It was a home most Aucklanders can't even aspire to ... a character-filled 1920s bungalow that opened into an 80s redesign by a "Very Famous Architect" that doubled the size of the house.

There was an entire wall of glass doors, and skylights to boot. After a busy conference in Auckland, it was lovely to arrive at this home, filled with books and art and a pair of sweet spaniels.

But good grief - it got me thinking again about how and why New Zealand homes are so badly built. And what's wrong with architects who fetishise form and disregard function.

This home was all looks and no brains.


The expanses of glass were single-glazed and the joinery was aluminium, so heat poured out through them. A heat pump was going flat out but only just keeping up, and the next morning it was a fridge - albeit one with a very lovely view.

I first lived in Whanganui in a house that suffered similar faults and was effectively unable to be heated; I woke one winter's morning to find ice on the inside of the conservatory style windows.

Around the same time, I began having lengthy conversations about the state of New Zealand housing and approaches to fixing it.

I've written regularly on the subject since (see the link below to some of my stories) and along the way I became a fan of the German "passive house" standard. It creates a verifiable way to build incredibly energy efficient buildings - as much as 75-90 per cent less energy than the average New Zealand home for instance.

The standard is also used to build commercial, retail and multi-dwelling buildings.

Whanganui is at the forefront of the growth in passive houses in New Zealand.

Three houses have been certified to PH standard here, two more built using this approach and there's another two in design stage. Plus, there's an entire sub-division in the works!

We have passive house builders, architects, consultants and New Zealand's only certifier - Jason Quinn, with whom I've spent many hours talking about building science.

Local firm eHaus is spearheading the work, both in Whanganui and around the country. Its success locally is now being expanded via licensees who are building passive houses from Invercargill to Rodney.

And eHaus director Jon Iliffe's family home has just been certified as a "Passive House Plus", the first in the Southern Hemisphere.

A passive house in New Zealand climates invariably involves good insulation, high quality windows with double or triple glazing and thermally broken joinery, an air-tight membrane and - crucially - mechanical ventilation that delivers clean, filtered and possibly pre-warmed (or cooled) fresh air around the clock.

(My 1920s house, by way of comparison, has excessive ventilation on a windy day and virtually none when the wind is not blowing. And as little as possible in winter when we're battling to keep the warm air in. Intellectually I know fresh air is very important. But intellect gets over-ruled on frosty nights by a craving for warmth.)

There's a chance to see and feel for yourself soon. There will be open homes at passive houses around the country, including two in Whanganui, on 16-18 June. Details here:

While it's true that a modern house built to the Building Code is much warmer and easier to heat than the 60s icebox I grew up in. But modern building techniques and materials are inadvertently creating homes that are too airtight - and thus damp - to be healthy.

This was finally acknowledged by BRANZ in its April/May Build magazine: "The minimum requirement [ie built to the Building Code] does not necessarily mean... a house has comfortable temperatures and will be free of excessive indoor moisture and mould year round."

Translated: your brand new home may still be cold, damp and bad for your health. That statement deserves more attention than it's been getting.

I hope BRANZ's "Exceeding the Minimum" project develops a lot of traction. There's no question we - homeowners and the building industry - need to stop seeing the Building Code as a target. It's nothing more than a legal minimum.

And Auckland? It was rather depressing.

It's one thing to read about the housing bubble and the traffic but another to hear the resignation and even despair in people's voices. I heard the same things all weekend - living in Auckland is a hard grind and it gets harder by the day.

We have a lot to be grateful for here in Whanganui. I'm reminded every time it takes me a whole 1.25 minutes to get across the Dublin Street Bridge at peak hour ...

*Rachel Rose is a writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter. More reading and sources are online at