How can students in New Zealand's infamously chilly capital city secure comfortable, warm and healthy rental homes on their limited budgets? A typical student at Victoria University of Wellington is borrowing a living allowance from the government, living away from home for the first time and renting a flat with other students on a week-by-week basis.
Victoria University student environmental group Gecko has identified an opportunity joining the forces of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation (NZPIF), the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), Sustainability Trust and a slightly unexpected "X factor" - shivering student tenants.
The joint-campaign offers a 55 percent subsidy for the cost of a ceiling and under-floor insulation retro-fit, provided the home was built before 1978 and is currently let out to low-income tenants. Landlords are asked to pay 45 percent of the cost of installation, a sum that can be as low as $1000 New Zealand dollars (around USD 690) for a four-bedroom house (full details).
The benefits of insulating homes are well documented and discussed: as well as providing greater comfort, insulation reduces a household's energy requirements and aids recovery from illness. Since insulation slows the transfer of heat, the same materials that keep a home warm during winter will keep it cool during summer. Insulation can help reduce the spread of fire and it helps sound-proofing to boot.
The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority offers the EnergyWise Home grant as part of the New Zealand government's energy efficiency plan: a broad program encouraging both energy conservation and renewable energy generation. The home insulation scheme also makes provisions for hot water cylinder wraps and pipe lagging, energy efficient light bulbs, low flow shower heads, under-floor polythene and draught-proofing for doors.
To fully realise the potential of the EnergyWise Home grant, Gecko is educating students on the benefits of insulating and explaining how to ask their landlords to upgrade Wellington's freezing flats. The information campaign, co-designed by NZPIF and Sustainability Trust, includes flyers around the campus, information in lecture theatres and articles on insulation in the campus student magazine, Salient.
They're also taking it national and sharing their resources with other New Zealand universities: environmental groups from Auckland University and Otago University are each carrying out Gecko's insulation initiatives in their own cities.
Environmental studies tutor and Gecko insulation initiative leader Aaron Packard acts as the link between NZPIF, EECA, Sustainability Trust and student associations around New Zealand. World Changing New Zealand caught up with him on a breezy Saturday morning.
World Changing New Zealand: Why did you choose to improve insulation, and what was the initial process?
Aaron Packard: Insulation seems like a thing that makes good sense to do in every possible way - to insulate houses better. It leads to healthier people, better energy efficiency... and it solves the problem right at the cause of it. So I thought a bit about the issue then did a bit of detective work to see what was going on. I found out that the NZPFI had a grant through EECA to insulate student flats - rental properties I should say - but that they weren't reaching students landlords. So we got in touch with the NZPFI and had a chat. They were really cooperative and we had press releases in no time!
WCNZ: Speaking of "no time" is it true that the program had a tight deadline for applications?
Packard: Yes, just a couple of months. We teamed up with some other student groups - we got Phil Squire from the Sustainability Trust on board too - and wrote a letter to relevant ministers of parliament. David Parker the minister of Energy, Jeanette Fitsimons the spokesperson on energy efficiency... and Helen Clark because it's cool to write letters to the prime minister. As a result, they extended the date to which landlords could apply for grants and announced another grant. The NZPFI arranged a series of seminars which and we promoted them with flyers around universities. We also have a "plan B" for students whose landlords refuse; it involves DIY kits and curtain banks.
WCNZ: What exactly is a curtain bank?
Packard: It's a place people can take their curtains when they replace them – something people do quite often it seems – and often they're still in pretty good condition. Then students can come and grab curtains. That's another thing we're doing with student groups. Nice and simple.
WCNZ: What's something that's surprised you?
Packard: I guess what showed up for me was that working with people can get quite good results. We could have been really angry at the NZPFI (for not reaching student's landlords themselves) but that wouldn't have got us anywhere. Instead we got heaps of support from them. So I learnt how co-operative people are when you have a really good thing.
Packard's tutorial class has formed five action groups, each setting out to make Victoria University a more environmentally friendly place. One of these groups will continue to work with Sustainability Trust and NZPIF to insulate student flats.
Image: Victoria University of Wellington, flickr/deadlyllama