Better building standards could reduce annual health costs by $50m

According to recent research by Dr Alan Barnett1 at QUT published in Lancet, 6.5% of deaths in Australia can be attributed to exposure to cold conditions. This is not in alpine areas of Australia but through pernicious long term exposure to winter temperatures under 18 degrees i.e. even in Queensland!

Apparently, exposure to the cold, winter after winter, progressively increases blood pressure leading to increased risk of coronary heart disease. In Sweden, where homes are built for the climate, deaths from cold weather are only 3.6%.

In Australia the building industry has never paid much attention to draft proofing homes – we still build like Englishmen coming to Australia and thinking we should live in homes with lots of air leakage for the hot summers. But it does get cold here and in a survey conducted by CSR Building Products of over 100 northern hemisphere expats living in Australia 75% said they were colder in their houses here than during the harsh winters back home.

As Dr Barnett says “we are living in glorified tents” and those on low incomes unable to afford expensive heating in winter, are particularly at risk.

This problem was also highlighted recently by Dr Wendy Miller in The Conversation Jan 2017 where she noted that “many people still live in leaky, poor-quality buildings”

We are aware of the need to insulate and maybe some increased awareness of the importance of performance glazing, but not air tightness quality. Issues of minimum building code design standards and “as built” compliance are currently being reviewed by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science through the Australian Building Codes Board. Poor quality building sealing has had scant attention paid to it in the Australian building industry, yet it is a low cost and effective quality improvement able to be implemented very simply during construction.

Cost/benefit analysis for Regulatory Impact Statements, undertaken when reviewing increased energy efficiency building standards, typically model energy savings but not the benefits to individual health costs, let alone to the ever stretched public health system.

There were 153580 deaths in Australia in 20142. According to Dr Barnett’s study 6.5% or 9983 could be due to exposure to the cold resulting in coronary heart disease. Hospitalisation for heart disease costs an average $9300, pharmaceuticals & other expenses a further $3900 per person3 – a total of $13200.

So if we assume better quality housing standards reduced exposure to the cold to Swedish levels we would save 3993 heart disease treatments annually, reducing state and federal health costs by $52.7m pa!

In addition a study in 2007 by Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman4 showed that insulating existing houses led to less days off school and work, less visits to the doctor and less hospitalisations due to respiratory conditions.

There is strong case for health benefits of higher building energy efficiency standards to now be included in any cost/benefit analysis of increasing building regulations.

Not that the case for improved standards is not already strong.

As this graph shows, if the National Energy Productivity Plan announced by the Hon. Josh Frydenberg Minister for Environment and Energy in August last year is implemented as planned Australia will not see any improvement in minimum building energy standards for 12 years – 2010 being the last upgrade, 2022 being the next proposed improvement.

As we all know, energy prices have increased around 150% since the first energy efficiency provisions were introduced into the building code in 2004. And they are forecast to rise even further by 2022.

Better building standards could reduce health costs by $50m

So the addition of research showing the benefits to public health from better building standards adds a powerful new argument for more urgent action by Australian governments to improve residential building standards now, rather than putting it off until 2022.

If the case is so strong then why does it not happen?

One argument is affordability. Increasing standards might increase costs making it even harder for new home buyers to enter the market.

However research conducted by the CSIRO5 found that such stringency increases can in fact lead to a reduction in building costs by driving design improvements. Another study by Pitt & Sherry6 highlights the “learning curve” capability of the industry to adjust to regulatory changes to minimise cost impact. And modelling on CSR House(www.csr.com.au) has shown that increased expenditure on better performing insulation and windows can be offset through reductions in the need for large air conditioning systems.

Another position regards reduction of “red tape” on the basis that if consumers wanted better housing performance they would ask for it.

Research by both Dr Georgia Warren-Myers at Melbourne University7 and by the University of NSW’s CRC Low Carbon Living EnergyFit Homes Initiative8 , amongst others, have demonstrated the significant barriers that exist between the stated desire by 90% of respondents to live in more energy efficient housing, and the capability of the mass housing industry to deliver this product to them.

The cost to educate consumers is too significant for any individual private company to undertake as it would result in a ‘free loader” benefit for their competitors.

There is clearly a market failure here that results in the benefits to the community eg reduced health costs, not being delivered.

It therefore warrants government intervention in the form of increased minimum building code standards, and other measures such as mandatory disclosure on sale or lease, along with initiatives such as grants to new home buyers linked to energy efficiency standards.

These issues and more are already “under consideration”, “under review” or “in committee” across federal and state government jurisdictions.

Every year of delay sees another 200,000 new homes built in Australia that will be locked in to their building fabric design for the next 50 years or more.

For the sake especially of the elderly and poor in our society, let alone the next generation, it is time for less workshops and more working to deliver better quality, more energy efficient homes for all Australians.

References

1.  Dr Adrian Barnett, Associate Professor of Public Health,Queensland University of Technology
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics 3302.0 Deaths, Australia 2015
3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2008/9
4.  Howden-Chapman P, et al. Effect of insulating existing houses on health inequality: cluster randomised study in the community. BMJ 334(7591):460 (2007); doi: 10.1136/bmj.39070.573032.80.
5.  Evaluation of the 5 Star Energy Efficiency Standard for Residential Buildings (www.industry.gov.au/energy)
6. Pathways to 2020 for Increased Stringency in New Building Energy efficiency Standards Benefit Cost Analysis ( www.pittsh.com.au)
7. Investigating demand-side stakeholders ability to mainstream sustainability in residential property, Dr Georgia Warren-Myers & Christopher Heywood, Pacific Rim Research Journal ,DOI: 10.1080/14445921.2016.1161870
8. www.lowcarbonlivingcrc.com.au


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