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Visions of A Building Code that Enlightens and Sustains.

Reflections on a workshop for a new New Zealand Code. My reflections lead me to conclude the new document would more sustainable if it is designed as an educational document with regulatory elements contained within it. The Building Principles will contain:
 -direct links to the building's environment; 
-requirements to value of the building's generating capacity;
-mandates for the study of elementary thermodynamics in our schools:
-mandates for regional research of building construction, use and maintenance.




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Random reflections on Building Code Workshop Wellington Nov 4 and 5, 2004.

  Day one.

Societal Expectations

About 140 attended this workshop. Compared to day two, it was flavoured with the addition of representatives from Min of Social Development, Tenancy Advocacy Groups and other social agencies.

The agenda was run using a technique called “Open Space Technology”.  Participants nominated the topics they wished discussed and these were grouped where overlap occurred. Principle promoters of a topic nominated times and places where discussion would take place. Key ideas discussed in each group were recorded. These were all printed out and placed on a wall. Each participant was given five spot stickers to mark what they considered were the five most important of the 37 topics.

I attended two discussions on energy efficiency and one on the building code as an educative force. I would have like to have supported the DIY group. I believe DIYers are an essential driver to sustainable technological, political and education innovation and that that recent reforms effectively marginalise them.

Summaries of the group discussions reveal  that sustainability and energy efficiency issues featured.  Though the Building Code was supposed to be the focus of the workshop, discussion of energy efficiency and sustainability issues showed that the construction of a building cannot be regulated in isolation from its surroundings. 

For instance, it is little use designing 5 Star rated buildings if surrounding development make it impossible to achieve or maintain 5 Star ratings. A 5 Star building may have a massive environmental footprint in terms of embedded energy, image generation and from destroying local solar generating capacity. Also the integrity of the rating depends on constant monitoring of materials to ensure they continue to perform. It was proposed that as maintenance varies, then a building should be re-rated before each house sale. Some suggested each building should come with a maintenance manual.

It was pointed out that the existing code was designed to regulate farmhouses when half of the population was rural based. 87% of the population now resides in urban areas. Adjacent land-use and development can have unprecedented impact on the efficiency of the average building now.

Voting patterns made it clear that those attending were no longer primarily concerned that a building stayed upright, that there be adequate egress, fire precautions etc.  Sustainability/energy efficiency/ well-being topics received the most votes (Up to 29 votes). By comparison structural, fire, access and other such considerations received only one or two votes. 

The need to see buildings as generators was also expressed in discussions about the need for building design that maximises the potential of a building to make use of new technologies. The most obvious need is for buildings to be designed to maximise their solar aspect. Ensuring roofs are aligned to the sun is my suggestion.

There seems to be serious talk now of making buildings sustainable in that they should store and use water more effectively. The recent Auckland water-use crisis seems to have made a major impact on awareness. However I could detect no awareness that the electrical technology is an integral part of a sustainable building and found no opportunity to even introduce the idea in a meaningful way. Wiring bathrooms for steam extractors can have a major impact on sustainability levels. Downlights can destroy thermal envelopes. Provisions guaranteeing building owners the right to incorporate intelligent, MR systems (monitoring/response systems i.e. the equivalent of the present meters and ripple control relays.) are essential to the development of ‘smart’ buildings.

Concern was expressed that boom-bust construction cycles have a negative impact on the quality of tradespeople, construction standards and material. This prompted me to reflect on the impact of booms on monitoring standards when demand for audits far outstrips the capacity of auditors to check standards. Perhaps auditors can be protected from political, bureaucratic and other pressures by a maximum Building Permit to auditor ratio.

The question was posed how can we have a consistent national code and yet cater for regional needs. In the past every little authority had its own set of rules and there was little consistency. Some saw it as a negative thing that a builder might have to know three different codes when working in a region and argued there is efficiency in uniformity. Some felt there is no practical way of reconciling national and regional needs. There seems to be a drive to a uniform national code.

My own response to this question is that every region has its own climates, cultures and resources. A building will perform very differently sited on a ridgeline exposed to 200kph Cook Strait salt winds compared to being sited across an active fault line compared to being sited in a sheltered sunny nook in a sand dune at Raumati.

I believe that it is possible to maintain a consistent national code with regional variations as long as there is accountability and research at the local level. My model is the community model of electricity distribution where each region created its own solutions and shared them in a system of collegiality that enabled the national grid to function.

