Cold homes winter
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Why are Aussie homes so chilly?

If you live in one of Australia’s colder regions, you’re probably already feeling the chill of winter. Unfortunately, there’s every chance your home doesn’t provide the refuge it should from those frosty nights.

In response to a viral trend of social media users calling out Australia’s cold home epidemic, a team of experts from RMIT has gone public to explain why one of the world’s typically warmer countries performs so badly at this time of year.

Substandard standards

Professor Ralph Horne is Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation at RMIT. He says Australia’s thermal efficiency standards fall a long way short of where they should.

“The National Construction Code has, for a long time, been much less stringent than comparable nations in similar climate zones, such as the US and Europe,” Horne says. “As far back as 2005, research comparing Australian cities to those overseas found housing in compatible climate zones in North America and Europe was 55 per cent more efficient for heating and cooling energy compared to minimum standard housing in Australia.

“Across Australia, there has been a longstanding awareness of drought, water efficiency and extreme events such as floods and bushfires, but much less focus on energy efficiency in homes.”

Horne’s RMIT colleague, Dr Nicola Willand, agrees. Willand is a member of the RMIT Centre for Urban Research and the Sustainable Building Innovation Lab. She identifies significant gaps in the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS).

“NatHERS, which governs the home energy star ratings for new dwellings, assumes that living room heaters are switched off between midnight and 7am,” Willand says. “Unless homes are well insulated and draught proofed, the warmth will slowly dissipate and result in cold kitchens and living areas in the morning.

“NatHERS also assumes a heating thermostat setting in bedrooms of 15°C, which is lower than the 18°C recommended by the World Health Organization, between midnight and 7am in the morning. Hence, the NatHERS assumptions suggest that being cold at 7am, when most of us are getting ready for work and school, is acceptable.”

Renters left in the cold

For renters, keeping warm in winter can be particularly difficult. According to Willand, there’s very little in state-based rental regulations to compel landlords to improve the energy performance of the properties they rent out.

“For renters, minimum rental standards in Victoria call for one heater in the living area,” Willand says. “This leaves bedrooms cold and at risk of mould, or tenants must use expensive portable electric heaters.

“At least Victorian tenants get a fixed heating appliance. The NSW social housing guidelines restrict the provision of heating devices to dwellings in the cool temperate and alpine climate zones.”

Renters are also among the most at risk of energy poverty, which as Horne points out can prevent people from heating their homes.

“An implicit reliance on cheap energy has now become increasingly challenged by the need to respond to climate change, and the rise in energy poverty,” Horne says. “For a variety of reasons, energy costs have risen across Australia and this has brought to light the inefficiency of Australian homes, as households struggle to keep the heating on and pay the bills.”

Not just discomfort

Over the summer months, HVAC&R News featured several stories looking into the health impacts of heat in the home. But just as excessively hot homes can have serious health consequences, so can excessively cold ones.

“Many people are unaware of the health risks associated with cold homes,” Willand says. “Advice that focuses on body warmth ignores the risks of cold indoor air for respiratory and heart health, infections and mould.”

With cold homes so normalised in Australia, this issue has become part of our everyday life.

“In our research, we have often heard people say, ‘Of course my home is cold in winter, but not colder than anyone else’s’,” Willand says.

“Coping practices such as wearing coats and onesies are socially acceptable. Watch Gogglebox and you’ll see participants rugged up with blankets, hoodies and mugs of hot drinks and wearing sheepskin boots, protecting them from the cold air and naturally insulating against cold floors.”

I have to agree. While writing this article, I’m staving off the cold with a hoodie, woollen socks, and a throw blanket, bracing myself for an even chillier Melbourne evening to come. In moments like these, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t normal; Australian housing can – and should – be better.

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