Let’s Reduce Asthma By Building Better homes
Asthma New Zealand Nurse Educators spend a lot of time in people’s homes. As New Zealand’s largest Asthma education organisation they have seen inside thousands of homes and what they know to be true is that those who live in cold, damp, mouldy homes must work much harder at managing their asthma than those that don’t.
Shocked by the knowledge that New Zealand is recognised by the World Health Organisation as having some of the unhealthiest homes in the world, Asthma New Zealand had to understand why!
On World Asthma Day (1st May) Asthma New Zealand is excited to release the very first episode of the 6-episode series. If nothing else Asthma New Zealand want Kiwi’s to understand that cold, damp, mouldy housing is not normal.
“The way we build needs to change, using a building code 30 years behind most other countries makes maintaining good health so much more challenging” quotes Katheren Leitner, Chief Executive of Asthma New Zealand.
Some alarming and unwanted New Zealand statistics:
An unbelievable 80%+ of homes in New Zealand have mould in them that can and does lead to respiratory disorders including Asthma and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Over 700,000 people in New Zealand have Asthma alone, that’s roughly 1 in 7 residents.
Another alarming and unwanted statistic is that over 53% of homes in New Zealand are officially classified as unhealthy to live in. What happened to the clean and green New Zealand image that we’re all told about? Is it just greenwashing?
Reality is statistically New Zealand builds some of the unhealthiest homes in the entire world, so Asthma New Zealand is on a mission to reduce Asthma and COPD hospitalisation by 50% by 2029.
The environment within which we live has a huge impact on our health and the way New Zealand builds homes leave a lot of room for improvement.
If your home is unhealthy, you become unhealthy.
Asthma have been working hard over the last 3 months producing a series of six episodes that
Why do we have to clean mould every other week in New Zealand? And see my breath when I wake up? And vacuum my windows? Whether you own or whether you rent, the one thing we all have in common is we want a roof over our head. We know that we’ve got a shortage of houses in New Zealand, but the other crisis that we have is that the houses that we do have aren’t exactly doing a great job of keeping us healthy. Is it possible for you and I to do things that make our houses healthier? We’re going to travel up and down the country, we’re going to go and have a look at what’s being done to improve the health of the houses that we live in. Is it possible in New Zealand because it hasn’t been for the last four decades? I’m certainly no expert in this space, so let’s call in those who are.
As an expert in building, when you’re driving around and having, what do you see when you see homes? I mean personally, I always see things like staining and cracking. I literally can’t ignore it. I’m walking down the street and I’ll just see it and immediately my brain is already trying to figure out where it’s coming from, why it’s happening and how to fix it, and then kind of going through the rest of that process and just being disappointed that it’s probably not going to happen. And I guess that’s a challenge if it ain’t broke. You know, don’t fix it. But it is broke and people don’t realise it’s broken because it just seems like it’s natural. Oh, buildings eventually after 15 years, they start to be smelly and they start to be a little bit stinky and we have to replace all the gypsum board. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be designed a different way.
Well, I’ve got my experts in the car. Let’s go and have a look at a Kiwi Dream. Here I am sitting in your new home, the Kiwi Dream. Is it a Kiwi Dream for you? It’s a double-edged sword. Beautiful setting. But the home itself, I think, needs some attention. Why is our healthy home become so important to you? We both suffer from asthma. I started to get bothered by the air quality and we don’t want to live in a dump, cold house. We have a baby to think about. Having a wee one has really sort of changed our focus. To this was such a shock and it really did start to change our thinking about what on earth we need to do to try and make the place warm and that she feel like it’s cosy. You’ve actually bought a house that is, you know, technically by our checklist standard, healthy. But what you’ve experienced, you know, in one very short winter… It’s freezing. So it’s pretty clear that something needs to change and this is sort of part of us working towards that. So here we are. Let’s go have a look at this Kiwi Dream. So so many Kiwis dream to own their own home. Let’s go have a look and understand what things should they be doing to improve the health of their home. I think the first step is we come out to the outside, take a look around and then going inside, seeing if there’s any sort of condensation staining, if you see anything around windows, et cetera, et cetera. But we’ll go through that. You have concrete block everywhere, so there’s no insulation obviously.
