Building a better future

The Climate Safe House project's goal is to develop housing for areas vulnerable to climate...
The Climate Safe House project's goal is to develop housing for areas vulnerable to climate change. It's a creative project: though the houses probably won't look like this. Photo: Getty Images
A warm, dry, safe place to live is a basic necessity. Which means there is work to do, writes Scott Willis. 

Scott Willis
Scott Willis

A "non-compliant" tree hut has been in the news recently, and no doubt there are any number of either newly completed or partially completed hut projects scattered around the city right now. When I remember back to my childhood, I have particularly fond memories of the huts we built, whether in trees or underground, or the caves we used as hideouts.

Humans have a need for shelter and all children I know love constructing and inhabiting their own constructions, and probably always have. We are creative animals and we are going to need all our creativity for the Long Emergency.

There is no longer any doubt that human impact on the climate is causing the climate to change, causing sea levels to rise and ensuring a greater frequency and intensity of adverse natural events. Among all this change, we still need shelter from the elements, and in a changing environment with wilder weather we can't just assume the same old same old will be fine.

Even if we weren't in the Long Emergency of climate change, we know our building standards are low and the quality of our housing is poor. In our changing environment, poor-quality shelter isn't just bad, it is dangerous.

This is why we need climate-safe housing. So what do we do? The work of government to understand the issues, develop a consensus on the problem and develop plans that can be implemented through government agencies is critically important and yet takes time. Public consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill with its provision for adaptation has just ended, and a review period has only now begun.

Meanwhile, climate impacts continue unabated to affect communities around New Zealand. All around the country, on a daily basis, vulnerable individuals, communities and local authorities are struggling to deal with very challenging situations and complex issues of flooding and slips, as well as other climate impacts.

Can we just wait until "they" fix it? Waiting for others to sort things out for us can make us even more vulnerable if government, for one reason or another, is unable to deliver solutions, or unable to deliver them in a timely fashion.

Waiting for others to take charge may result in the rise of climate ghettos: residential areas declining in value, with reduced or zero insurance cover, occupied by increasingly disenfranchised people. No-one wins from a situation like that.

Humans have a need for shelter and children love constructing huts. Photo: Supplied
Humans have a need for shelter and children love constructing huts. Photo: Supplied
Back in February and March, three community workshops were held in Dunedin to discuss adaptation to climate change. The workshops revealed a strong community desire for more engagement on adaptation, more community discussion, and more collaborative work to understand options, develop a vision and act.

As Dr Judy Lawrence explained in the workshops, "by failing to prepare, [we] are preparing to fail". And by avoiding immediate need, we miss opportunities for learning in the rough.

Climate change brings with it deep uncertainty and increasing complexity. Only one thing is certain: we need to become more adaptive and to embrace risk.

In the draft report from those workshops, three principles have been proposed to decision-makers to enable a more joined-up, adaptive action as we learn to work with uncertainty:

Embrace risk and experimentation in evaluation of actions (practise adaptive governance).

Work with the community sector to build deeper community engagement and create opportunities to share knowledge and build capacity (invest in community).

Recognise the value of the Government as "honest broker" to sponsor and broker relationships across different sectors (practise good stewardship).

The science on climate change is very clear now and planetary change is under way. What is also becoming clear is that in New Zealand the social licence for action has improved considerably.

The latest poll by Insurance company IAG revealed that a strong majority of New Zealanders want action on climate change; 79% said we should start now.

Whether or not this latest poll or the recommendations from the Our City, Our Climate report will have an impact on decision-makers remains to be seen. It will take some serious intent to break out of the artificial silos we inhabit, where "climate change" is just one area of government work alongside "economic development", "education", etc. In the Long Emergency we need our whole society to gear up and pull together in action.

Nevertheless, government finally has climate change adaptation in its sights.

Meanwhile, we all can invest, as individuals and in our communities, in informed and immediate action, particularly where there is immediate need. And this is where we get to experiment and try out ideas.

The Climate Safe House project began in a small stakeholder meeting in the Blueskin library meeting room in 2016. Since then, through numerous designs, extensive research, community workshops and development of partnerships, the project has grown wings.

The Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, which is managing the project, doesn't have all the resourcing in place yet. But we do have many sponsors and partners providing materials and services for the first model Climate Safe House build.

For myself, I am simply excited about the opportunity to actually do something and get creative with new materials to construct a high-performance, affordable and adaptable model house that will provide shelter to someone in need.

The Climate Safe House project's goal is to develop housing for coastal areas vulnerable to climate change and to implement adaptive planning in practice. We are starting local. We get to experiment with structural insulated panel (SIP) construction and the use of Hempcrete, learn about new smart "behind the meter" energy technologies connected to the local smart grid, and try out transportable design and modularity. In short, we can get really creative with building and shelter.

In some ways, this is full circle. Hopefully, we'll get to build "huts", but this time, they will be compliant with the code and meet real need. The Long Emergency will be one big adventure, so let's get started!

For more

• To find out more about the Climate Safe House project, go to

• IAG survey link here:

- Scott Willis is the project manager of Blueskin Energy Ltd. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


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