Development of a Knowledge Economy and sustainable buildings requires a much more intelligent and integrated response. It is one where the traditional building inspector is replaced by individuals who are skilled at auditing construction standards, the durability of materials, and the effectiveness of building-use and who are primarily seen as teachers rather than enforcers. They will provide an independent source of advice to all sections of their community:

-          Building owners will have a source of independent advice of what are the most sustainable materials to build with.

-          Building users will have a source of independent advice on how to maintain their buildings, what appliances work best in them and how to maximise the building’s generating capacity. The latter advice includes how best to communicate in an intelligent way with the local electricity grid.

-          Territorial authorities will have a sustainable source of information of how their building stock is being maintained, the efficiency with which buildings are being used, the state of local resources (Are construction programmes enhancing or destroying solar energy potential?) and the impact of buildings on the health and wealth of their occupants.

-          Central Government agencies will have a sound regional research base to develop national policies that optimise the information for use across the country.

-          Communities will have access to information that will enable them to create structures that retain and enhance wealth within the community. This may be in the form of enhanced insulation systems, intelligent MR electric systems or school education programmes.

This is a very different approach to the present fragmented, repressive approach with its “industry-derived” solutions. For instance, its system of Licensed Building Practitioner “supervisors” suffers from all the flaws of the “market driven” electricity system.

Anyone who has attempted to research electricity use patterns will know that useful data died with the reforms as it became locked up by the “commercial sensitivity” imperatives of a few corporations. The Building Reforms work in a similar way to reduce the opportunities for sustainable use of field data and the development of local Knowledge Economies.

In both cases individuals and their communities are disempowered. DIYers being excluded from the Building Industry in the same way individuals/communities are now effectively excluded from involvement in the Electricity Market. They are being taxed for a compliance system that will not enhance knowledge and that inhibits individual knowledge and innovation. The system has the practical effect of reducing household funds available for investment in quality energy efficient products such as quality frame double-glazing, heat-exchange systems, solar panels or intelligent electricity MR (monitor/response) systems .

Supervising practitioners may well have vested interests in certain technologies or industry sectors. While they will ensure construction standards comply, there will be ample practical opportunity to ensure compliance serves their narrow interests. They could well have disincentives to note and advocate the relative superior performance of other products.  Information gathered is not in a form that can be integrated and processed into useful feedback loops to the five sectors I mentioned.

The fact we have some of the least energy efficient buildings in the OECD is no mistake. This fact and the ‘leaky house syndrome’ are symptomatic of a wider problem. They are the product of limited research funding, the present concepts of “user pays” and Government’s dominant reliance on “industry-derived” solutions. The result is widespread ignorance of buildings as generators and the use of materials in unsustainable ways. We will continue to burn gas for electricity or process trees into wood pellets for burning and transport them hundreds of kilometres when those same trees could be used as double cladding on our buildings. The stored carbon could be acting as insulation and saving the building owner money.

Without sustainable information, 5 Star rating systems will simply amplify the flaws and distort the Market in terms of developing a Knowledge Economy/Sustainable Society.

SEF readers will recognise a familiar refrain. Yes, it is another call for support for Molly Melhuish’s HousePower proposal. It is a call for research, knowledge and innovation at the local level by communities for communities. It is an acknowledgement that buildings can no longer be seen and regulated for in isolation from wider environmental and social considerations.

For those who say I am proposing a “vast bureaucracy” I would point out that already there is a larger bureaucracy attempting to solve such problems as the “leaky house syndrome”. Considerable resources are tied up in legal and medical systems, construction (maintenance and repair), debt management, electricity generation and distribution, water and gas reticulation, etc. because of our ignorance of effective building construction and use. After all this expenditure, we still fail to end up with a national strategy based on strong local knowledge economies. The end of Cheap Oil and Gas is set to compound our ignorance and debt.

What some see as a “vast bureaucracy” I see as an intelligent source of information that is available to all the community so we can make best use of local resources.  I see an informed public educating tradespeople and politicians in sustainable practices.

I also see HousePower operating at arm’s length from Councils to ensure the Councils and their communities are receiving independent, public information.

Now back to the workshop.

The day finished with an address by Katrina Bach, the new Chief Executive of the reconfigured Department and Housing. She outlined how the relevant functions of MED, DIA and the BIA are now nearly all transferred to the department. She outlined how the review has a 5 (?) year time frame and reinforced the message that now is the best time to get ideas in as planning is still at a very formative stage. For those interested, the June media release of the departmental changes can be viewed at

Day two was focused on Meeting the Needs of Building Code Users and was aimed at those who use the Code and the Compliance documents on a daily or regular basis.

