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The process from starting to look for a house to buying a section where we could build a zero energy house took Jo and I two years. On reflection the time we spent traveling around Auckland visiting suburbs and houses was an important part of defining the brief for the house that we have designed and built. Many of our experiences before returning to Auckland also played a part.

Thinking hard about the lifestyle that we wanted

Settling in New Zealand was a very conscious decision. There are many things that we enjoyed in the cities we lived in overseas, and there are many things that we enjoy about New Zealand. Weighing this all up made us very conscious about the lifestyle that we wanted.

Much of this we realised was affected by where we lived, and how easy it was to access the places important to us. Living in densely populated cities much of what you need on a daily basis is within walking distance. Good public transport links and cycling allowed us to easily get anywhere we wanted where we couldn't walk, without the need or the expense and hassle of a car. In choosing our site, we gave a lot of consideration to how easy it would be to get to work, catch up with friends, have access to cafes/restaurants, pubs, shops, beaches and forests.

Health and comfort

"More than 410,000 homes could be making their occupants sick, some seriously."

New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development

In any one day we can easily spend 50% of our time in our homes (sometimes 100% of our time). Indoor environment quality (IEQ) can significantly affect our health. Good IEQ can be achieved through good thermal comfort, ventilation and access to natural daylight.

Using materials and products with low toxic emissions is also important. For example the glues used in plywood may release formaldehyde into the air. Formaldehyde is an irritant and is also thought to cause cancer in some people.

Studies have shown that good IEQ in a building can result in improvements in health and productivity. Poor IEQ can lead to Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), where building design and products used can cause sickness such as asthma, irritated eyes and nose and respiratory problems. A two year study commissioned by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development (NSBCSD) concluded that, by making homes warmer, drier and more energy and water efficient, the country could:

  • Avoid sending 50 people a day to hospital with respiratory illnesses (saving $54 million a year),
  • Cut sick days off work by 180,000 a year (lifting production by $17 million a year),
  • Cut household power bills by $475 million a year by using a combination of insulation and double glazing, and
  • Stop households wasting enough water a year to fill 9,200 Olympic swimming pools.

We believe there are significant savings for New Zealand if all homes are built to achieve good IEQ and want to demonstrate it by building our house to be warm, comfortable, and healthy to live in. We hope our project can be a case study for people wanting to do the same.

Our Effects

Through our work in renewable energy and green building design, and exposure to many exciting projects and concepts, we have developed awareness of what can be achieved. It seems the concepts are most often applied in countries where energy prices are high and the effects of people's actions on the environment are more obvious.

In New Zealand we are, at present, fortunate to have both low energy prices and a relatively unpolluted environment. We do think, however, that in New Zealand we are complacent about our effects on the environment and about future energy costs.

Peak Oil

"The era of cheap energy is over."

Fatih Birol, IEA

When working at Solarcentury in London we had the opportunity to hear first-hand some of the theories on peak oil from Jeremy Leggett, Solarcentury's Chairman. Jeremy, who holds a PhD in Geology and previously worked for oil exploration companies, has some pretty compelling arguments as to when and why we will reach peak oil. If they are right about peak oil the potential effects are such that we believe it is worth taking positive steps to reduce our exposure to it.

Some of those highlighting the issue in the UK at present include Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines)1 and other companies in the Peak Oil Task Force. Internationally, warnings have started to come from the International Energy Agency2,3, US Energy Information Administration4, and the US military5.

Climate Change

"The overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever."

The Stern Review

The same we believe applies to climate change and its effects. Climate change is a little different though in two key ways:

  1. The effect of one person's (or country's) actions affect everyone who lives on the planet, and
  2. The potential changes and associated costs will last generations.

This raises some very interesting questions of ethics and equity. The Stern Review published by HM Treasury UK predicts that the costs of action can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year, whereas if we do nothing we risking losing between 5% and 20% of GDP every year forever.

Some points to think about:

  • If I, at my own cost, do something about my emissions but someone else does not then we still have the problem (this is known in economic theory as the freeloader problem).
  • If we collectively choose to do nothing now should future generations pay for the effects?

We believe that everyone has a role to play in the solution to climate change, no matter how small or large, and we are willing to play our part.