Photo: iStock /  Getty
Photo: iStock / Getty

OPINIONBusinessAugust 22, 2022

Are greener homes our future? Not while building standards are stuck in the past

Photo: iStock /  Getty
Photo: iStock / Getty

This month’s Commerce Commission report into building supplies was meant to help improve the quality of our housing stock. So why did it barely even mention green materials, wonders New Zealand Green Building Council head Andrew Eagles.

Earlier this month, climate change minister James Shaw unveiled New Zealand’s first National Adaptation Plan, outlining how we’re going to have to change to live in a world with worsening storms, floods, droughts and ever rising sea levels. The effects of climate change are here, right now, and Kiwis and our Pacific Island neighbours are already being forced to live with them.

Hundreds of New Zealand families have been evacuated from their homes in recent years due to flooding, including over the past few days in Nelson, and we can only expect these kind of incidents to be more common and more severe. Last year insurers paid out over $320 million in climate-related payments – a new record in New Zealand, and one that looks set to grow.

Our homes aren’t just being slammed by climate change – they are responsible for belching out far too much pollution which is making the problem worse. New homes built in Aotearoa emit a whopping five times too much carbon if we’re going to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. Five. Times.

So you’d reckon, surely, any government-backed report into our homes should put these issues front and centre, eh?

Well, no. Just one day after James Shaw stood on a blustery beach to launch the National Adaptation Plan, a keenly awaited report on the materials used to build our homes sidelined much-needed efforts to slash carbon.

The Commerce Commission findings into competition in the residential building supplies market point to the Emissions Reduction Plan, and the government’s programme to tackle building emissions while half-heartedly mentioning “green” building materials. Problematically, the green materials needed to avoid more homes being flooded aren’t presented as mainstream – instead they’re bundled up with new and innovative materials.

This is a big problem. Not only does our industry suffer from a reliance on the “tried and tested”, but this conservativism is backed by a risk structure that incentivises our building officials to be wary of anything new. Products commonplace in countries with harsher climates than ours often struggle to get approval or a foothold here. We need things like greener concrete, innovative insulated wall panels and mechanical heat recovery ventilation to be encouraged and supported to enter the market and compete fairly.

Kāinga Ora is building 10,000 new houses in Māngere over the next 10-15 years. How many of them will utilise green materials? (Photo: Justin Latif)

The materials and way we’re building now clearly don’t cut it. If our homes are performing decades behind other OECD countries and we’re failing to meet our climate obligations, are they really up to scratch?

We are right to be challenging the competition and affordability of our building products, but what is missing is a crucial overriding sustainability lens to ensure we’re also moving away from polluting materials and products that don’t shape the future we need.

As we look ahead and consider relocating coastal communities and reshaping our cities in the face of climate change, we owe it to ourselves to reshape our economy to incentivise sustainable living and bring about the emission reductions our future demands.

Our regulators need to embrace innovation. They simply won’t do this while they’re exposed to the same liability risk as developers, designers, suppliers and builders – our current joint and several liability regime must change and the Commerce Commission should state this boldly. We need to be incentivising low-carbon materials and products that improve energy efficiency by offering faster consenting, easier compliance pathways, or using financial levers to help level the playing field.

What’s holding us back is reports like the latest offering from the Commerce Commission that just don’t get it. We as a country, with our cold homes, unforgiveably high rates of child respiratory illness, and a peak winter energy load that has us shoveling coal into the Huntly power station, still don’t see the need to prioritise better homes and buildings.

We’re planning on how to deal with massive interruptions to society brought about by climate change while failing to do enough to stop our own impacts on the climate.

Our homes will remain at risk until we make zero carbon homes mainstream – and push polluting materials to the wings.

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