Right from the start, clarity of terms was an issue and it was made clear that it is essential to know the difference between Code and Compliance. As a layperson, a bit-part educator and a person who designed and built my own three story house on a cliff using NZS 3604 as my bible, I was immediately confused.

Sample of the explanations I was given:

Code = Ends, Scale on Straightedge.

Compliance =Means, Straightedge. (Not Code, Not Mandatory)

Working in groups designed to include a wide cross section of users, we attempted to identify who uses the Code and who uses Compliance documents. The attached document indicates Code users are a much smaller subset of Compliance users.

On page 9 is a summary of Roger Fry’s overview of performance-based codes. He suggests what went wrong with the existing system and what we should do to remedy it 

We then worked in groups based on user types to establish the most and least used sections and elements of the code in our professions. The builder’s feedback is interesting. My experience is that this group, along with plumbers and electricians, plays a profound role in building and construction decisions in New Zealand. Product manufacturers and their PR divisions understand this very clearly, as do local retailers.

Most used sections and elements


“Builders generally do not refer to the code per say, they rely on others to interpret the code and reflect that in the design documentation.”

Compliance Documents

“NZ Standards e.g. 3604 and manufacturers technical data and literature, which are not compliance documents as such, but in the manufacturers view meets the code.”

Least used sections and elements


“Refer to above.”

Compliance Documents

“Any documents re “access” or “fire”.

When is the code at its best in terms of:

·         Specificity

·         Clarity

·         Useability

·         Ease of use

When is the code not at its best in terms of:

·         Specificity

·         Clarity

·         Useability

·         Ease of use

“Ease of Use and Useability – Builders generally would not know how to understand the code!”

Key elements of the code to work on and revise:

“Make it simple and easy to understand so that all builders included can understand and use.”

I worked with the Educator’s group, as I believe the most important impact of the Code is its educative element, not its regulatory element. Members of my group all taught in tertiary institutions. The first part of our discussion was dominated by attempts to clarify what is Code and what is Compliance. I personally became more confused.  It seems the Code is briefly introduced at the beginning of a tertiary course and not much discussed again.

One teacher of builders said he needed to be able to stand beside a builder on site and point to a clear rationale in the Code so the builder could understand why, for instance,  “builder’s paper” should not be used in a certain way around a window.

There was group consensus that tradespeople work with pictures (plans and diagrams on paper and scraps of wood.) all the time and pictures best communicate to them. The more the Code can be expressed in pictures the better it will communicate. It was recognised that pictures are an extremely powerful medium and there is also a need to ensure students can get beyond a picture of a potential solution and create their own solutions.

At the end of this discussion I noted confusion of Code and Compliance still existed. One engineer expressed his difficulty. He explained he is trained to think of the steel code as the tables giving the strength and stress data.

I was later informed that the BIA using Code for Compliance had compounded this profound confusion.

The discussions on best forms of delivery indicate a strong demand for electronic access to the Code and there were several calls for free access to the Code. (When these calls were made in my hearing I noted they were greeted with hoots of derisory laughter – there is deep cynicism of the “user pays” regime and the mentality behind it.) 

In my education group there was a strong call that the Code should be available as a huge intra -linked document. Students should be able to link directly back from a compliance section to the “code” driving it.  The document should also be tailored to the needs of major user groups for accessibility, delivery and Code updates. Modern electronic formats make this far more feasible and efficient.

I propose one of the major user groups is Level 4 (11-12 year old students). The Code should be in a form that can be used in Social Studies and Environmental Education learning activities. A bonus of providing for this group is the fact that research shows information crafted for communication to this level reaches the widest audience. Another bonus is that flaws in the wider picture become very apparent in this crafting process.

The last workshop invited priority setting. Officially this read: critical elements of the design and delivery of the Code for usability.

It was rephrased as the question:

“What would be the characteristics of a really good performance of the code? What about a building might stop you in your tracks and cause you to exclaim ‘ Wow, that building is the Code exemplified!!’ ”

 Again I noted some confusion with groups drafting lists saying the Code must be clear, accessible, precise etc. My group said such a building would be seen to serve or be fit for the purposes for which it is designed.  For me this still begs questions. What key elements make the building work? What are sustainable purposes?

I consider this confusion of Code and Compliance is serious. If the average person does not understand the rationale for an activity they will not practice it. If the builder or building owner thinks Compliance is Code then they will not explore alternative \ options that may be much more sustainable. Constantly people are talking past each other with one imagining Compliance is Code and the other imagining Compliance satisfies the Code.

