'Flax roots' climate action leads to the first 'climate safe house'

8:48 am on 31 August 2019

A small southern community is taking climate action into its own hands with the creation of the country's first "climate safe house".


Waitati is located about 20 minutes north of Dunedin. Photo: Google

When Cushla McCarthy bought her Waitati home in 2002, it was everything she wanted.

"I loved the area, the people. It was just, you know, a place that I'd been looking for to kind of spend out the last of my days."

Then the flood came.

In April 2006, the small community located about 20 minutes north of Dunedin, was hit by two days of heavy rain.

NIWA said over three times as much precipitation as normal fell in north and east Otago. It followed six months of drought.

Civil Defence checking properties in Waitati during the April 2006 flooding.

Civil Defence checking properties in Waitati during the April 2006 flooding. Photo: Supplied / Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust

"That was kind of a creeping up flood that happened in the middle of the night. Maybe two or three o'clock in the morning. And I had people staying in the house … the woman got out of bed to go to the toilet and she stepped into water. There was water in the bedroom," Ms McCarthy said.

"So yeah, it was probably about a foot of water through the house for that flood. That took out a lot of stuff because I just really wasn't prepared for it at all."

She got a small amount of insurance paid out and accepted what she'd received.

"A few months later I was ringing up the insurance company asking questions and must have been enough to make them uneasy because I got a letter about a week later saying that they had cancelled my insurance policy. Because they didn't have to give a reason, they can just cancel it.

"So then I found myself in a position of being without insurance. And it was going to cost me an arm and a leg to get it. I just didn't have the means to be doing it. And so I got you know, the carpets, everything got replaced."

Goats seeking higher ground during the April 2006 flooding in Waitati.

Goats seeking higher ground during the April 2006 flooding in Waitati. Photo: Supplied / Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust

All was fine until 2016, when flooding hit again.

"I had no image in my mind of ever getting flooded again … but I was always nervous after the first one."

Now she can't live in the home, nor can she rent it.

"It's a glorified shed."

Instead, she lives in her bus and her garage, but in her words: "I'm just too old for that sort of carry on."

But this is a story that turns out well.

The climate safe house

Waitati is home to the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust (BRCT).

Its aim is "creating local climate solutions together".

Among its projects are a local power grid that allows residents to buy excess power from each other and a localised emergency response plan.

But the one that'll benefit Ms McCarthy is a project underway to create climate safe houses.

BRCT manager Scott Willis said a climate safe house was a transportable, modular, affordable, eco home.

"Design is only a minor, even if important, part of climate-safe housing. After all, there are many designs for modular transportable homes and for pre-fabricated dwellings. There are designs for passive homes and homes with energy autonomy," Mr Willis said.

"The climate-safe house is about showing a way forward for communities increasingly affected by climate change.

"It models not only new building techniques, but also collaborative problem solving - BRCT is leasing the property in order to build the house and will sub-let the house to the current resident and property owner at a peppercorn rental, removing it when flooding becomes too extreme.

"It will ultimately demonstrate the benefits of warm, dry, adaptive housing for vulnerable members of Aotearoa/New Zealand communities.

"The climate-safe house, built with SIPs (structural insulated panels) has been estimated by BRANZ (a building and construction research organisation) to have one-third of the carbon impact of a reference house, so we can reduce emissions even while we adapt."

Blueskin Bay resident Scott Willis is the manager of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, and leads the Blueskin Energy project

Scott Willis. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

And communities like Waitati need to get adaptation underway, he says.

"The fact is that climate breakdown is underway and coastlines are no longer stable. And here, we're having more intense inundation events. And combined with a king tide or high tide, we get flooding.

"So the sort of a conjunction of adverse events can create flooding, relatively simply. We've had [flooding in] 2006, 2015, 2017, and it's increasing in frequency."

The 60 square metre house will be raised above the ground - the local council requires new residential houses in a coastal hazard area to have a minimum floor level that's essentially 2.5 metres above mean sea level.

Being able to move the house is important in Waitati - much of which is on a floodplain.

To get resource consent to build in a floodplain - most of Waitati is on one - the house has to be relocatable, which it is.

The home will have its own energy system - hopefully solar panels with battery storage, but also a connection to the grid. Not all climate safe houses have to have their own system.

