Many Australians are shivering through each winter unaware of the impacts cold homes have on their health.
- Many Australian houses are not built to keep occupants warm in winter
- The World Health Organization has set a minimum indoor home temperature of 18C for temperate countries
- The failed Home Insulation Program was a good idea, says researcher Dr Lyrian Daniel
From Queenslanders on stilts, often described as wooden tents, to draughty cottages in the southern states, there are many different reasons houses in the country are not keeping out the chill, according to the University of Adelaide’s Lyrian Daniel.
A researcher at the university’s Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning, Dr Daniel said Australians saw themselves as a summer country.
“We’re so geared towards thinking about summer and heatwaves that really we almost forget about winter,” she said.
“It’s almost incidental, so we don’t prepare properly.
“Many of the things we do to make our houses lovely and breezy and cool in summer are pretty hopeless in winter.
She said some of problems created by cold housing were “particularly acute in mild climates like Queensland, and even here in Adelaide, because the winters aren’t too bad, so we haven’t had to design really, really well-performing buildings”.
It may come at a cost, but Dr Daniel said there were some ways homeowners could make homes cosier during the winter months.
“It really depends on the house but, for example, in the old Queenslanders you might be able to put some ceiling insulation if there’s not some already there, some blow-in insulation in the walls, and really insulating that floor as well,” she said.
“In winter, we want to try and fill up all of those gaps so that any heat we are putting into the space from an air-conditioning unit or gas heater is going to stay in that space and not just leak out.”
Failing to reach minimum home temperature
The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined a minimum indoor housing temperature for temperate or colder climates to maintain good health.
According to the WHO’s housing and health guidelines, 18 degrees Celsius has been “proposed as a safe and well-balanced indoor temperature to protect the health of general populations during cold seasons”.
The guidelines also state that “housing that was difficult or expensive to heat contributes to poor respiratory and cardiovascular outcomes”.
WHO believes housing will become “increasingly important to health due to demographic and climate changes”.
Dr Daniel’s work monitoring homes across South Australia found many were not reaching the minimum temperature of 18C recommended by WHO during the day, which had “a huge range of consequences”.
“Primarily we look at impacts to cardio vascular and respiratory disease so things like asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), stroke, high blood pressure,” she said.
“But we’ve also just done a piece of work that found quite significant implications and effects on mental health, [illnesses like] anxiety and depression.
“So we’re really seeing a breadth of impacts from cold housing.”
Another Home Insulation Program?
While there were ongoing, national conversations about how to improve building codes to meet safe standards, Dr Daniel said many ideas were more suited for newly-built homes.
“[They’re] not so good for an existing home,” she said.
“Often at state level there are initiatives around retrofitting or there might be subsidies for solar panels or energy concessions during winter.
“But we do need to see a national conversation around the current housing stock, which is pretty tricky to retrofit.”
Despite the deaths of four workers, which brought on a royal commission into the policy, Dr Daniel said the federal Labor government’s 2009 Home Insulation Program, was “quite an effective program for warming up homes”.
The program offered subsidies of $1,600 to owner-occupiers and $1,000 to landlords to install insulation in homes that were not energy efficient.
“Anecdotally, people we’ve spoken to as part of our studies were participants in that program and really noticed a huge difference,” Dr Daniel said.
“It was really unfortunate the program faced so many challenges and there were repercussions for workers.”
Dr Daniel said any return to such a policy was down to political will.
She said a similar program in New Zealand had “fantastic health benefits” and there could be a chance to “kickstart” the conversation again.
In the meantime, to keep houses warm during winter, Dr Daniel recommended home owners made sure gaps in the building were sealed, try to insulate as much as possible, and check out the different subsidies and concessions on offer from state governments and “make use of them”.