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Building Bureaucracy in New Zealand, March 2020

I will start with a positive note, that our Building Code in NZ is one of the best in the world, it is a performance based code rather than a prescriptive one (like we used to have before 1992) – although in many ways things were simpler for designers and builders back then… A prescriptive code has rules which must be followed, EG minimum ceiling heights etc… A performance based code has NO RULES, just performance requirements than need to be met by either a compliance path already set that does provide compliance if followed, or an alternative solution backed with evidence or documents that prove compliance. Sounds easy? It is not…

Now this great building code we have and its series of Compliance Documents and NZ Standards, is supposed to be uniform throughout the land – which sounds great as for example, the same house design in one district will then be assessed at consent application time the same as in every other council; but unfortunately this is far from reality. We have Building Consent Authorities which are certified and assessed by government officials from MBIE (Ministry of business, innovation and employment – funny how the words building and housing are not mentioned…) – these BCA’s as we call them, are governed by TA’s or Territorial Authorities which you and I know as City or District Councils. Thus it is ‘Councils’ who administer all building consent applications and in my experience (from working in towns all over NZ) no two are the same in the way they process consent applications, not by a long chalk…

Now these days and over the last five years or so, I seem to get an awful lot of rejections for all kinds of non-complying building code issues; sometimes over 30 RFI points on a ‘grizzle letter’ – what us designers call an RFI letter from council; a Request for Further Information… In fact I seem to get up to 30 different RFI points for essentially the same house design applied for in different BCA’s all over the country. Now if you do the ‘odds’ on that scenario; that is 30 x 30 x how many consent applications made, which is a huge number of potential RFI points that I have had to address – for the same house plan design I have been doing now for the last 5 years (the Solabode Mk2). Sometimes I have clients wanting the same house as their neighbor and so in the same BCA just a couple of years apart, I get a couple of dozen different RFI points once again – from the same BCA!

One does not know where to turn for help… as these RFI’s take several hours and days to address costing clients sometimes up to an additional $2000 in fees (sorry folks). One has to find additional evidence for, bother engineers and other consultants for, or argue till one is blue in the face that it DOES comply with the Building Code. Now I will add here that I am glad there is a procedure to check my drawings and specs by a BCA as I am not perfect and I do make mistakes (not very often after 40 years doing this - but I still do…) So I am very glad when they pick up on a lintel size that is woefully under strength or some other error of human that can happen. The problem is though, most of what they write on an RFI letter is either already on the drawings somewhere or is simply an interpretation of how it does or doesn’t comply; remember this is a performance based code so sometimes certain details stray a little from the acceptable solutions and drift into the alternative solution ‘grey area’. Read on…

Because bureaucrats are pedantic people and if I have said I have used NZS3604 where one aspect of my light timber frame is not quite as drawn in that standard, but nevertheless still complies with B1 Structure, then they pull me up and want full evidence to show how ‘on reasonable grounds’ it complies (those three little words are completely subjective did you notice, taking away any arguing power we might have). Nothing changes in real life but the council now has words on paper to remove any risk to that Council in case anything goes wrong with that building down the track. Yes we have Risk Aversion ladies and gentry, and they say it is to protect our ratepayers from footing the bill of a lost court case. Well it seems to me from working within this regime, that risk aversion is the primary, secondary and third consideration when BCA’s are checking every little detail on my plans. Such a regime is hardly helping to promote affordable housing, indeed any housing (as they keep telling us we have a housing crisis…) instead it just bogs everyone down, costs time and money for every client and everyone involved in the industry on this side of the council counter.

Now I pride myself on doing a thorough job, it is my job satisfaction and I also like to help builders and tradies so they don’t have to guess what I want in my clients new home. I have always been thorough and even my peers used to criticize me for such. I typically would produce a set of plans for a 100m2 2 BR house with 30 odd sheets of A2 paper filled to the brim with information, plus a thick specification with all the manufacturers technical literature attached. I like to use large scale drawings so even my old eyes can read it and I cover every base. Yet it seems the more detail I provide, the more RFI points I get on a grizzle letter! Where is the justice in that..?! I have even been told (off the record) by a consents officer, that indeed, the more detail I show, the greater the chance of more RFI points, - one just can’t win…

Now it has got even worse in these last few months my friends, I find myself arguing with these consents officers over small issues that they dig their heels in on because they feel they don’t have enough of a paper trail to protect them, - even though nothing will change on site as the house will get built just tickety boo… Such officers seem to want to preserve their position of power over us minions, they always say “it’s not about power” and I ask what is their word for it. Indeed one could even suggest this is sociopathic behavior, holding on to their position of power. You see Councils will NEVER admit they are wrong, they might get sued you see and so we are back to risk aversion; giving ground in an argument with me over even a minor point, is a difficult decision for a BCA to make, as they would have to admit that they were wrong… shock horror!

