 10 times longer than incandescents, so there are additional savings from buying one bulb instead of 10 over a period of time.
Another example of the Green Rule of Energy is insulation. Please be aware, however, that insulation comes in colours other than pink! In other words, there may be a specific product we associate with the word ‘insulation’ – batts – but insulation itself is simply trapped air, such as that in between two pieces of glass in double-glazing. The second piece of glass is not the insulator, it is the trapped air in between the two. So, in a sense, insulation is invisible because it is air! Abracadabra!
The original window blanket in my 1782 farmhouse.  
Now that I have blown your mind, I’ll describe what is quite potentially the lowest cost / highest performance way to insulate a villa, bungalo, beach bach, houseboat, or even a sheering shed. This incredible breakthrough in air technology has previously been unknown to New Zealanders because…well, frankly I made it up, and I only arrived a couple of years ago.
Of course, there is another possible explanation for such an extraordinary technological breakthrough being kept secret. And that is, of course, that the greedy New Zealand health care industry wants Kiwis to live in cold, damp homes so it can reap grotesque profits from treating preventable illnesses. Oh, what’s that you say? Nevermind.
I call it a ‘window blanket’, and it is an excellent example of Yankee thrift meets Kiwi ingenuity. When I first started building them a decade ago for my 220 year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, I used two pieces of wood, a few screws, and a second-hand mattress protector (quilted mattress pad) with the elastic cut off. Now that I build them for our villa in Castlecliff, I use two pieces of wood, a few screws, and a second-hand wool blanket.
The ‘modern’ version of a window blanket in our Castlecliff home.  
Because we have a lot of wood hanging around from our renovation, and there are ample op shops in Whanganui, the average cost per window blanket has been about $7. If properly fitted, they perform as well as double-glazing. This is significant because up to 30% of heat loss from a home is through glass doors and windows – about as much as the heat lost through the ceiling.
This is not to say that you should not invest in double-glazing if you have the means. What it is to say, is that with window blankets everyone has the means to make their homes cosier.
Want to learn more? A DIY workshop on window blankets will be help the 1st of June from 1:30-3:30. Registration essential.

Upcoming Workshops

Two Workshops, One Day. June 1st, 2013
1:30-3:30 pm. Window Blanket DIY Workshop
4:00-5:30 pm. Growing Great Garlic, Plentiful Pumpkins, and Tomatoes Before Christmas

Window Blanket DIY Workshop.
1st June, 2013. 1:30-3:30 pm. Quaker Meeting House. 256 Wicksteed St.
As effective as double-glazing but at a small fraction of the cost, window blankets are one of the best things a householder can do to make their home warmer, dryer and healthier. In this workshop, you will learn how to make your own custom fit window blanket to take home and install. You’ll also gain the knowledge and skills to make more of them at home.
All tools will be supplied. Either bring your own materials or buy them at the workshop for a small fee.
Space is limited.
Registration essential. – 344 5013
Workshop fee: $20 ($15 unwaged)
Materials fee: $8 – $16
Growing Great Garlic, Plentiful Pumpkins, and Tomatoes Before Christmas

This workshop shares  some lesser-known tips and techniques to enhance the growing of common garden vegetables organically. On our small section in Castlecliff, we grow 400 beautiful garlic and over 100 kilograms of pumpkins with very little effort. Last year we had our first ripe tomatoes on 15th December without a glass house.
1st June, 2013. 4:00-5:30 pm. Quaker Meeting House. 256 Wicksteed St.
Space is limited.
Registration essential. – 344 5013
Workshop fee: $15 ($10 unwaged)