Housing and health researchers win the 2021 Rutherford Medal

University of Otago researchers, led by distinguished professor Philippa Howden-Chapman​, have been awarded the 2021 Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s top research honour, for their groundbreaking research into the impact of housing interventions on people’s health and wellbeing.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi praised the researchers at the He Kāinga Oranga – Housing and Health Research Programme at the University of Otago (Wellington) for their work.

“Under professor Howden-Chapman’s inspirational leadership, He Kāinga Oranga’s 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,” the society said when announcing the award.

Named after Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand physicist who split the atom, the Rutherford Medal is considered the society’s most prestigious award, and it has been given to pioneering academics including Paul Callaghan and Claudia Orange.

Philippa Howden-Chapman at home in Aro Valley.

Jericho Rock-Archer

Philippa Howden-Chapman at home in Aro Valley.

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Howden-Chapman said the award was “very exciting.” “I could have never done this by myself, it’s recognising a team of scientists in our community – a collaborative effort grounded in the best science [which has] had influence overseas,” she said in an interview. “Science is usually a team effort.”

The 2021 medal was awarded to Howden-Chapman and her university colleagues professor Julian Crane, associate professors Michael Keall​ and Nevil Pierse​, as well as the wider research team.

The Royal Society awards the Rutherford Medal annually. It comes with $100,000 from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and recognises pre-eminent research in any field of engineering, humanities, mathematics, sciences, social science or technology.


The Government wants to ensure first-home buyers can get into the market, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, and there is concern around “what’s happening with prices and that accessibility”. (This video was first published on March 15, 2021.)

In a statement announcing the award, the Royal Society said while New Zealanders spent most of their time indoors, the impacts of the indoor environment on health and wellbeing had historically been overlooked.

He Kāinga Oranga’s work has influenced innovations in government policy, including the introduction of the Winter Fuel Payment and legislation requiring landlords to meet World Health Organisation Housing and Health Guidelines, the latter developed by a WHO International Committee chaired by Howden-Chapman.


A law change will allow landowners in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, and Christchurch to build up to three storeys without resource consent.

For more than 20 years, the He Kāinga Oranga team has been researching a wide range of housing and health issues, largely funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Its researchers have shown the impact of cold and mouldy homes on the development of asthma and viral infections in infants; the harmful health effects from the use of unflued​ gas heaters; the extent and impact of homelessness; the benefits of insulation and heating retrofits on health; the benefits of home modifications in reducing injuries from falls; and have partnered with local councils to introduce a rental warrant-of-fitness scheme to improve the quality of rental houses.

Researchers who have shown the impact of cold and mouldy homes on the development of asthma and viral infections in children have won the Rutherford Medal.


Researchers who have shown the impact of cold and mouldy homes on the development of asthma and viral infections in children have won the Rutherford Medal.

The research team is now working on two far-reaching research project. The first involved the implementation of the WHO Housing and Health Standards. The second involved mapping the effectiveness of different types of public and community housing providers in achieving wellbeing and health goals and is supported by a five-year $12.4m MBIE Endeavour Fund grant.

University of Otago deputy vice-chancellor professor Richard Blaikie​ said the university was exceptionally proud of the group’s achievements.

The full list of award-winners is available online. They will receive awards at regional ceremonies early next year.

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