Indigenous Environmental Health: Report of the Fifth National Conference 2004

Temperature Control: Warm House in Winter, Cool House in Summer

Page last updated: 30 October 2006

Justine Hill, Designer, New South Wales

Recent research has found that internal house temperatures during summer and winter, in rural and remote Australian Indigenous housing, can vary by up to 20C beyond acceptable temperature ranges that promote wellbeing of people living in the house. People experience thermal stress when there are extremes in temperature. This can contribute to dehydration in extremely hot climates, or pneumonia in extremely cold climates. Indigenous children aged 0-5 are particularly susceptible as it worsens existing health problems such as diarrhoeal disease or chest infections.

Poor thermal performance of housing can result in reliance on ‘active’ and expensive-to-run heating and cooling systems. Active heating and cooling involves the input of energy to the house: air conditioners, electric heaters, evaporative coolers, fans. People living in the house may not be able to afford high energy and water bills, which can lead to disconnection of services to the house. They will then not have access to the essential health hardware1 needed for the nine healthy living practices2 necessary to maintain or improve health. Poor temperature control in houses and expensive active heating and cooling systems can also lead to overcrowding of the one room people can afford to heat or cool. Crowding promotes the spread of infection.

Temperature control projects in four different climate areas have been analysed and we have begun to address how to make houses warmer in winter and cooler in summer, in climates where people experience thermal stress due to extremes in temperature. Temperature control projects involve recording and gathering information on thermal performance of existing houses, analysing information and providing recommendations to change the existing house and to design new houses.

Data collected during temperature control projects included shaded external air temperature (ambient air temperature), relative humidity and internal house temperatures from existing houses. The data was recorded using data loggers: electronic devices that can record information on, for example, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, over time. Energy and water use data was also analysed. Collection of real world data, as opposed to desktop or computer modelled studies, recorded actual conditions the occupants of a house experienced. Analysis of the data demonstrated a link between design of housing and poor thermal performance experienced during extremes in temperature.

The focus of the project was:

  • That much of the existing housing in Indigenous communities in Australia does not provide an acceptable internal living environment with internal temperature ranges that promote wellbeing of occupants.
  • That improved design and retrofitting of housing can greatly improve the internal environment and reduce the long-term running costs of temperature control, which will leave occupants with more money to spend on other essential living costs, such as food and clothes.
A methodology and priorities to improve temperature control in existing and new housing in a range of climatic areas in rural and remote parts of Australia was developed. The recommendations examined selection criteria for active heating and cooling systems, and the passive design of new houses as well as retrofitting options for existing houses. Passive heating and cooling requires no energy input either by the occupant of the house or a mechanical device: a veranda roof may shade a wall and window reducing the inside temperature of the house, and a concrete slab that can be warmed by the sun during the day in winter may keep the house warm at night.
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Key findings were that existing housing had poor thermal performance when there were extremes in ambient temperature (over 40C or below 5C). The houses were not providing thermal benefit and were not designed to suit the climate. Occupants often relied on active heating and cooling systems to reduce extremes in temperature. High costs of temperature control sometimes led to disconnection of utility services to the house due to non-payment of bills. Implementation of passive design modifications to existing houses should improve occupants’ health outcomes and contribute to substantial savings in running costs of active heating and cooling systems.

It was also found that active design solutions should not be retrofitted to existing houses until after passive modifications are made, otherwise running costs of these systems will be unaffordable for occupants.

In new housing in the hot/dry climate area, it was found that by addressing temperature control in the design of the house and yard areas (for example, yard fencing and mounding to encourage planting, deep eaves, wall and roof insulation, roof ventilation to expel hot air and installation of ducted evaporative cooling systems), energy costs were less than an ‘ideal future house’, and internal house temperatures were at an acceptable range to promote health for the people living in the house.

This project is significant in that it defines a range of low energy, low maintenance criteria for the design of housing in a range of climatic areas around Australia. The design principles can be used to improve living conditions for Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas. The project is also significant in that a methodology has been developed that can be used on future temperature control projects.

While this project analysed data collected from Indigenous housing, the findings of the research are applicable to housing in the wider context.

For further information
Justine Hill Designer
PO Box 495,
Newport Beach, New South Wales 2106
Phone/Fax: 02 9973 1316

1. The expression ‘health hardware’ was originally used by Dr Fred Hollows to describe the physical equipment necessary for healthy, hygienic living. ‘The equipment must have been designed and installed so it can function and be maintained to help people improve their health status. In a water supply system, health hardware includes both the bore and the basin plug, as well as the shower rose, taps and drain. ’ (Department of Family and Community Services 2003, National Indigenous Housing Guide: Improving the living environment for safety, health and sustainability, 2nd edn, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p x).
2. The nine healthy living practices, in order of importance, after life threatening urgent safety works (e. g. electrical hazards) are:
washing people, particularly children
washing clothes and bedding
removing waste safely
improving nutrition
reducing the impact of crowding
reducing the impact of animals, insects and vermin
reducing the impact of dust
controlling temperature
reducing trauma or minor physical injury.
Pholeros, P, Rainow, S & Torzillo, P 1993, Housing for Health, Healthabitat, Sydney p vii.

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