Why do we need UD features in housing?

House half built showing timber frameworkTo answer the question: because it will benefit all Australians. UD features are easy to implement, and largely cost neutral, but the housing industry is fighting for the status quo. The two Royal Commissions related to aged care and disability care found that inaccessible housing prevented people from remaining at home and living independently. But there are a lot of myths and misconceptions in this space. 

The Building Better Homes campaign is about the call to mandate universally designed features in all new homes. It’s also about creating resilient, flexible and sustainable housing. These features will increase general amenity and allow people to age in place. For people with a disability, it will allow them to live independently. 

A line of complex manufacturing machinery used to show the complex process and number of stakeholders involved in mass market housing.It has to be regulated across the housing building system so that the process stays efficient. There are too many stakeholders to consider in one-off exceptions. 

Of course, most people resist change. This resistance is sometimes founded on misinformation and myths that get perpetuated. Evidence often gets lost in discussion or confused with opinions and anecdotes.

Jane Bringolf addresses some of the common myths and misunderstandings in her article, Why do we need universal design features in all new housing?  Myths and comments include:

      • only a few people need it
      • I’ll worry about it when the time comes
      • it costs too much
      • it will look like a hospital

Better Apartment Design Standards

Front cover of standard with internal view of an apartment.The Victorian Government has updated the Better Apartment Design Standards. The aim is to make surrounding neighbourhoods better as well as the dwellings. There is also a section on accessibility at the end. The policy’s main aims are:

      1. More green space
      2. Designing for families
      3. More durable and better quality materials
      4. Attractive and safe street frontages

A community fact sheet gives a good overview and there is a separate one for industry and councilsThere is a short video on their website explaining the changes.

The final draft report has more detail, and as always with these guideline documents, accessibility is tacked on at the end. However, it has some useful guidance and encourages 50% of dwellings to have the following:

• A clear opening width of at least 850mm at the entrance to the dwelling and main bedroom.
• A clear path with a minimum width of 1.2 metres that connects the dwelling entrance to the main bedroom, an adaptable bathroom and the living area.
• A main bedroom with access to an adaptable bathroom.
• At least one adaptable bathroom.

Some of the floor plans look to be based on the old Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299) rather than the more flexible Livable Housing Design standard. 

Case studies of universally designed homes

Max and Tricia stand at their doorway which reflects their love of Japanese design.Lifemark in New Zealand has several good case studies of universally designed homes. Some are modest homes and some are more upmarket.

The latest edition of their newsletter features a spacious home with great views. The owners, Max and Tricia have an interesting story to tell. Max is a mechanical engineer who taught environmental and spatial home design to architecture students. He knew about accessibility but not heard of universal design. Turns out that one of Max’s students in 1995 became the designer of their new home. The story of Max and Tricia has some nice detail and pictures in the article. 

Not everyone has money to spend on a “grand design”, but it doesn’t have to be grand to be universally designed and suitable for everyone.  Lifemark has a gallery of homes designed with universal design principles on their website. There’s also some examples of retrofits. 

delete page https://universaldesignaustralia.net.au/case-study-of-a-ud-home/

UD in home design: a turning point

A front door with level, no step entry.Australia is at a turning point for introducing universal design (UD) features into all new housing. For almost twenty years advocacy groups have campaigned for homes to be accessible for everyone. That means current and future occupants as well as visitors. And you can add furniture deliveries and paramedics. Human rights, good economic sense and principles of inclusion are all wrapped up in well reasoned arguments. But will it be enough to persuade politicians to make the necessary changes to the National Construction Code? 

An article in Designs 4 Living magazine gives a quick overview of why we are at a turning point. After years of campaigning the issue is finally on the political agenda. The housing industry is campaigning for the status quo to remain. So, in spite of hard economic evidence to support basic universal design features, it will be a political decision.  

The article by Jane Bringolf is titled, UD in home design: A turning point for Australia. It’s on page 11 of the online publication.

There’s more background in a conference paper that unravels the complexities of the house building system in Australia and why regulation is the only option. The title is Barriers to Universal Design and What to do About Them. Also by Jane Bringolf.

CUDA made a submission supporting the inclusion of universal design features in all new housing.

Universal Design in Housing: A 20 year campaign

A graphic in shades of green showing various types of dwellingsAdvocates for universal design features in all new homes are nervous. State and territory building ministers will be making a decision on whether to make access features mandatory. Industry is advocating for no change to the building code. Some states claim they are already addressing the problem of accessible housing through piecemeal planning policies. Others think it’s something the NDIS is doing. Regardless, we need all new homes fit for purpose.

