Cold home in winter? Hot house in summer? It doesn't have to be this way. 08 October 2020
Winter 2020 was uncomfortable for many of us who were stuck at home in a cold, inefficient home. For many, it was the first time spending the entire day at home, running the heater constantly. If you were lucky, running the heater wasn’t a financial issue. For some, this became an issue for the first time due to job loss. For others, this was not a new phenomenon.
Australia has poor quality housing stock
As a recent transplant to Australia, I continue to be shocked by the quality, or lack thereof, of the housing stock in a country which is far more advanced in many other areas. In my experience in the US, though the housing stock is far from perfect, well-sealed and insulated is the norm. It is unusual to be in a building and feel cold. In Australia, on the other hand, the norm seems to be to accept the cold indoor temperatures and numb extremities and mostly wait for the winter to pass, or else rack up the heating bill. And live the exact opposite in summer. This option doesn’t work for everyone; many people are forced to skip meals in order to afford to heat their home. Otherwise, people ration heating in order to avoid exorbitant bills – in fact, too many older Australians die in their own home from too-cold temperatures because they ration heating.
It is estimated that around 3,000 Australians die during periods of hot and cold weather each year, and Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have higher cold-associated mortality rates than Stockholm, Sweden.
Renters and those on low incomes lack the power to make significant improvements
No one wants to suffer in a cold home, and not everyone can afford to or has the power to do something about it. Renters are at the mercy of landlords to get efficient heaters installed, which are not even a legal requirement in rental properties. Sure, there are some small steps we can take to improve the efficiency and comfort of our homes – like fill gaps and cracks with caulk and put bubble wrap on windows – but we can’t make more substantial upgrades like installing insulation or doing more comprehensive draught sealing. Plus, I like seeing out of my windows.
Regardless of their employment status or whether they rent, own, or live in public or social housing, no one should have to suffer in a cold home. And in the coming months, no one should have to suffer in a hot home, either. The good news is, there is something that can be done about it.
Australians have historically cared more about marble benchtops than well-insulated walls, but as we build the demand for affordable, comfortable and healthy homes, that will change.
How to make homes healthier and more comfortable in three steps
First, we need mandatory disclosure of energy performance ratings in existing buildings, including rental properties. This would mean that potential renters and buyers would know what level of comfort and energy bill expense to expect before they move in. As has been pointed out, this will require a qualified pool of assessors and ideally, a nationally unified energy rating system, like NatHERS, which currently rates only new buildings.
Next, we need minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings and homes. Right now, the minimum standard does not exist. That’s right, a landlord can rent out a house with no insulation to speak of and as draughty as can be while leaving the renter to deal with single-digit indoor temperatures in winter. This has been my experience. These properties are essentially glorified tents.
Of course, you can buy a house in the same condition, but owner-occupiers have the power to make upgrades to a home. And even if you do make an arrangement with your landlord, you can’t be certain that you won’t have to move the following year. If you own your home, you should add insulation and draught seal – not only is retrofitting your home cost-effective, but the increases in thermal comfort you will experience will be priceless.
Finally, we need to retrofit Australia’s existing housing stock to a level that is healthy, comfortable and affordable for its inhabitants. Here’s more good news: retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient is an excellent economic stimulus measure because it’s a ‘jobs machine’. Groups have been calling for energy efficiency in the economic recovery – an ‘efficient recovery’ – for months. In addition to creating jobs, energy efficiency eases energy bill stress, makes businesses more productive and resilient, and is a source of low-cost emissions reductions.
So what’s next?
Insulation is essential to making buildings healthy and comfortable, and it can be installed safely through energy efficiency retrofits. However, the only energy efficiency scheme that currently incentivises insulation is the ACT’s Energy Efficiency Improvement Scheme. Insulation is safe, and people without it in their home are suffering health consequences and energy bill stress.
Though insulation is required in new buildings, it is not widely installed in existing buildings. That’s why the Energy Efficiency Council and the Australian Built Environment Council (ASBEC) have developed a consultation paper on developing an industry-led roadmap for quality control and safety in the installation of insulation in buildings. Through consultation with industry, governments and other invested organisations, the roadmap will enable insulation to deliver comfortable, healthy buildings to Australians.
The EEC and ASBEC will be holding a public webinar on 12 October from 3:30-5pm AEDT to review the consultation paper and to take questions and allow attendees to participate in facilitated discussion. After consultation, recommendations will be made to governments and industry to ensure that we can reap the benefits of affordable and comfortable buildings.
Please join us on 12 October for the informational webinar. The consultation paper is currently available for public comment until 30 October. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julianne Tice is Project Officer at the Energy Efficiency Council.