Wellington Scoop

Warm, healthy, and historic


Rachel Paschoalin’s PhD research at Victoria University looks at how renovation guidelines can create warmer and drier historic buildings. Her research investigates how to sympathetically retrofit historic buildings to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions so that they can continue our heritage, protect the climate, and serve their communities.

Rachel’s research provides an alternative to the recent debates that have seen historical character areas, like Mt Victoria in Wellington, accused of protecting damp, cold, and unhealthy rental properties from renovations.

Over the past year, environmental and rental organisations such as Generation Zero and Renters United have submitted on the Wellington City Council’s Spatial Plan consultation to reduce the size of character areas in order to enable more intensive development in inner-city suburbs. Much of their submissions argued that historical homes are cold, damp, and unhealthy.

In her research, Rachel interviewed architects, conservation professionals, engineers, asset managers, planners, and policy experts to understand what retrofit measures are suitable under local best heritage practice. She explored whether New Zealand could benefit from adopting international procedures.

“New Zealand’s historic wooden buildings pose unique insulation difficulties. They often require carpenters with traditional skills, but our industry is small, making it harder to serve these needs at an affordable scale and cost”.

To develop guidelines, Rachel explored different retrofit measures while balancing the economic factors, heritage outcomes, and energy use. The measures range from installing roof and floor insulation, thermal curtains, double glazed windows, and various internal and external wall insulation options. Each has varying degrees of reversibility and appearance impact, so she is gauging their suitability from the expert interviews.

Her initial findings show that heritage experts are cautious with retrofitting’s visual, spatial and material impacts. Conservation professionals were hesitant to adopt overseas guidelines if they potentially introduce unforeseen moisture decay of existing fabric and do not satisfy New Zealand’s unique climate, seismic, materials, and construction methods.

Instead, her research found that guidelines should be tested locally along with training local experts before adopting such solutions. However, all the experts also appreciated the recent societal ambitions to reduce carbon emissions and ensure heritage and historic buildings are valuable contributors to their community.

“There is debate amongst experts between the macro-scale need to reduce energy use and increase liveability and the micro-scale goal to protect the historic building’s authenticity”, Rachel says.

Rachel’s interviews have been recently completed and she is now developing best practice policy guidelines to inform construction, design, and government sectors in New Zealand. She will engage Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and conservation professionals to shape specific local guidelines.

She notes that “historic buildings should not be exempt from energy efficiency requirements, but policies should allow flexible targets, even if by little improvements”.

“Warmer and drier environments are possible through sensible changes that will noticeably enhance the environmental and liveability factors of historic buildings”.

Rachel Paschoalin is a candidate in the Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation under the supervision of Dr Nigel Isaacs and Dr Fabricio Chicca. Request that Rachel presents at your business or organisation. Email her on rachel.paschoalin@vuw.ac.nz or Dr Nigel Isaacs on nigel.isaacs@vuw.ac.nz


  1. Claire, 23. October 2021, 9:42

    Rachel: People in Newtown have been retrofiting and caring for older houses for a long time. It is estimated that probably 80 % have been done up. Why don’t you contact the Newtown Residents Association; they may want a presentation.

  2. Jim, 26. October 2021, 8:00

    Claire – where does this 80% figure come from? What counts as done up? Fully insulated with double glazing and good heating, or a slap of paint? I fear it’s the latter. Just because a house looks semi-decent from the exterior, doesn’t mean that it’s a good dwelling inside.

  3. Lindsay, 26. October 2021, 8:59

    There’s a relevant talk on Wednesday night, as part of Heritage Week: What are the environmental, health, and comfort benefits from improving older houses rather than building new ones? Older NZ houses can be cold and damp, but does this mean that they have no value and should be demolished to be replaced by new buildings? Using a selection of older New Zealand and international houses, two internationally renowned architects will explore the life-cycle environmental costs and benefits of making older houses energy efficient, healthy, and comfortable. At 5.30 at the Wellington Faculty of Architecture in Vivian Street.

  4. Jim, 26. October 2021, 9:48

    Thanks Lindsay – sounds interesting and despite my “pro-development” comments I do believe that reuse is hugely important. How reuse/adaptability is balanced with heritage (who can sometimes throw up a wall to prevent this) is one question and if the building is still viable to be reused is another. Reuse doesn’t always need to mean that the building is kept on site – it could also mean that it is dismantled and reuse elsewhere.

  5. Claire, 26. October 2021, 10:09

    Jim : I live here and go to the open homes; know a lot of people, have been in their houses. And the retrofits would amaze you. Yes, done up means made fit for modern purpose. These are owner occupied. Some rentals the 20% probably need work. Funny how the rundown Mt Vic/ Newtown/ Mt Cook campaign doesn’t hold water.

