Australia’s houses are so poorly designed that they contribute to deaths over winter, one expert has warned

Professor Adrian Barnett, Senior Research Fellow at the Queensland University of Technology, says that Australian houses are “glorified tents” which pose a health risk due to their cold indoor temperatures over winter.

It’s a situation which would never be accepted in colder countries such as Sweden, Canada or Scotland, he says.

“It’s the indoor temperature that really matters, and our housing design is all geared towards summer,” Prof Barnett says. “We do very badly in winter.

“Our houses are incredibly flimsy… you often see pictures of houses being moved. So they really are kind of tents with letter boxes out the front, and that does actually cause us quite a lot of health problems.”

He cited work he and colleagues had done in this area, looking at the house temperature of people who already had heart failure.

“These are kind of the last people you’d want to be exposing to cold temperatures. And actually two of our participants lived in a caravan, which is about the worst place I can think of. That would be boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.”

He also spoke of people who were desperate enough to heat their homes that they used their kitchen cookers.

It’s indoor temperature that drives people’s risk of a heart attack, he says.

The minimum indoor room temperature recommended by the WHO is 18 degrees Celsius; Australian homes, however, tend to track the outdoor temperature rather than protecting inhabitants from cold.

“The main trigger of this happening is an increase in blood pressure. If you’ve got a partial blockage or if you’ve got some pre-existing cardiovascular disease then that increase in blood pressure can be enough to trigger things like heart attacks and strokes.”

Health stakeholders have known about the problem since the mid-90s, he says. “It happens every winter in Australia and really nothing’s being done about it.”

The risk of death increases steadily as temperatures drop, Prof Barnett said, just as it does when the mercury soars in summer. The healthiest temperature is around 20 to 25 degrees C.

“Australians really have a very narrow comfort zone. We die when it gets cold, and we die when it gets hot. We’re really quite fragile.”

He cited a 2015 study, published in The Lancet, which showed mortality rates increasing significantly in Australia as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius, but which showed cities in Canada – where outdoor temperatures plunged to minus 20 – did not experience an increased risk of death.

“This clearly says that these deaths are completely avoidable. It’s really a joke that people are dying when it’s 10 degrees. 10 degrees is not an extreme temperature.”

But because a 10 degree outdoor temperature can be reflected in a 14 or 15 degree temperature indoors, it’s enough to trigger heart attacks and strokes, he says.

People in colder climates like Canada or Sweden “would never let their houses get as cold as we do.

“I’ve spoken to people from Scotland and Sweden and Canada who’ve said they’ve never been this cold in their life, as when they come to an Australian house.”

Australia needs to re-examine its attitudes towards insulating its homes, he says, trouble associated with the former ALP Government’s insulation scheme notwithstanding.

“That turned out to be a disaster and the Liberals made great political hay about destroying the insulation industry, which has been an absolute disaster for Australia, because insulation saves lives in winter and summer.”