I am not the only one with these concerns, every designer, builder and tradie I talk to, agrees with me that ‘Councils’ are the biggest block to a smooth and economic building industry and that they frustrate everyone that comes up against them. One hears of politicians boast of streamlining the building process to ensure we all live in affordable safe and warm houses, they never mention the ‘elephant in the living room’, that the biggest block to getting all that is the bureaucracy we in the trade all have to deal with. While I hear the same complaints from my peers, I don’t see anyone challenging the system, they all seem to be scared of poking their heads up, with the fear that if they criticize they may have an even harder time of it on their next job. In other words, the industry as a whole is frustrated but at the same time under the belief that Councils are ‘god’ and cannot be challenged. I think the sociopaths in council just love that…

I know this because it has happened to me dear reader, very recently, when on one job in a certain council I argued a wind zone assessment and after using three ways to prove my point finally won the point, even though several of their officers told me they all agreed it was a higher wind – but offered no evidence to back their conclusion; wanting only my evidence to prove otherwise. Since then it seems they have been out to get me and on a recent job actually declined a consent application – even after almost completing a long and arduous process to comply (at great expense), for a very shaky reason indeed, which the client and I with the help of an engineer, has proved to be unfounded. Thus even after months and thousands of dollars spent, we have to start all over again with this consent application; it is absolutely draconian behavior and serves no one but the power mongers in that council.

I will probably get ridiculed or worse for saying all this but it has to be said; it is thwarting the residential building industry in NZ and costing us all majorly. Something should be done about it!
In my next blog I will discuss the delicate relationship between on-site building inspectors and the beliefs all our builders have about them, that should be juicy reading too.

Passive House v Passive Solar Design, March 2020

Greeting from the Ecotect / Solabode desk, it has been awhile as I have been too busy sorting out peoples eco house projects up and down this country. Quite a few new developments in the last couple of years, both in my work and the architectural/building community at large, who seem to all be getting on the 'green' band wagon... and about time too as we are well into the 21st century now and we are supposed to be experiencing all those science fiction advancements for the benefit of humanity... Alas humanity still suffers, the planet, animals and the environment seem to be suffering even more and while there are some great movements towards changing all and such, we still have a long way to go before the 'hundredth monkey' falls into line.

One must not judge though, as we are all at our own stage of evolution and spiritual/personal growth, we will all 'get there' in the end... one hopes. However, one is no better than the ignorant if one has certain knowledge and does not poke their head up, as other tall poppies have before, and speak their truth. Such behaviour does run the risk of being lobbed off at the neck, in all manners of speaking and one of those kind ways is often in the form of asking me to 'see reason' to realize that we must 'walk before we can run', in other words take the middle grey ground... - but I cannot. My feeling is one must draw a line (in the sand) and stay behind it until someone is convincing enough to make you move the line. On some subjects recently, I certainly have changed my position - on the cause of climate change for example, but let's not go down that rabbit hole just now, I would rather stay on task here about affordable home design in NZ; - do your own research though on that climate stuff...

On one particular subject, I have been criticized every time I question the principles of the so called 'Passiv haus' movement in NZ... now this movement is growing with intensity and is becoming the 'catch cry' or 'go to' position on what is purported to be the highest standard of residential building in NZ. It is quite a recent addition to building 'movements' in NZ, just a few years of promotion from a certain group of people compiled mainly of northern Europeans, North Americans and other design professionals who have travelled in those countries. It is building tech and methods from very cold winter, well-off western countries where money is available for such high building standards. And don't get me wrong, in such countries I would also be looking seriously at building my own house in such a way - if I could afford it. In temperate New Zealand though? Even Central Otago (where it seems to be very popular) are our winters anywhere close to those in continental countries in high northern latitudes..? - no way at all!

Some main Passive House tenants are: airtight houses, which means non opening windows or triple glazed timber frame windows imported from Europe which open inwards (I still can't see how that seals out our horizontal rain...) - and internal heat recovery ventilation machines, also imported from Europe and costing up to $20k plus installation where each room gets an air duct from a central pump unit. Personally I would rather open a window for fresh air, certainly carefully in very cold weather but the thought of all those microbes multiplying in all those corrugated tube ducts running all through the house, doesn't make me excited. Add to that the maintenance, filter cleaning and eventual breakdown of the machine... how can such a thing being included in a 'passive' house? - this is an 'active' system is it not..? and is it healthy..? - a main tenant of our NZ Building Act. An airtight building envelope is asking for trouble in my experience; we tried some of those ideas in the 1980's with disastrous results using aluminium foil backed linings, foil vapour barriers in our skillion ceilings. Better to let our building envelope 'breathe' moisture vapour, rather than trap it. They even do air blower tests to make sure the building is airtight! This makes me shudder...

