Healthy buildings look set to be at heart of new normal

29 April 2020

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

I was amazed recently to read a poll showing that only 9 percent of people in Britain wanted a return to life as normal after the lockdown.

Aotearoa is (thankfully!) not Britain. But there are similarities between the countries, and I have had conversations recently with people here who have openly expressed aspects of the lockdown that they’ve been enjoying.

More time with the family. A sense of collective, national pride. A chance to slow down. Not being stuck in traffic. No departure lounges and no rushing for meetings. Time to cook meals. An opportunity to perhaps concentrate on the important work.

Of course, many New Zealanders have had to do it tough, which makes it all the more welcome to see the building and construction sector reopen under level three. (Keep those healthy home and green building registrations and certifications coming through to us – our tech team have been kept busy with them over the last few weeks, and can help with any questions or queries you have.)

Similar to 91 percent of Britons, I don’t want a return to ‘normal’, to life pre-lockdown. To polluted air and water. To traffic clogging our streets. To poor housing that hospitalises our children. To buildings that account for 20 percent of our climate change pollution. To places that don’t put healthy, happy people at their very heart.

And here at the NZGBC, we’ve been working hard to make sure that the new normal will be built on a thriving building and construction sector, creating great places for New Zealanders.

Putting healthy, happy people at the heart of what we do is a topic that has dominated many of the extremely useful Zoom hui I have enjoyed recently. I have spoken to lots of New Zealanders who foresee a significant rise in the value people place on wellbeing and health, and anticipate a corresponding rise in demand for better, healthier buildings and communities. (That’s been echoed too in the numbers of homes and buildings we’ve been processing during lockdown.)

To fully seize this opportunity, we’ve ramped up our presence in Wellington’s corridors of power, and have confirmed the opening of negotiations with key Ministers to ensure that the Government’s economic stimulus packages will provide our sector with a leap forward towards zero carbon, healthier buildings and homes, while also creating thousands of new green collar jobs in building and construction.

We’re asking for, firstly, the funding for shovel-ready projects dependent on them proving that they’ll be much less polluting, and approaching zero carbon. The best way to ensure this, and provide a straightforward framework, that the building and construction industry is already supporting, is for the Government to insist that they are green certified. And this should especially be the case for Government departments when building hospitals, prisons and schools.

We’ve also been advocating to government that another way to provide a host of green collar jobs, and spend the Government investment wisely, would be through the Warmer Kiwi Homes scheme. Let’s see it receive a massive government boost, and a hugely expanded mandate to reach many more New Zealand homes. And not just with heating and insulation, but let’s expand the improvements to include ventilation, lighting and safety too. 40 percent of Kiwi homes are damp or mouldy. Improving them all will create new green collar jobs for thousands of New Zealanders, make thousands of our homes warm, dry, and healthier. This would be great for the drive to a zero carbon New Zealand, but the associated benefits, such as health, are enormous too.

Thirdly, we’ve been calling on government to initiate a version of the above scheme for our commercial buildings, which are enormous users of energy. A canny government investment of energy grants paid to building owners in full, could slash energy use by upgrading insulation, replacing all lightbulbs with low energy LEDs, and installing energy efficient heating and ventilation.

Retrofitting just 1,200 of Aotearoa’s largest commercial buildings to make them zero energy would reap energy savings equal to the annual electricity generated by all of the country’s wind turbines, saving Kiwi businesses millions of dollars.

A great benefit to the above goals is that it will create thousands more jobs in our industry. These green collar jobs will be equipped with the skills and knowledge to continue building a lower carbon Aotearoa for many, many years. Besides the benefits of lower carbon, we’d also see other benefits of this approach, such as less landfill waste.

As registrations and certifications for Green Star and Homestar continue to come in, plus talk grows louder and more urgent around healthy buildings and communities, we’re anticipating a real growth in this area in coming years. I’m very much looking forward to working alongside you to make sure that happens.

Noho ora mai rā