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Why Are Australian Homes So Cold?

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The past few weeks has found me either wrapped in thermals and a blanket or working from my bed with my laptop balanced on my lap because it’s really cold in my apartment.

It’s not so much a new realization as it is something else the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief (along with existing inequalities, our country’s reliance on migration and international travel, etc.). It wasn’t until I was spending most of my days working from home, in a room with no heater instead of a centrally heated office, did I really start to really notice that it’s basically the same temperature inside and outside my apartment at any given time.

It turns out that I’m not alone. Experts say that housing design in Australia is largely focused on keeping us cool in summer. We are, after all, a sunburned country: Our relentless summers, and the threats they bring, loom large in our collective consciousness all year round. But this means that keeping warm in the wintertime often becomes an afterthought.

One Queensland public health professor declared a couple of years ago that “many Australian homes are just glorified tents” in the winter, after publishing a study that found 6.5 percent of Australians died from the cold versus 0.5 percent from hot weather.

We tend to treat the cold as something to be tolerated rather than addressed, according to Chris Jensen, a lecturer in construction management at the University of Melbourne.

Especially in places like Melbourne, which get colder than most parts of the country, there’s an attitude “that we’ll get through it, we can deal with the cold, we’re Melburnians,” said Dr. Jensen. “And although that’s true, the point is that our housing has led us to that condition, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

In many parts of the world, building materials do most of the heavy lifting to keep houses warm, while heaters make up only the last bit of difference. “But what we have in Australia, particularly in cooler climates, are houses where the building fabric doesn’t provide that initial benefit to keep the house comfortable, so we’re completely reliant on heating,” Dr. Jensen said.

Our walls often aren’t well insulated or insulated at all, our windows aren’t double-glazed, and we’ve grown up with gas heating and fireplaces, which means our houses are designed to be well ventilated.

As an example of how our homes could feel instead, Dr. Jensen recounted an experience he had visiting relatives in Germany: Their house had good insulation, which meant that a single combustible wood heater was enough to warm the whole place. It didn’t feel cold when you were near the windows because they were double-glazed. The whole house was warm throughout instead of being hot within the radius of the heater and cold in other rooms.

“You don’t think about it being cold or hot, because it’s just comfortable,” he said.

We’re moving in the right direction, Dr. Jensen said. Energy-efficiency standards for new houses have been slowly lifting over the past few decades. But we still need a cultural shift in terms of how we think about building and design.

“We have the skills to create buildings that are naturally quite comfortable without heating or cooling,” he said.

How are you dealing with the cold this winter? Write to us at [email protected].

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