Upgrading housing to improve health

Sustainability Victoria

Tuesday, 09 May, 2023

Upgrading housing to improve health

A study by Sustainability Victoria and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has found that even minor adjustments to aging housing stock can lead to better health and quality of life for vulnerable Australians. The study saw Sustainability Victoria deliver free retrofits to 1000 households in Melbourne’s western suburbs and the Goulburn Valley. The upgrades, costing on average $2809, are designed to pay for themselves within three years, thanks to energy and healthcare savings.

Academics from two UTS research groups, the Centre for Health Economics Research and Evaluation and the Institute for Sustainable Futures, were engaged by Sustainability Victoria to conduct a three-year trial of two sets of households.

All the participants were on a low income and had a chronic health condition. Most were elderly. The first set of households received the upgrades — such as insulation, draught sealing and space heating — before winter, the second after winter.

The trial period found that temperatures in the first set of homes increased by 0.47°C in the morning, reducing the time that residents spent below the recommended healthy winter indoor temperature of 18°C by 43 minutes.

Residents said they felt warmer and noticed less condensation, meaning less likelihood of damp and mould. They also experienced improved mental and physical health.

“We also saw improvements around important aspects of quality of life, such as reduced anxiety and increased feelings of safety and comfort,” said Rosalie Viney, Director of the Centre for Health Economics Research and Evaluation.

It also led to residents’ gas bills dropping by $85 over winter (meaning lower greenhouse gas emissions) and they used fewer medical services than the second group, resulting in an $887 saving to the healthcare system. The study also indicated that the upgrades would save nearly $5000 over 10 years.

One study participant, Heather, told Sustainability Victoria that her family now visited her in winter, thanks to her house being warmer.

Another, Carol, said, “If I can keep myself healthy and warm, my anxiety stays away. If I’m mentally OK, then my physical [health] is much better.”

According to Kerryn Wilmot, research lead from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, almost half of Australian homes have an energy rating of below two stars, compared with the seven stars mandated for new homes.

“It’s crucial that we start overhauling substandard housing stock in Australia — especially for vulnerable members of the community,” Wilmot said.

Image credit: iStock.com/Thurtell

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