My Job: Fresh mindset helps build better homes

By Angela McCarthy

Name: Verney Ryan
Age: 41
Role: Independent energy and environmental consultant (for own company Element Consulting)
Working hours: Average 40 hours per week
Average salary: Self-employed - business earns about $100,000 pa.
Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology and Psychology) and Postgraduate Bachelor of Planning (now Masters of Planning) from Auckland University

Verney Ryan says we accept houses are chilly and damp and we get sick in winter, but it needn't be like that. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Verney Ryan says we accept houses are chilly and damp and we get sick in winter, but it needn't be like that. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Describe your role

I provide research, technical advice, in-house assessments and video work to a variety of clients regarding energy, low-carbon technologies and sustainability of residential and commercial buildings. Currently I am concentrating efforts on Homestar (New Zealand residential rating tool) and Beacon Pathway Incorporated (a research organisation looking at sustainable homes and neighbourhoods).

Why this line of work?

I've always been fascinated how humans are incredibly rational, creative and inventive - yet we don't seem to be able to grasp the harm we are doing on a planetary scale to other species and the rest of the environment. I thought I might be able to make a small difference - or at least be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Your history?

After graduating I worked with friends in a niche planning and design consultancy in New Zealand before heading to the United Kingdom. I had met a gorgeous English girl (now my wife) who was returning to the UK.

After several months job-hunting I started working for Environ, Europe's largest local environmental charity. They ran an eco-house demonstration project as well as great community based environmental projects to get people involved in improving their local environment by taking personal responsibility. After a few years I moved to the UK Building Research Establishment (BRE) where I mainly worked as the conduit - or interpreter - between clients and incredibly brainy scientists in lab coats.

I also ran a project with the International Energy Agency which involved regular meetings throughout Europe, providing an amazing opportunity to learn about other countries' approaches to energy efficiency.

After a few years at BRE I became an independent self-employed consultant, contracting to BRE and others. I also started producing environmental and energy efficiency videos for the UK Carbon trust.

About four years ago I hauled my family back here to experience a Kiwi upbringing - and through old contacts picked up work with local councils as well as heading up the energy research stream for Beacon Pathway, which led to work with the Homestar rating tool.

How does New Zealand compare to the UK?

When I moved to the UK in the mid 90s, New Zealand had a bit of a march on the world in the environmental sphere. It pains me to say it, but we have since fallen behind in many respects. When it comes to environmental credentials we are doing pretty badly.

Our "100 per cent pure" brand is being eroded; it would be good to see more political leadership addressing this. People don't realise our housing could perform much better - we seem to accept houses are cold and damp and we get sick in winter ... but it doesn't have to be like that.

Much of New Zealand's current housing is still built without even taking the sun into consideration, yet the UK has set ambitious targets to have all new housing built to zero carbon standards by 2016 - at least with heating and lighting.

Industry is meeting this challenge with an array of new products, technologies and strategies.

However, there are fantastic initiatives in New Zealand.

For example, Beacon Pathway's Waitakere Now Home shows how you can build a house in Auckland that needs practically no heating to achieve comfortable temperatures year round. It doesn't have to cost more; just be done better.

Homestar helps raise awareness by providing a great framework for people to discuss the most important aspects of house renovation and house design with their builder, designer or tradesperson.

This country is small and nimble enough to move quickly - but we have to overcome complacency.

I'm hopeful we can develop momentum and grasp the opportunities that will result from the inevitable move to a low carbon economy.

Best part of the job?

People's enthusiasm after explaining the importance of greener, warmer, more efficient homes.

Most challenging part?

Dealing with entrenched attitudes and an obsession with payback. No one asks how long a new front door will take to "pay for itself"; it is accepted you need it.

We need to think the same way about high levels of insulation, orientation of houses to make use of the sun, and efficient space and water heating ... they should just be accepted aspects of any good home.

Advice to anyone wanting to do similar?

A broad background in all things environmental sure helps - and a university degree in sciences, planning or geography will set you up well.

Get comfortable with being a generalist and realise part of the job is to synthesise lots of small pieces of information - joining the dots, so to speak.

- NZ Herald

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