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Are most of us living in unhealthy homes during lockdown?

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

Living and working from home, particularly during lockdowns, may not be good for your health because an outdated New Zealand Building Code means most of us are living in houses that do not hold in heat and are poorly ventilated.

Creating healthy home standards was a good first step, but New Zealand's Building Code desperately needs an update if the country's poor respiratory health statistics are to be reversed.

While the Government accepts public submissions about the Building Code annually, the Building Act 2004 legislation hasn't been updated for nearly two decades.

Given the rising rate of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in New Zealand, the Code and the Act are long past due for a refresh.

The Building Code is slowly going through an upgrade to improve critical factors like thermal efficiency of homes. But until those rules are changed, developers will continue to build as cheaply as possible.

New Zealand's poor-quality housing is the victim of our temperate climate. The Building Code here is generally 30 years behind standards in the US, Canada and Europe. However, a drastic overhaul of housing standards does not mean aligning with Canada, the US, or Europe, where temperatures can drop below freezing. New Zealand deserves a unique approach, but it can still learn from these other jurisdictions.

I am optimistic the Government will make a good decision and write into law some of the requirements the sector needs, such as better insulation, ventilation and glazing.

Things will start to shift once the updates are through. But even then, it will be important to measure the success of those changes even if the models predict they will improve health and efficiency.

Changes to the Building Code can't come soon enough.

According to the Asthma Foundation, more than 600,000 Kiwis take medication for respiratory illnesses, while 2922 people die from various illnesses each year. Asthma alone costs New Zealand $1 billion in public and private medical costs.

The onset of respiratory illnesses is often due to people living in poorly built homes, resulting from the current relaxed building standards.

Most people are exposed to terrible air entering their homes and terrible air inside their homes. That's why asthma and respiratory diseases are so high. People just can't get away from the causes.

Simply put, Kiwi houses aren't constructed to deal with poor environmental quality correctly. Tether's sensors prove that many homes are infested with particulates like break dust, pollen or car exhaust fumes. On top of this, homes are Petri dishes for mould due to fluctuations of temperature and large amounts of relative humidity.

But until the Building Code changes, there are a handful of things homeowners and landlords can do to improve the health of their homes.

1. Tighten the thermal envelope

This is a fancy way of saying, "make sure you can control what comes in and what goes out of your home all year round".

The exact upgrades for a house will, of course, depend on the individual home, including its local climate, number of bedrooms, ventilation, windows, heating, extraction, appliances, and other factors. The house is a complicated system.

But as a starting point, a key change is to improve insulation in the floors, walls and ceiling. Single-glazing windows also have a massive impact on how buildings perform thermally, so consider upgrading to double-glazing instead.

2. Better ventilation

The current impact on a house from poor ventilation and moisture control can be calculated and the correct fix could be to set up a balanced ventilation system provided by a number of reputable ventilation companies.

The solution may not need to be so drastic, however.

For instance, if a bathroom consistently fogs up during shower use, that means the extractor fan isn't working correctly. Instead of buying a new fan, place a dome over the shower to capture the steam and dry the bathroom.

There are hundreds of cheap, small interventions people can do. After all, to do a good job renovating for optimal health can be expensive.

3. Mind the gap

The poor quality of New Zealand's housing often means thousands of small gaps can be found between the framing, windows, floors and ceiling, which means the house leaks air like a sieve.

Closing as many of these gaps as possible can drastically improve a home's thermal comfort and lower the chances of developing respiratory illnesses while also reducing the cost of heating.

It makes no sense to heat a box full of holes, which is what most houses are. The heat will just escape and drive up the power bill. There is a lot of people can do to fix the smaller issues like gaps.


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