  6. Jim, 26. October 2021, 11:21

    Claire – you cannot make that statement based on visiting a few friends’ houses and the occasional open homes. That’s not a basis for making a claim that 80% are fully renovated. The rundown comments seem to come mainly from the younger generation – who are living or have recently lived in poor rental housing. No one is making the claim that all of these suburbs are run down – just that there are significant numbers of homes in each that are poorly maintained.

  7. Daniel, 26. October 2021, 13:30

    Like Jim, I also wonder where the 80% figure comes from? Anecdotes do not provide real insight and only serve to suggest this is a magic number. Please, provide an objective source that shows 80% of Newtown houses have been retrofitted to a modern standard.

  8. Claire, 26. October 2021, 15:57

    Jim. Yes the rundown comments come from renters. And those landlords are not policed enough by anyone. The healthy home standards need to have bite. This is a separate issue; all suburbs have substandard rentals.
    Daniel: a number of us have spoken to a majority of the owner occupiers, when the DSP was out, with large public meetings, so not an anecdote. Gradually owners have renovated their homes. Newtown is not full of dereliction.

  9. Daniel, 26. October 2021, 17:58

    I think what you’re saying is the 80% value you cite is your own estimate, based on speaking with over half of all the owner-occupiers in Newtown — is this correct?

  10. JAB, 28. October 2021, 12:38

    Jim/Daniel: I notice that you want Claire to prove her claims. Shouldn’t a similar request be made for those who repeatedly claim that the houses are old, rundown and not fit for purpose? Or have we stumbled into a variation of mansplaining?
    For what it’s worth, of the 30 old houses – both rented and owned – closest to me, 28 have been upgraded to high standards and the remaining two owner occupiers have done a slightly lesser amount of work.
    And if the problems are rented houses perhaps we should mandate allowing tenants to purchase after a certain period at market value to become owner occupiers?

  11. Jim, 28. October 2021, 14:19

    JAB – I’m not sure we are allowed to list certain houses on here? Nothing to do with “mansplaining,” just wanted to get an idea of where the claim came from. I’m not going to give a number or percentages – because I can’t say I have been into every house. However – you only need to google “Wellington cold houses” to get a flurry of results. Here is one. In saying that, it’s impressive that you have had the opportunity to visit the 28 houses around you to confirm they have all been renovated to a “High Standard”. Good work!

    Anyway – i can only speak from personal experience. It has only been a few years since I stop needing to rent (lucky me) and the only decent place I lived in over those 12 years was an apartment in Te Aro. The others were old villas in Mt. Vic/Aro Valley and Hataitai. The houses all looked ok from the street, as they had been painted in the last 10-15 years – but interior upgrade works were minimal and winters were unenjoyable – insulation in the ceiling can only do so much without having the walls and windows redone. Wardrobes are not supposed to grow mold and you should not be able to tell the temperature of the wind by standing close to a window. Visiting friends in their respective flats was similar. Going by the stories from my younger work colleagues, still very much an issue.

  12. JAB, 28. October 2021, 15:06

    Jim. So you are basing your complaints on the houses you rented? That is a small percentage of the older housing stock and, if they still need upgrading, selling to the occupier looks like the way to ensure that. Yes there is a continual drumbeat around damp houses etc but the climate is warming and if you want to run around in a t shirt and shorts in the middle of winter that may not be optimum. I sense a planned campaign by potential investor/landlords to enhance their position in the market rather than provide any meaningful solutions. Over intensifying will also reduce sunlight but the population of NZ hasn’t spent the last century freezing.

  13. Claire, 28. October 2021, 15:19

    Jim: these are rentals. Different issue, but not just Wellington. Landlords are at fault. And the laws, with not enough real Bite. This is the Govt shirking responsibility. One thing to remember is that old houses are not the only rentals with a problem.

  14. Jim, 28. October 2021, 17:55

    JAB. Not quite – more of an FYI for you and Claire who seem to think that “my house and my friend’s house is renovated therefore cold damp houses don’t exist.” There are reports on the issue – it’s not a tiny percentage. It’s also not make believe. Immigrants, tourists, students, and research fellows are not colluding with property investors to destroy your neighborhood. Just because people have put up with rubbish houses for the last century is no reason to continue the trend. People just want somewhere to live – why is change so bad?

  15. Daniel, 28. October 2021, 18:13

    JAB: I asked Claire where the 80% figure comes from, I did not ask her to prove it. There is a lot of noise from all sides of this issue to pick through and this 80% figure seemed extraordinary.

  16. JAB, 29. October 2021, 12:35

    Jim: “Immigrants, tourists, students and research fellows” hardly represents the basic NZ homeowner/occupier/citizen. I have reservations that we have a good number of the former in the debate, from countries where stone/brick buildings, high rise, lack of earthquakes, longer colder winters and lower rainfalls are the norm and who have little understanding as to why NZ has built the way it has and want to replicate what they are used to regardless of the downsides. If needed, upgrading the buildings that are fundamentally sound makes a lot more resource sense than ripping them down and replacing with dense multi storey. The UK experience of removing terraces for tower blocks should be a lesson learnt.