Safe as houses

Creative minds are preparing to meet the challenges of an uncertain future, writes Scott Willis.

Scott Willis
Scott Willis

One of my summer reads was Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. This is the story of a boy struggling into adulthood in the bleak and unforgiving environment of the Ice Age, some 30,000 years ago. What was fascinating to me, quite apart from the story, was the description of the rapid environmental change and the intimate relationship the characters had with their environment.

Responding to sea-level rise in Dunedin and coastal New Zealand will need all our creativity. We live in a much warmer world than Loon, the main character in Shaman, and our relatively benign climate had been largely stable since the end of the last glacial period, known as the Ice Age, 11,700 years ago. But all that is now changing.

A simulation of sea-level rise at Blueskin Bay by Jonathan Musther using Otago Regional Council...
A simulation of sea-level rise at Blueskin Bay by Jonathan Musther using Otago Regional Council data.

The tsunami warning late last year gave us a taste of an emergency drill and how we might respond to a tsunami or flood event. Climate change and associated sea-level rise is a long emergency. Our current emissions lock in climate change impacts decades into the future, and the later we leave it to reduce emissions, the harder and faster the climate change impacts are likely to be.

Unlike last year’s tsunami warning and the Kaikoura earthquake, climate change is not something we can simply receive reassurance on from the early morning news reports, rebuild, and then go back to our normal lives. We’ve now entered the anthropocene, the geological period defined by humanity, where human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

Yet for all that new risk and for all those huge challenges we face, there’s something exciting about acknowledging that all has changed. Human creativity is an endlessly renewable resource, and we are adept at finding solutions to problems. Too often our creativity is focused on getting people to buy more stuff and clearly that’s part of the problem. However, there is plenty of much more useful creative work going on.

It has been my privilege over the past eight months to work with a range of partners on the Climate Safe House project, initiated in May 2016. In particular, I’ve been excited by some stimulating preliminary house designs completed by a group of Otago Polytechnic students under the guidance of lecturers Tobias Danielmeier, Colleen Fay and Chris Fersterer. The idea was for students to be set a challenge — designing a climate safe house — and deliver it by the end of their year.

As the students’ "client", our organisation, the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, set them some design parameters. We asked them to design a house that was:

healthy to live in;

• affordable;

• transportable, so you can move with it if you had to;

• modular, so it can grow with your family, and;

• energy efficient.

Climate Safe House design by Otago Polytechnic graduate Sarah Foerg. Photo: supplied.
Climate Safe House design by Otago Polytechnic graduate Sarah Foerg. Photo: supplied.

The end-of-year result was a group of eight preliminary house designs, all different and all addressing the challenge in different ways. Most of the designs would result in a house able to be shifted by truck: modular homes. One house design is intended to be prepared as a flat pack and put together on site, with an ease of deconstruction designed in.

Services such as greywater and blackwater waste and the home energy system are additional complexities that can be "clipped on" to the designs.

And all the designs resulted in small houses. Small houses are already a way of addressing the housing unaffordability issue. Small houses are also much more likely to have a smaller ecological footprint, they use fewer resources and, if built to be efficient, have a lower lifetime cost. They can also be easily moved. And this is where design is so important: we don’t just want to be kept warm and dry, we also want to enjoy our homes and our living environment, and be able to adapt to our changing environment.

All of these preliminary designs will be exhibited at the Gallery on Blueskin in Waitati from Sunday February 19 (the exhibition opening is at 4pm). Public feedback on designs will help with the next stage of the Climate Safe House project, which is to deliver a final detailed design which will then be built. The exhibition will be on in Waitati for two weeks.

Flooding in South Dunedin, flooding in other outlying Dunedin settlements and areas: this is all something we are going to experience more often. So now is the time to work on creative ideas. Now is the time to try out new ways of doing things. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get started.

So, like Loon in Shaman, we need to adapt to our environment, learn from it and do things better. We need to innovate and keep on innovating. The election of Donald Trump as  United States president may have dealt a blow to global action on climate change, but here in New Zealand we are not short of innovative, imaginative and creative people who care about our environment.

I’m very hopeful that 2017 will be a year of greater community effort and I’m confident that by acting locally and thinking globally we can still build a future in which we can all thrive. It’s a call to our creative side and a call to adventure, and I’m excited by it. 

- 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. 


The project

The Climate Safe House project is a multidecade project addressing housing and vulnerable populations as coastlines change as a result of climate change. From 2016-2020 the focus is on Dunedin, and involves grass-roots research and construction of a model Climate Safe House.

Challenges it seeks to address are

• Home owners in fuel poverty

• Cold, damp, unhealthy homes

• Properties in flood hazard zones

• Sea-level rise due to climate change.

Contact and website

Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust: (03) 482-2048, email:


Funders and sponsors

Otago Community Trust

• Otago Polytechnic

• Enphase Ltd

• Ongoing community donations


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