I researched this confusion later. I find I cannot access the Code on the net to study how it works and how it might impact on our lives. The only reference I found under education was a link to Min of Ed guidelines for school trustees. After trawling through various agencies I found the Code at Victoria University Bookshop:

Vicbooks in WellingtonNew Zealand, is the official supplier of Building Industry Authority (BIA) publications.





The total price for a full set of PDFs is $160.00.

Full Set Hard Copy (2003/2004 amendments included in price) $623.95

All I wanted to do as a layperson was find out what drives our Building Code. I made a trip to the Wellington Library where they have electronic access to it. (They are charged for the use of the Code.) In terms of structure, the electronic form of the document is like getting caught up on one of those Escher paintings of stair cases that go back up inside themselves – you can take a link and never get back and you have to step outside the system and start again and things might seem more familiar but you still cannot work out how they are linked and where you are and how you got there…...

I gave up trying to select a small section to print. It took the librarian five minutes to do it for me. 

Buried deep in the document, along side sections such as Functions, Powers and Duties of the BIA and National Building Code is a section called 6. Purposes and Principles.

(1)   The purposes of this Act are to provide for –

(a)    Necessary controls relating to building work and the use of buildings, and for ensuring that buildings are safe and sanitary and means of escape from fire; and

(b)   The co-ordination of those controls with other controls relating to building use and the management of natural and physical resources.

(2)   To achieve the purposes of this Act, particular regard shall be had to the need to-

           (a) Safeguard people from possible injury, illness, or loss of amenity in the course of the use of the building ……. 

                  (b) to (e) safety especially fire, considerations and access for all.

                  (f) Facilitate the efficient use of energy, in the case of new buildings, during the intended life of those buildings.

(3)   In determining the extent to which the matters provided for in subsection (1) of this section shall the subject of control, due regard shall be had to the national costs and benefits of any control, including (but by not way of limitation) safety, health and environmental costs and benefits.

This legal framework needs to be established as a simple clear set of principles easily understood by a child of 12.


A building need to be safe for those using it.

A building needs to be a generator and be able to sustain its occupants using local resources as much as possible. This includes:

 -Be able to interact in an intelligent way with the electricity grid.

 -Be able to interact in an intelligent way with the water grid.

 -Be able to interact in an intelligent way with the sunlight it receives.

 -Be able to make intelligent use of the air.

  -Be able to make best use of new technologies.


(d) states the building must ‘provide for the protection of other property from physical damage resulting from construction use and demolition of any building”. 

There is nothing here that links the principles to any other Act or indicates a building can cause considerable “non-physical” damage to other buildings. It may, for instance, destroy another building’s capacity to generate its own needs. That damage might be far greater in monetary value than any physical damage a building could cause.

Hence additional principles might be:

-If a building destroys the generating capacity of a neighbouring property it must compensate the owners of that property to the value of that annual loss for the life of the building.

-The building needs to comply with the Resource Management Act.

The main messages the Code teaches me in this precursory look at it are:

(1) It is nothing to do with me.

It is not available to the layperson in any form that explains to me what it hopes to achieve and why a builder might know what he or she is doing. Nor is it accessible to me as a teacher wanting to create a unit activity on, say, Dwellings and Shelter. The privatisation of this sort of intellectual knowledge works directly against the national interest.

Suggestion: Redefine “Government surpluses” as money not invested in a Knowledge Economy. The Government is placing serious barriers in place to sustainable practice by not making the Building Code available on line for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

((2) I am not intelligent.

The tenor of the Building Code Reforms is that we are all speculators, fly-by-nighters “cowboys” or unintelligent.

Suggestion: Scrap the Licensed Practitioner Scheme and use the aggregated savings to give me direct access to a local-based HousePower institution where I can get quality advice about product and practice so I can build, retrofit, add to and use buildings in an intelligent way. I may hire a tradesperson and an architect to do the work but it will be on our mutual terms, not just their terms.

As part of the deal I welcome audits by HousePower to assess my product and practice.

(3) Communities are of little value.

There seems little awareness of the value of locally sourced knowledge. The Licensed Practioner Scheme combined with the Electricity Reforms works to fragment existing community knowledge.

Suggestion:  HousePower.

(4) Compliance is Code.

 I have discussed the confusion of these terms. It is useful to explore the definition of “code”.

