NZ’s sustainability problems: a backgrounder

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Who is Beacon Pathway Ltd?

Beacon is the vehicle chosen by a number of like-minded organisations that are working to find affordable, attractive ways to make ordinary New Zealander’s homes more sustainable — warmer, healthier, cheaper to run and kinder to the environment.

Beacon provides science-based New Zealand research outputs, funded by Building Research, Scion, New Zealand Steel, Waitakere City Council, Fletcher Building, and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Beacon Pathway undertakes a variety of research into the sustainability of New Zealand homes, investigating the current state of homes, and innovations, materials and processes to improve their comfort and sustainability, while keeping affordability as a key consideration.

Beacon has constructed research homes in Waitakere City and Rotorua — homes designed to be affordable, healthy and use fewer resources than a standard new home — and is currently retrofitting homes in Wellington.
Its new research programme includes building 100 new NOW Homes, and retrofitting 1000 existing homes around New Zealand to a high standard of sustainability.

The problem with New Zealand homes

New Zealand homes are cold, damp, unhealthy and inefficient in energy and water use. Cold, damp homes pose serious health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in the community who spend the most time at home.

Research by Beacon and others shows that New Zealand homes are, on average, 6oC below the minimum winter temperatures recommended by the World Health Organisation, 45% of all New Zealand homes are mouldy and the air inside New Zealand homes can be more polluted than outdoor air.
New Zealand has the second highest rate of asthma in the world, and an excess winter mortality rate of 1600. This figure, not seen in other OECD countries, is attributed to our unhealthy homes.

The inefficient use of energy and water in New Zealand homes imposes high costs on households in energy and water bills (or council rates for building water infrastructure). All of this produces carbon emissions contributing to climate change and New Zealand’s Kyoto bill, as well as the environmental effects of extracting fresh water and disposing of wastewater.

Not to mention the high cost to Government and taxpayers of all the healthcare required as a result of our unhealthy homes.
Current Government initiatives and market mechanisms are not sufficient to solve the problem. There is a need for a much higher standard of retrofit than is currently undertaken as part of the EECA-supported voluntary programmes, and for higher standards in the Building Code.

What is a sustainable house?

Beacon has developed benchmark measures for energy and water consumption, waste, indoor environmental quality and materials used in house construction, which define Beacon’s High Standard of Sustainability.

These measures represent a benchmark against which the sustainability of New Zealand homes can be measured, and have been developed with affordability as a significant consideration.

A sustainable house uses considerably less energy and water, has indoor temperatures which meet the World Health Organisation’s minimum standards, has adequate ventilation, low humidity and moisture levels, provision for waste minimisation in building and use of the house, and uses sustainable materials in construction or renovation.

Benefits of increased sustainability

Increasing the sustainability of New Zealand’s housing stock will:

• improve New Zealanders’ quality of life through healthier homes,
• reduce total energy requirements in New Zealand,

• reduce carbon dioxide emissions and assist in meeting our Kyoto commitments,
• reduce demand for reticulated water (and the associated energy required), with longer life for infrastructure and environmental benefits, and create a more resilient water system, 
• increase productivity for employers,

• make more efficient use of New Zealand’s resources, and
• improve the New Zealand housing stock in terms of resilience to global challenges such as climate change, resource availability and population change.

Beacon’s report argues the case for the stepwise change that is needed to improve our housing and meet the Government’s goals of being truly sustainable, carbon neutral and our Kyoto commitments.

Through its research, Beacon has developed benchmarks for a High Standard of Sustainability that New Zealand houses should meet. Their research shows that homes can be built and retrofitted to a high standard of sustainability, with significant gains in health, resource efficiency, environmental, social and economic outcomes.

Relatively simple innovations, when used in combination, can make a big difference, with national benefits as well as to individuals. Beacon’s research identifies that there is particular value in implementing energy, health, environment and water efficiency as a combined package, rather than on an issue-by-issue basis. 

Economic analysis by Infometrics (who has carried out analysis for Government on areas such as the impact of the Emissions Trading Scheme), shows that a combination of simple innovations (ceiling and floor insulation, efficient space heating, energy efficient lighting, efficient water heating, water saving devices, and water metering) would generate:
• savings in household energy consumption of almost 22 PJ per year, or enough to power more than 50,000 New Zealand homes for a year,
• a direct private gain to households equal to 1% of GDP by 2017, or $2 billion, 

• a reduction in CO2 emissions of 3600 kt per year, the equivalent of $54 million in tradable emissions (at $15/tonne), 
• water savings of 81 litres per person per day, or 130 million cu m per year, the equivalent of 52,000 Olympic swimming pools, and
• additional non-monetary benefits of healthier and more comfortable homes, and environmental benefits.

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