Lifecycle assessment

Branz building environmental scientist Brian Berg confirmed that a lifecycle assessment found the climate safe house came out to using approximately a third of the carbon of a new build under the current building code. 

“This is over a total lifecycle of 90 years. Much of this was driven by the … compact size, which is just over a third of the size of a single story detached dwelling,” Mr Berg said. 

That compact size resulted in two main advantages – less materials use and therefore lower carbon emissions, and a much smaller area to heat, meaning less energy consumption. 

“With the climate safe house they also have really upped the level of thermal installation, compared to current building code levels.  

“And this is really important, because it's really promoting the message that we want to stress is that a low carbon health is also a warm, dry and healthy house.” 

Mr Berg liked that the house considered both climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

“So the fact that the house is right up above the flood line ... the fact that it's relocatable means that we won’t have to abandon it later - those are all key features that really helped with the lifecycle carbon of the building.” 

But the lifecycle assessment also highlighted areas for further carbon savings – those related to energy use in heating up water and of plug-in appliances. 

“Both of which are occupant/user behaviour controlled and influenced. We see that as being two areas where we could really benefit in terms of cutting our carbon emissions in our housing.” 

Get your own

It isn't just Ms McCarthy who'll reap the benefits of the project.

BRCT plans to eventually have designs for the home available for a fee for others who want to build one.

It's hoped that building a climate safe house will cost in the mid-$200,000 range, but that hasn't been finalised.

Mr Willis said it was hoped one of the houses would take about two months, although if people chose to customise them it could take longer.

In the future, if someone wanted to build a climate safe house, BRCT would support them, he said.

"What we would do is simply provide the plans, and we would provide a list of friendly, experienced providers.

"So ... 'here's your package, if you want to go and do it, here's the pathway to it and here's the firm costing'."

BRCT wants to balance affordable plans with a return for the work that goes into the climate safe house plan, as well as a return to fund further work.

'Flax roots' initiative

Mr Willis said a big part of the project was showcasing innovative adaptation that wasn't top-down, government-led initiatives.

"We've been working to make sure that this respects autonomy. This part of the conversation has really been missing in the climate change adaptation work to date. And that's a really, really critical part of it...

"Community know-how, flax roots understanding of the issues is important for successful adaptation. We might be resource poor but give us credence for knowing how to do things.

"And look, we're creating solutions that can be used elsewhere. So listen to those community voices."

Mr Willis said it was also important to consider new ways to reduce private risk and increase collective responsibility - for example, the ways in which land was owned.

It has been a community effort - in order to make the house happen, BRCT has had a lot of support from individuals, businesses and local authorities.

From home design to structural panels, windows, lifecycle assessment, builders helping out and a grant from the council to help with project management - and many more.

"There are a lot of people in business and in the community who want to see things happen, and they're willing to put their heart and soul into it. And that's really motivating. And gratifying."

Mr Willis said that collaborative approach would be a key part in adapting to climate change.

Council opinion

Dunedin City Council chief executive Sue Bidrose said the council was "interested in all the options for how we might adapt to climate change and the climate safe house is definitely one of the options...

"DCC Eco Design Advisor Lisa Burrough says the group is building above building code requirements in terms of insulation and is considering ways to reduce water use.

"As the house is smaller than a typical new build it will not only be easy to move, but will also be easier to keep at a comfortable temperature, will use less energy for lighting and heating and use fewer materials for construction."

The proposed climate safe house would need building consent and the DCC had agreed to waive processing costs, she said.

Depending on where it was located, resource consent may not be needed, she said.

If it were required, the council would also waive resource consent processing fees.

Moving it should be "straightforward" if it was built and located in the same building consent authority area, Dr Bidrose said.

Take a look

For anyone who wants to see what a climate safe house looks like, plans are for the shell of the first climate safe house to be completed during The Great Kiwi Home & Living Show at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin at the start of November.

It'll be partially completed before the show, then relocated to the stadium where the construction methods will be demonstrated.

Finally, it'll be moved to Waitati for completion after the show for Ms McCarthy, with hopes it'll be finished before Christmas or early in the new year.

It'll be a "lived-in open home - on occasion", so people will have a chance to see what the final product is like.

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