We’re in this amazing property with beautiful trees around it, but they cast shade all over this house from multiple directions. And because of that, you don’t have that warmth which is gained by the sun. Well, what should they do? What should they do? I think let’s take a look at the full house first. I don’t even know if there’s ventilation. I don’t know if there’s heating. I’m assuming there’s probably not because it is an older house and generally they don’t have them, but you never know. Let’s wander up and have a look at what’s happening up here. So we come out into the main living area and I think that’s what’s going to be really interesting. These old-style windows, they’re beautiful, not very airtight, so they’re not very efficient, but they work because the heat here blows out through those cracks and it dries things as it’s coming outwards. So was there anything that you were surprised by up there? Oh, a little bit. The house has been re-roofed, but they haven’t taken the opportunity to properly insulate through that while they were doing it. So we’re going to say there’s next to no insulation in the ceiling. So, you know, you’ve made an assumption that there’s no insulation in these walls. Is that because of the error of the house, typically?
Yep, yep, a combination of things. I mean, we could pull off some power points and look in the wall, but we’ve just discovered that there’s no insulation or next to no insulation in the ceiling and so we can safely assume that there’s none in the wall. So we’ve had a look at this house now. We’ve got a young couple that have just invested into the Kiwi Dream. Is there anything they could do to make some improvements? It’s about improving the pieces that are largely hidden. Top floor, it’s hard to see into the ceiling space. It’s hard to see in the walls. The downstairs is a different story. That’s got some other fairly major challenges, some weird materials that have been put in there in the past that can be removed and actually will improve the space. So your priorities, from when you bought the house, when you first viewed it, to having lived in it now for a little while, have changed? Absolutely. I mean, initially it was all the aesthetics, even looking at, we’re doing the carpet, but it certainly has changed. I’m thinking that really it’s the insulation that needs to be addressed. This couple, like so many of you, needs some answers. So, we need to go to Wellington. For 20 years, research has been done on what makes our homes so unhealthy and the impact on our young people’s health.
Today, I’m at Otago University to speak to a team who have dedicated their research to understanding this and making recommendations to authorities so that they can improve the way we build and the way we retrofit houses in New Zealand. I’m really curious. You’ve ended up almost dedicating your career now to the space. Why? There’s so much good we can do if we can get it right and how to explain to everybody, to explain to people what are the cause and the effect? What is the effect size? I think we all accepted this stage that healthy homes are linked to childhood diseases and to ill health. But how do we make that change? How big a change do we want to make? How do we explain to Government that they need to invest? And also the scale of the problem. 28,000 children each year are hospitalised in New Zealand for housing-related diseases. And that’s really sad. Were you shocked by that? Yes, I’m shocked and horrified. But what’s even worse is it’s the same kids again and again. Those kids, if you’re hospitalised in New Zealand for a housing-related disease, three and a half times more likely to come back to hospital again.
You’re coming back faster, more often, than any other hospitalisation. And there are severe other hospitalisations out there. Housing is preventable and it shouldn’t be like that. Are the policy makers listening to the research that you’re doing? We’ve started on insulation, we’ve started catching up, but unfortunately a house built to today’s building code in New Zealand would not pass the Irish building code because this problem’s so complicated that that’s why it’s so difficult to fix. We’ve shown for the Healthy Homes Initiative for every 10 visits out we’re doing. We’re preventing one child from going to hospital each year. We’re preventing six GP visits and we’re preventing six pharmaceutical scripts. So rather than trying to find medical cures to bad housing, let’s fix the housing.
In your mind, there’s two decades now of some really detailed research into how we increase the health of our houses. Do you feel that we’ve made significant progress? The role of researchers is to say what are the important questions and then look at how we can produce evidence that is most convincing and then that it gets rolled out into policy and that it’s funded in each budget. And we’ve seen that for insulation, heating, the improvement of rental housing, the Healthy Homes Guarantee was brought in. And I think that’s very important, not just for the people living in the house but for the fabric of the house. Philippa, if there was one thing that you would like to see happen with the immediacy in relation to the issues of Healthy Homes, what would it be? Any day now we promise we’re going to get a new building code during the last one was over 10 years ago and a code that is well below most countries in the OECD. We are very slow at moving in some things.