So these Passive houses do use a bit of my all-time favourite 'Passive Solar gain' but they don't seem to give it a high priority, they rather boast about their underfloor hydronic water pipe heating system which also runs on an imported heatpump... in NZ where even our lowest sunshine hours town or region has more sunshine hours than the highest sunshine hours region in northern Europe..! So not only are these jobbies high cost but in my book they are also a high cost to the planet in terms of 'carbon debits' (for want of a better term) and also a cost to our local economy which misses out from all that money spent overseas when we have a perfectly good building material/component industry here employing our own people. There are other aspects they like to use too, SIPs panels (structural insulated panels) made from oriented strand board and polystyrene in a sandwich, imported from China. A great idea I agree, but why are we not making them here from Plywood made in 3 NZ factories and polystyrene made in at least one factory in each island.

Simple direct gain passive solar design has no moving parts, costs no more than a well-designed comfortable house, is built using conventional trade-friendly methods (so they don't add fear costs) and provides better than 60 % higher thermal performance than a full code compliant standard house built in NZ. Very little additional heating is required and only after 2-3 days of cloudy winter weather. They are safe, super comfortable modest affordable homes that use local materials and built by local trades and suppliers. These are the true 'Passive Houses' - passive means there is nothing to do (except maybe draw the curtains at night), Solar means the sun is involved providing a massive amount of free energy on a daily basis (up to 1kW per hour for every square metre of north facing glass) and design means it is not by accident.

This technology started in the USA in the 1970's with large glazed front homes and after quickly realising the awesome power of the sun, the designs were toned right down to avoid over-doing it and then in about 1982 the NZ Ministry of Energy, commissioned a group of local architects and other experts, together with Mr Dave Bruer a passive solar architect from the USA, to adapt the new generation 2, Passive solar design methods to the NZ climate conditions. That work resulted in a thick design manual with all the design tools required - and a series of designers seminars throughout the country to teach the methods. That manual was called Design for the Sun and I still use it today nearly 40 years later. - it's been around a lot longer than your Passiv Haus tech and it was developed specifically for every region in NZ. You don't hear much about simple Passive Solar Design - because there is nothing to sell and in this consumer world we live in, you only hear about stuff that makes money for someone with stuff to sell.

There are other topics I need to get off my chest but that will do for now, thanks for reading.

'Eco' House versus 'Normal' House, 25th May 2010
People ask me frequently: "how much extra does an 'Eco' house cost over a 'normal' house", - my answer is always "nothing!" - which usually surprises everyone, and it seems the general impression out there is that an eco house does cost more - which unfortunately is a belief that is not helping us all to improve our new housing stock.
Let me qualify; if you were building any new house would you not fill the wall and ceiling framing cavities full of insulation to maintain good comfort? the cost is generally just 2 to 3 % of the house cost so it makes good sense. An eco house is simply insulated to that same level because often there is no benefit insulating to higher levels unless heat losses can be significantly reduced through glazing (more than just with curtains) which is where heat loss is greatest.
To further qualify; eco homes often have more glazing on their north sides to utilise passive solar heating. Good quality Low E double glazing is an expensive component but rather than adding extra, the passive solar eco home is simply designed to redistribute the total area of glazing, putting most on the north side, moderate areas on east and west sides, and almost none on the south side. Thus no extra cost.
But wait theres more; The 'tack on' solar water heating panel is an extra expense you say. I say no, that if you were building any new home, why would you not include a solar panel to significantly reduce your power bills. The extra capitol cost of the solar system, usually less than 4% of the total house cost, stays with the value of the home and will be realised every day in power savings and upon resale of the home. Thus a solar water system is not an extra on the eco home.
I specify good quality curtains as part of the building performance design, because as mentioned, the large windows of contemporary home designs are their greatest heat loss element. Curtains significantly reduce radiant heat loss at night, not an extra expence on the eco design because your 'non' eco home should also have them - if you want to feel comfortable that is... - and isn't that the main point of a house?
If a home was appropriately designed from the ground up to offer comfort levels and energy efficiency to its occupants (both 'no-brainer' common sense features) and if it were also designed to be space efficient to save on materials and cost, (as everyone wants to save money) and if it were to be built using safe non toxic materials (for why would you want a poisonous house?) materials that were simple and natural (low embodied energy to reduce our carbon footprint) and sourced locally (as it makes good sense keep our own people and industries in work) - would you not have a good affordable house? why would you need to call this an 'eco' house? While others still consider these to be 'eco' houses, I design and consider them as 'Normal'.


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