There has been a lot of coverage recently about the state of New Zealand's housing, which has been described as the worst in the developed world.
It's great that initiatives like the ongoing home insulation scheme are improving our existing housing stock. Programmes like these need to continue, as housing is crucial for us all, socially, economically and environmentally.
The problem is we're still building houses that fall far short of where they should be regarding energy efficiency and overall performance. A new home built to the bare minimum standards of our current building code can score as little as three out of 10 on the industry standard Homestar rating scale.
In the aftermath of the leaky homes debacle, we had an opportunity to ramp up the standards and make New Zealand homes world class. Instead, despite "upgrades" to the H1 part of the code we still produce mediocre houses if minimum standards are followed while red tape and compliance costs have increased.
What we need is less red tape and more green solutions. We need a code and a regulatory environment that empowers us to build efficient, affordable homes that meet the needs of people and the environment.
There are a number of areas where we could make massive strides to improve the efficiency of our new homes and their ongoing running costs. Currently, the perverse incentive is to produce houses at the lowest possible cost with no thought for the long term impact.
This is encouraged by the building code, which has weak insulation, energy and water-efficiency standards. Sure, we get cheaper houses upfront but then we are committed to paying higher running costs later.
If we took a pragmatic approach and invested in efficient solutions up front we would reduce lifetime running costs and lower the environmental footprints of housing. We could help offset these initial investments by reducing the cost of compliance.
The sort of solutions which could be made mandatory include: solar hot water, generating a certain percentage of the home's electricity onsite, LED lighting, energy efficient heating, water efficient fixtures and rainwater tanks.
One of the biggest gains we could make would be to structure our homes around passive solar design. When New Zealand was colonised by European settlers in the 19th century you could forgive them for doing things like facing their homes south, it was what they were used to. But why are we still doing things like this in the 21st century?
If we factored in utilising the free heat of the sun when designing and building our homes and combined this with doubling insulation and glazing standards, we could eliminate the need for additional heating in many situations. This would be a huge relief for household budgets and the climate.
Michael Reynolds, the father of the Earth Ship movement, talks about their passive solar home not needing any additional heating despite living in a climate where the temperature consistently drops below -20°C in winter. They put on the fire at Christmas just for ambience.
We are only just starting to scratch the surface of what is possible. We could usher in a totally new paradigm which puts the needs of people and the planet at the centre of our housing design. Central government needs to play a key role in achieving this sort of change by completely revamping the building code.
In the meantime, we're stuck with every mediocre house built to today's standards for decades to come. Let's make the shift sooner rather than later.
- Aaryn Barlow is school solar and energy adviser at the Nelson Environment Centre, which contributes 50 Shades of Green fortnightly.