We should just go for the good standards that they have in Germany and Ireland and say we don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this. We know that these things are really important and so I would like us to get a move on. On this beautiful, cold polar blast Wellington day, we’re heading out to Shalidra’s house. Now Shalidra won’t mean anything to any of you. She’s the CEO of Brands and they’re responsible for best practice research. So I think she’s incredibly brave because I would imagine that as the CEO of Brands, there’s probably quite an expectation on her that her home is going to be the best of the best. All I have to say, I think you’re incredibly brave letting me into your house because I would imagine that there’s quite a lot of pressure on you in terms of having the perfect house. You know the house, it is the epitome of healthy and functional and so tell me a little bit about this house that we’re sitting in now. We were looking at buying a house in Wellington and my husband said to me, now’s the time when your chief executive for Brands no better time to get a project house and do a renovation because you’ve got access to all the information you could possibly need. We did come into an old house and we bought a view when a house came with it and we decided that we would spend the first year living in it and getting a sense of the house and what the sun did and things like that but it seemed fine.
What I didn’t realise was just how much work it needed to make it a healthy home and living in here for a year that really exposed it really showed it very, very quickly just what was a standard kiwi home built into the standards of the time just how inadequate it was. And what were some of the things that had you realised how inadequate it was? So we sort of moved in middle of the year and sort of had that first winter when our younger son sort of got first winter cold and, ah, it’s Wellington, you know how that’s okay and he just coughed and he coughed and he couldn’t get rid of this cough it was just incessant, someone came along it was alright and then the next winter came along and we hadn’t started our renovation and the same thing happened again but this time it was so persistent that the doctors started treating it as asthma and said, look this isn’t asthma cough and we had asthma drugs for him and by then starting to pick up just how much this environment was affecting him and we had no insulation in the roof no insulation in the walls. Your experience of living in it before you started the renovation how did that change what you prioritised?
I didn’t think this was going to be my forever home I wanted to leave a legacy of a warmer, drier home not just for my family but for future families that were living in here so we quite quickly started working with an architect and sort of talking about what we wanted and it was an interesting conversation because goals were slightly different and suddenly our budget gets pushed around my husband who’s an amazing chef I wanted him to have a lovely kitchen to work in but you know, by golly, I was going to have a warm dry home first and foremost What are some of the trade-offs? One of the things that we had to do was we had to do a lot of drainage underneath the house so massive ditch being dug and concrete being poured in extra piles to make sure everything watered the channel the water well and things like that but that was really incredibly important for the stuff that’s made the home dry and taken out that musty smell that has to be done and that was the difference between that and reconfiguring the bathrooms, for example, so we could have gone for higher-end cupboards and things like that but we got a good kitchen and put money into some of the things that you just don’t see, It’s been life-changing.
I’ve never lived in a truly warm dry, airtight home and I just didn’t appreciate until I really started living in one just how fantastic it is and the health benefits that we’ve seen for myself and my family far less colds and niggles and things like that so I would not hesitate to do it again. Right now we’re on this journey about what a healthy home looks like and there’s a lot of criticism of the building code but of course the building code is great for the new houses being built but every single person currently living in a house is living in a house that’s built and the building code isn’t that great for the houses that we’re building right now because it is a minimum standard and just because you build to the minimum standard doesn’t actually necessarily mean that you’ll have a healthy home or a healthy enough home.
There’s a mindset in New Zealand about the way we build, and so we’re going to go speak to the people that actually build the houses. We’re going to go speak to the Master Builders Association and find out their perspective. What’s their view on this thing called a healthy home? Do they build for healthy, or do they build for quantity?
David, as the CEO of the Registered Master Builders Association, you know that MB right now is reviewing the building code, the very document that has such a significant impact on the homes that not just we won’t live in, but our future generations will be living in. What are some of the changes or improvements that you would like to see come through on that document?
I think the specific proposals at the moment are really focused around insulation. There are some elements of it we think make sense and they’re backed up by the science and the research by brands. There are other parts of it, but I’m not sure we’re asking the right questions. Some of what we hear from people who are deeply involved in things like passive house are some very simple system thinking about air tightness and airflow and understanding that. I’m not sure we’re asking that question, so maybe a better question could be: how do we improve the overall performance in terms of airflow and constant temperature? Because those are the things that are fundamental, and I think the current proposals aren’t there yet.
