Autumn is here and the leaves are changing colour. Vibrant reds and yellows blaze brightly from their branches as though the trees are on fire. The morning air is crisp and as I exhale my breath comes out in a hazy puff. I layer on the clothes and wrap a scarf around my exposed neck as I head out to walk my way to work. Life here in Hanmer Springs, New Zealand is not much different to what I’m used to experiencing back home in Canada though about this time of year we’d be crossing our fingers that the newly sprouted spring plant life doesn’t get ruined by a late season dump of snow.
As I have been chasing the sun for the past two years that I have been travelling, I am very much looking forward to having a winter season again, particularly one that doesn’t involve temperatures around -30 degrees Celsius and two feet of snow to clear off my car in the morning.
Many locals in New Zealand have assured me that winter here will be nothing in comparison to what I’ve grown up with, but I am still slightly sceptical. Since arriving in New Zealand I have been surprised to learn that many of New Zealand’s buildings are without central heating or double glazed windows or any form of significant insulation system for the winter months. As insulation and heating are both standard and simply necessary items for all building structures in most of North America and Europe, I cannot fathom a winter with snow when I know my current living area has a gap at the bottom of the front door and the cold simply oozes from the floor and walls. With no basic insulation and only a wall heater, the idea that I could survive a winter here seems as foreign as the fact that the leaves are falling off the trees during the Easter season.
Even more than my own personal discomfort with living through a Kiwi winter in semi-warmness, my surprise that Kiwis haven’t rushed to a solution weighs heavier on my mind. Having maintained the reputation of being a green country, both in the visual and environmental sense, New Zealand has been slow to jump the bandwagon of adequate insulation and heating for buildings. Energywise (EECA’s consumer programme) states that “around 900 000 New Zealand homes have inadequate insulation” (2011). Many locals I have met here shrug their shoulders when discussing my astonishment to what their electric bill is during the winter months. The average Kiwi “household of four people spends around $2,800 a year on energy, not including transport” (Energywise, 2011). As the seasons change and get colder, the electric heaters, stoves and hot water are all competing against thin walls, cold floors and single-pane windows to warm up those inside. Not to mention the amount of trees being cut down to be used as firewood each year.
There is even a gap with one of New Zealand’s most recognized organizations – the Department of Conservation (DOC) – who have opted to not only build new huts in New Zealand’s wilderness without stoves or fireplaces, but are in the process of taking such heating devices out of old huts. These huts have now been nicknamed “cold huts” among trampers as they are simply that. Cold. Scattered all over New Zealand, these huts are set in prime locations where rushing rivers run or high up in alpine country, complete with no insulation and no form of heating. As new huts are in the realm of 12-32 bunks large, a couple of trampers stopping over for a night of shelter are almost better off trying to warm up in a 4-season tent.
The bit that confuses me most through all of this is that New Zealand is a prime country for offering an easy, affordable and eco-friendly solution to all. Actually, New Zealand has approximately 32.4 million solutions to offer up (Statistics New Zealand, 2009). 32.4 million sheep, that is.
These well known animals of New Zealand are famous for both their meat and wool. Sure, roast lamb and merino jumpers are fabulous in their own right, but what about using the wool for insulation? It’s not a new idea and has become rather popular through companies such as Natural Insulations, Sheep Wool Insulation and Thermafleece in the UK as an eco-friendly solution to insulating building. Sheep’s wool is not just warm. It is a natural fibre designed to absorb moisture without diminishing in its ability to keep things warm. Even more than that, it acts as an overall temperature regulator (think merino). The benefits don’t stop there either. Sheep’s wool is completely user friendly and safe for the environment. If it were to ever catch on fire, it would extinguish itself rather than stimulate the blaze further. At the end of its life it can be recycled or biodegraded. That being said, it has a naturally long lifespan and won’t disintegrate anytime soon (Sheep Wool Insulation, 2011).
To top it off, sheep’s wool has zero ozone depletion potential, requires less than 15% energy than required to produce glass fibre insulation and will pay back energy costs more than five times sooner than (Sheep Wool Insulation, 2011). Oh yeah, and it’s completely affordable as well. Currently the government of New Zealand has established a program by the name of Warm up New Zealand: Heat Smart where eligible Kiwis can receive up to $1300 to go towards insulating their home (Energywise, 2011). Check out the following site for more information: http://www.energywise.govt.nz
Maybe it’s time New Zealand pulled the wool off from over its eyes. Maybe it’s time New Zealand started making use of their natural environment in the way it was intended. It’s not as though Canada has 32.4 million woolly coats walking around on four legs begging to be used in the next eco-friendly building plan. We’re too busy trying to figure out if we can get everyone excited about the igloo.
Energywise, Funding for Insulation and Clean Effective Heating, http://www.energywise.govt.nz (Online, April 2011).
Energywise, Save Money on Your Energy Bill, http://www.energywise.govt.nz (Online, April 2011).
Sheep Wool Insulation, Why Should I Use Wool, http://uk.sheepwoolinsulation.com/why_wool/ (Online, April 2011).
Statistics New Zealand, Agricultural Production Statistics: June 2009, http://www.stats.govt.nz (Online, April 2011).