Nelson Lebo spends his days giving advice on making New Zealand’s old, cold homes warm and dry – a job made easier by the fact that he’s walked the talk, fixing up his family’s own 1935 bungalow.
Lebo, an eco design adviser for Palmerston North City Council, DIYed his own retrofit, and says the approximate cost for materials alone over the eight years he’s “chipped away” at his Whanganui home is less than $10,000, plus a new $7000 stove which heats the home, water and is used as a cooker during colder months.
He grew up in the US, where snow covered the ground for three months of the year, but where his family home was so dry in winter (centrally heated with “giant cast iron radiators”) that his mother used a humidifier to add moisture to the air.
He agrees with a colleague’s term for Kiwi homes – “wooden tents” – a shell that more or less keeps out wind and rain, but offers little other protection from the elements.
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Retrofitting is the solution for older housing stock, he says, and his own approach is what he calls eco-thrifty – meaning it was done on a budget and with as little material sent to landfill as possible.
At work, he provides Manawatū residents advice on moisture management, heat retention, heat distribution, and space and water heating – “usually in that order”.
“I’ve taken the same approach in my home.”
To tackle rising damp in his own home, Lebo first put in a polythene ground moisture barrier beneath the home that had been relocated, and put on new piles with a vented Hardie Board ring foundation. He removed garden plants that had grown up to half-cover the vents.
Lebo says, as a general rule, plants and trees should never grow up against a home as they hold moisture. “You should never have any vegetation touching your cladding. You want free air circulation around the immediate perimeter of your home,” he says.
He also cut channels in concrete and put in French drains to direct stormwater away from the house. With all these changes, it took 18 months for the home to fully dry out.
Damp was a lesser problem inside. The bathroom already had a powerful 150mm diameter fan and a delay timer on the switch. “Nonetheless, I installed a shower hood, and currently we get no condensation in the bathroom unless the children have a particularly long play in the bath.”
He says that is an easy DIY project for any homeowner, with YouTube videos available to show how to instal.
To address heat loss, Lebo ordered R3.6 blanket insulation “within a week of our purchase” of the home, putting two layers to a height of 30cm in the ceiling, and also covering the ducting of the existing heat transfer system – which he believes made a huge difference.
“Putting a whole heap of insulation in your ceiling is one of the easiest things to do. Just go up and put it in,” he says. “Underfloor is a little bit harder, but still within the realm of an aspiring DIYer.”
Lebo got creative with the internal walls, adding extra internal linings on four walls:
- a timber feature wall in the master bedroom
- a plywood climbing wall in his daughter’s room
- plasterboard in a small office
- thin ply in two large closets along the south wall.
”Blowing in insulation needs a professional and is quite expensive, and proprietary,” Lebo says. ”All I did was I packed off the inside of the wall with framing timber, insulated in between, and then I just had fun with it.”
What about the windows?
Lebo added Perspex secondary glazing or double glazing with low-E glass to nearly every window. He plans to finish the whole house by double glazing a final children’s bedroom this winter.
One window – between the dining area and the carport – is now triple glazed with layers of Perspex added both inside and outside.
“It’s probably the cheapest, best window in all of New Zealand: triple glazed for about $170.”
Perspex is degraded by sunlight, but works in this part of the house that doesn’t receive direct sun.
To make double glazing more economical, Lebo recommends a DIY approach and going directly to a window manufacturer to order insulated glass units. “You give them the exact measurements and type of glass, and they’ll build them for you and sell them to you. A little bit of sleuthing on the internet and I learned how to retrofit double glazing.”
He also bought detachable curtain linings for the existing unlined curtains, and lined Roman blinds for the kitchen and dining areas.
The renovations have made huge improvements in warmth and comfort for Lebo, his wife, Dani and children Verti, 9, Manu, 7 and foster son, Topher, 3.
“When we got here, there was a 30-year-old Kent woodburner in the lounge,” Lebo says. “Now it’s a 40-year-old Kent. When we arrived, it only heated the lounge. Now it easily heats the entire home.
“And we’re burning half of the wood and heating twice the space.”
Lebo says having worked on his own home helps in his day job.
”Doing it the high-cost way is easy, because you just open up your chequebook, but doing it the low-cost way is challenging. I don’t tell people what to do, but I can say, here’s a broad range of options.”
It’s cheap, easy and quick to insulate your windows.
Lebo has noticed a culture shift, albeit “glacial”, away from a tolerance for cold, damp homes in the eight years he’s been working in his role.
He recommends other homeowners on a budget to build their DIY skills slowly, as he has, using “YouTube University”.
“And then also use a scientific mind to understand how to make your house warmer and drier. There’s a lot of people feeling like, ‘Oh my home is horrible, and I don’t why’.”
He recommends people consult eco design advisers where councils provide them, or contact organisations such as Wellington’s Sustainability Trust for advice.