Our view is there’s some good stuff we might be able to get on with, but other things we need to reconsider, and I think we have to have continuous improvement of the building code. What we haven’t prioritised in New Zealand over many decades is housing as an important impact on our health. It has not been regarded as a high priority, and from a government point of view, things tend to be put into separate buckets. So there’s money put into the health system, but we know there’s a drag on the health system because of poor housing. How do we change that? How do we influence?
“I think as a sector, we don’t work well together, so we tend to work in our silos. We have builders, builders who are in the silo, designers in the silo, engineers in another silo, and so forth. We need to be able to talk better together as a sector, and that’s on us. We need to collectively lead and not just put pressure on government and politicians, but actually help to generate the solutions because I think a lot of that knowledge does sit in the center, and it does rely on research outfits like brands who are doing some really good stuff, so I don’t think we’re leveraging that. Sometimes we can be so passionate about finding a solution to the problem that we fail to understand the problem in the first place, and the very solution instead of fixing the problem creates more problems. It would be fearful to see the building code actually create more problems than solutions. The issue is that we’re looking for instant solutions, not sustainable solutions. We see it in the housing issue more broadly in terms of housing supply, and media are asking questions about what’s the one thing we can do to fix it, and the fact is there is no one thing, there’s a number of things, but if we understand how it works we’ll get the right answers. One of the things we’ve been promoting, for instance, in terms of housing supply, is not a rush to build a whole lot of houses now, but consistently build over time. I think that will go to quality too because if we’ve got certainty about the amount of houses we’re going to build, designers and builders will have some certainty they invest back into their own knowledge and their own expertise, and the providers of products also do the R&D.
That consistency rather than a boom-bust is actually one of the underlying problems that we’re pretty hot on that we have to think about, but that again goes back to government giving priority to housing over a period of time, not just when we have a problem. A beehive keeps its occupants healthy, unlike New Zealand homes. It’s failing to keep any of its occupants healthy. We’re at MB, let’s go find out about this building code. You know, I’ve traveled up and down the country here, and I’ll tell you what, that thing called a building code, oh my gosh, get so much criticism, yeah, and I think the reality is there’s parts of it that need to be updated, and that’s what we’ve got a big programme to do, so that’s our ambition because what I hear in the industry is that the New Zealand building code is about 30 years behind the European building code, is that correct? We do know that we lag behind, particularly around our insulation standards, but that’s exactly why we’ve got our programme to take standards. When just two or three weeks ago, we released our first update, the biggest increase in energy efficiency stands for the past ten years. We got more submissions this year with our building code update than the combined total of the previous five years, so what we know is that people really care about this stuff, and the absolutely overwhelming message we got was, you go as far and as fast as you can to do this stuff, why can’t we go from where we are and be really bold and just take a massive leap? It’s not like just buying a new fridge. You can’t just kind of like take the old system out and put a new system in there because at the end of the day, to be able to build successfully, we need products, we need design, and we need builders. The key thing that we talk to the sector about is buildability.
Are these changes buildable? And we’re constantly pushing the sector on that front. And I think sometimes we’re possibly some of the feedback I get is that we’re actually pushing them quite hard, and that actually we’re challenging them to deliver on that. I’m okay with that actually, but we can’t get too far in front so that the sector can’t build what we regulate.
Do you think New Zealand have left it too late? Oh, I don’t think any of us can believe that. We have to throw ourselves into the work knowing we’re making a real and effective difference. I came to Wellington looking for answers, rather than answers what I’m leaving with is a comfort in knowing that there is not one person I’ve met to date that is not committed to improving the health of our homes. We can’t just go from unhealthy houses to healthy houses overnight; this is going to take a little bit of time, and that’s where we all must play our part. Working more cohesively together, working together as a system, exactly as our homes do, they work as a system.
Now, let’s go have a look and deep dive in and understand what makes up a home, what makes a home healthy. So, we’re going to travel up and down the country, we’re going to go and have a look at insulation, ventilation, and heating. Find out what a 10-star home looks like. Now, I’ve never walked into this thing called a passive home, I didn’t even know it existed, you probably didn’t either, so let’s go have a look.
So join me next time as we go and find out what we can do to make our homes just a little healthier.”