Ideasroom

The pursuit of comfortable homes

Everybody wants a warm, dry, quiet, sunny home, right? Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD student Germán Molina Larrain is helping to make that a reality for as many New Zealanders as possible by developing an ‘atlas of comfort’ to aid the housing industry and homeowners in creating more comfortable homes.

BRANZ research has shown a number of barriers and challenges for industry and consumers when seeking to create more comfortable houses. These include a lack of consumer information on how to make houses comfortable and a commonly seen gap between the comfort level intended in the building design and the actual comfort level of the completed building.

Molina, from the Wellington School of Architecture, says the problem is not a lack of appropriate construction materials. “Everything from insulation to smart windows and materials based on nanotechnology is available to create more comfortable homes. So why aren’t people using it?”

He decided to research why this was happening and why findings about what makes buildings more comfortable and energy efficient never became industry standard.

“I believe the quality of our homes should be evaluated, at least in part, on how comfortable they are,” says Molina. “However, during my professional practice and Master’s studies, I found that, even if there are free tools for evaluating comfort (I have actually developed one), these are underused. The housing industry and market do not seem to be really interested in evaluating comfort.”

His initial interviews confirmed – unsurprisingly – that people do care about having comfortable homes.

“However, people have trouble expressing that preference through their purchase decisions, mainly because they can’t accurately assess the comfort of a home by visiting it. One potential solution would be to provide information on comfort to potential homeowners, but there is evidence to suggest people don’t always trust information like this unless they can verify it for themselves.”

The other issue Molina has discovered is that the way ‘comfort’ is presented by building scientists is often different to how residents understand it.

“Building science has often treated comfort as a functional aspect of a home, but there is a strong emotional aspect to comfort as well,” he says. “For example, building science may assess comfort as ‘I feel comfortable because this room is well lit in a way that means I can read without electric light’, but a potential homeowner may assess comfort by saying ‘this room is appropriately lit because it looks beautiful and I feel energised!’”

To improve communication between the housing industry and homeowners, as well as provide an assessment tool for everyone involved in creating a home, Molina is working on an ‘atlas of comfort’. There is still some work to be done to make sure all measures of comfort (warmth, quality of natural light, air quality and acoustics, for example) can be accounted for, as well as providing guidelines for implementing the atlas within the housing industry.

“I would love to see these concepts being used in industry,” says Molina. “I think they will help developers and architects improve housing quality and create value and provide access to better quality housing for everyone.

“We have the knowledge and technology to design and build much more comfortable homes than those available today. My research can help eliminate the barriers stopping this technology from being implemented in New Zealand housing, creating higher quality homes and improving quality of life, as well as reducing the environmental impact of the housing sector. Also, a significant side-effect of improving the comfort of houses is an improvement in energy efficiency.”

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