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Researchers part of team that received Rutherford Medal

The He Kāinga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme team.

Six Massey University academics are part of the research team that has just been awarded the prestigious 2021 Rutherford Medal for ground-breaking research on the impact of housing on people’s health and wellbeing.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi presented the medal to Distinguished Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and the He Kāinga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme from the University of Otago, Wellington, for the research that has quantified the effects of housing interventions on occupants’ health and wellbeing, and informed legislation and policy.

Six Massey staff are involved in the project including Professor Chris Cunningham from the Research Centre for Hauora and Health, who is a founding co-director and principal investigator of the programme and has been involved since it began in 2001. He has led a number of the projects with special emphasis on housing and Māori, including intervention studies designed to improve quality and reduce risks from damp, cold and injury hazards.

More recently, Professor Jereon Douwes, also from the Research Centre for Hauora and Health, and Professor Karen Witten from SHORE / Whariki, have been named investigators on a number of projects. Professor Witten’s involvement has been through Resilient Urban Futures, a programme of research that examined the complexity of urban systems of which housing is a central part with implications for environmental, social, cultural, and economic wellbeing. Her contribution has involved investigating determinants of wellbeing at the neighbourhood scale.

Dr Mikael Boulic from the College of Sciences is a principal investigator at He Kāinga Oranga and completed his PhD as part of the Healthy Housing programme where he investigated indoor air quality (thermal comfort, mould, pollutants) before leading other connected research projects. Dr Hope Tupara and Dr Margaret Wilkie, both from the Research Centre for Hauora and Health, have also been involved.

Professor Cunningham says the programme is the biggest of its kind in the world and is currently funded by a Health Research Council programme grant.

“The programme has been hugely influential in providing the evidence to improve the quality of New Zealand houses and reduce the risks to ill health and injury.  The programme has deliberately used the ‘community trial’ method where all research participants receive the benefit of the numerous interventions which have been tested: insulation, heating and injury risk-remediation of houses.”

The research has shown how straightforward housing improvements to cold, damp and unsafe conditions can significantly reduce rates of infectious, respiratory and cardiovascular disease and deaths, particularly for children and older people.

Outcomes of this research have influenced public policy innovation and implementation, including the Warm Up NZ Programme of insulation retrofitting, the Winter Fuel Payment, and the Healthy Homes Guarantee Act, which requires all landlords to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Housing and Health Guidelines, developed by a WHO International Committee chaired by Distinguished Professor Howden-Chapman. The programme has led to demonstrable health benefits for people involved, as the team has demonstrated in this recent British Medical Journal article Association between home insulation and hospital admission rates: retrospective cohort study using linked data from a national intervention programme.

Professor Douwes says the findings of the research has made a real difference to people’s lives.

“It is a privilege to be part of a team that has been able, collectively, to contribute to improved housing conditions in New Zealand that have already resulted in a significant reduction in health problems resulting from cold, damp and mouldy indoor environments.

“It is a very good example of a cross disciplinary team (Māori health, public health, social science, statisticians, building science, engineering, and economical science are included). Mikael has been fortunate to do his PhD research, and start his research career with the great mentoring of this research team.”

He says while this is a good start, there is a lot more to be done.

“It is wonderful for the critical importance of this work to be acknowledged for this prestigious award, but much more work is needed given the unhealthy living conditions that many New Zealanders still experience every day. 

“There is now strong evidence that living in poorly insulated, cold, damp and mouldy indoor environments may cause respiratory and other health effects in both children and adults.”