1. code, codification -- (a set of rules or principles or laws (especially written ones))
2. code -- (a coding system used for transmitting messages requiring brevity or secrecy)
3. code, computer code -- ((computer science) the symbolic arrangement of data or instructions in a computer program or the set of such instructions)

It is clear from this that the least common use is the first definition. The third use is now very widespread with computer codes, road codes, TV tuning codes etc.

The second definition is also widely used with computer access codes, bank access, mobile phone codes, security/alarm codes, padlock codes etc.

The Building Code is so inaccessible it can be seen as another of these secret codes. It is shrouded in secrecy, a mysterious document for the exclusive use of select groups.

Suggestion: We accept Compliance is commonly interpreted as Code.  The set of principles should be set apart and described as such. The Building Code should be renamed the Building Principles and those principles, at least, should be freely available for all New Zealand citizens. It then matters less if Code is confused with Compliance. People will know the principles driving the Building industry. They will be more able to recognise they must satisfy those principles and not just some standard or regulation. Standards constantly change but sound principles hold longer term.

Suggestion: The Building Principles should be set out in every day language.

(5) Energy is gas and electricity.

The Act talks of “Energy Work Certificates” and states “Energy Work” means

(a)    gasfitting

(b)   prescribed electrical work.

Gas is a fuel and must be combined with elements of the atmosphere to be useful. Electricity is an energy form. Energy is the stuff that makes the universe work. It is manifest in a range of valuable forms such as solar energy, wind energy and infrared energy, all of which we can use in our buildings.

Suggestion: The Act refers to Utility Work. If it must use the word “energy” then it include work such as fitting solar systems, ventilation systems, glazing systems etc.

(6) The sun does not shine.

The sun is our prime source of life-enabling energy forms. A sustainable building will enable us to use those forms to our maximum benefit and moderate thermal extremes efficiently. If a building works to alter energy balances in the atmosphere it can work to put humanity at risk of extreme weather events.

Suggestion: Make specific reference to the sun in the Principles.

(7) The building is the world.

The use of centralised bulk-generation of valuable energy forms such as electricity to power buildings and more intense dwelling arrangements mean a building cannot be considered in isolation from the world. Indeed if it is to be truly sustainable then it is imperative for the building to generate valuable energy forms from renewable resources to replace non-renewable ones used in its construction and demolition.

Suggestion: The Building Principles detail links to specific environmental documents such as the Resource Management Act and Electricity Regulations.

(8) The Code is the Manual.

The general tenor is that the Code is a regulatory document. It is not fundamentally a teaching or aspirational document. Research in both Health and Transport fields suggests the most sustainable changes in behaviour occur from inspiration rather than fear and threat.

Suggestion: Put a focus on the document as fundamentally an educative document containing our national aspirations. This will make the document more accessible to people and help generate the local knowledge and building solutions that will achieve the national objectives.

Final thought:

I commend the Government for undertaking this consultation exercise at this formative stage of the Review. I am concerned that several people I spoke to were very cynical that the decision makers would take any notice of the workshop submissions. Some went as far as to dismiss it as the “usual PR exercise.”

I personally feel the recent legislation was a “knee jerk” reaction to the “leaky house syndrome” The lack of vigour with which the Master Builders opposed it indicates any concerns they consider it good business for them. The legislation tends to perpetuate flaws that will hinder sustainable development – especially in the field of thermodynamics in buildings - and will suppress community-sourced innovation. More than one person said I might have valid points but Parliament has just passed the laws and won’t even begin to rethink or reword them and we are stuck with the legislation. I remain mindful that within a year we may have a new Government and that will provide the political opportunity to achieve sustainable change.


a set of rules or principles or laws (especially written ones)

  1. code, codification -- (a set of rules or principles or laws (especially written ones))
    2. code -- (a coding system used for transmitting messages requiring brevity or secrecy)
    3. code, computer code -- ((computer science) the symbolic arrangement of data or instructions in a computer program or the set of such instructions)

acting according to certain accepted standards - Definition in context

  1. conformity, conformation, compliance, abidance -- (acting according to certain accepted standards)
    2. compliance -- (happy friendly agreement)
    3. complaisance, compliance, compliancy, obligingness, deference -- (a disposition or tendency to yield to the will of others)
    4. submission, compliance -- (the act of submitting; usually surrendering power to another)

Rules specifying the appropriate behavior of agencies, organizations or individuals in the securities industry. - Definition in context

Warning -All material needs editing and reviewing. My apologises for sudden changes in font.

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