The evidence shows is not difficult to achieve – it’s very doable.  But evidence has largely been ignored about the need, the cost effectiveness, and the technical issues for more than ten years.  Will the evidence count, or will it be a political decision?

What will sway the politicians when they meet and vote on this in March? Will it be the evidence? Will it be the lobbying from industry? Will it be the lobbying from advocacy groups? Or will it be the voice of the people from a public petition?

Petitions are about people power. This is a one-time opportunity to sign the petition to give everyone a better chance of staying at home regardless of age or ability.

Every new home built today has a 60 percent chance of having an occupant with a disability.  Moreover, more than 30% of households currently have a person with disability – and this affects all members of the household. And it’s not just about people who use wheelchairs – it’s a mainstream issue.

You can find several research papers and articles on housing design policy on this website. The history of twenty years of advocacy and links to our international obligations are useful background. Our free online course on housing policy and universal design is also worth a look. 

Apartment Design Guides: Victoria, NSW & SA

Front cover of standard with internal view of an apartment.Here are three apartment design guides: Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. 

Reference to accessibility is the last item in the list of design considerations in this 2021 apartment guide from Victoria. However, it is a good reference with technical advice. Victoria says 50% of apartments should have as a minimum:

    • A clear door opening of at least 850mm at the entrance and main bedroom
    • A clear path of 1200mm between entrance and main bedroom, bathroom and living area
    • A main bedroom with access to an accessible bathroom
    • At least one accessible or adaptable bathroom

front cover of the apartment design guide.The NSW Department of Planning Apartment Design Guide includes a small section on universal design (P 118). In the design guidance section, it refers to the Livable Housing Design Guidelines (Silver Level, equivalent to visitability).  However, it suggests a proportional number (20%), which means universal design is not universally applied. Consequently, this becomes specialised housing rather than mainstream housing. The old Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299) is also referenced. The new apartment guide replaces the NSW Residential Flat Design Code. The guide was published in 2015.

Photo used for front cover of guide. It shows an outdoor area similar to a veranda.The Housing for Life: Designed for Living guide was developed for the South Australian Government. Population ageing and ageing well polices underpin the report and guide. The features and factors that older people identified as important are documented as well as industry perspectives. It also outlines the economic arguments for considering the housing needs of older people. Examples of floor plans are included in the 2019 report which is 16 pages in PDF.

Healthy Home Guide

View of the website landing page.Joining the dots between all aspects of physical and social sustainability is important for a healthy life and a healthy planet. Central to this is the design of our homes. The Healthy Housing Design Guide from New Zealand says they need to be durable, efficient in size and cost, and friendly to the occupants and the environment.

The three bar menu icon on the landing page of this online resource takes you to the content of the Guide. Universal Design leads in the table of contents. This is pleasing as most other guides leave it to a last thought at the end. The design detail features wheelchair users for circulation spaces, which, of course are good for everyone. Among the interesting images is a lower storage draw doubling as a step for child to reach the kitchen bench. The case studies focus on energy efficiency and sustainability.

This is a comprehensive document starting with universal design, site and location, through to air quality and acoustics and ending with certifications. The Guide characterises a healthy home by the acronym HEROES:

      • Healthy: Promoting optimal health and wellbeing through its design, resilience, and efficiency.
      • Efficient: Size and space, affordable and energy positive for the life of the building.
      • Resilient: Resilient enough to withstand earthquakes and climatic conditions. Durable to stand the test of time.
      • On purpose:  Designed specifically with Heroes in mind and fit for purpose.
      • Environmental: Socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable to build and run. Considerate of Climate Change.
      • Sustainable: Meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The style of the website is pleasing but the landing page gives little idea to navigation. It says “Welcome” and then asks visitors to stay super involved. There is a bar with an arrow to go to the Foreword. The navigation is via the three bar menu icon at the top left of the page. 

Editor’s note: I first thought that I had to sign up to get access because the first thing my cursor met was “Stay Super Involved”. It was not obvious to me that the three bar menu icon was the entry point. I later found, when writing this post, that there is a tab on the right hand side of the webpage that takes you page by page. It would be interesting to know if this document is accessible for screen readers.

The video from the launch of the guide takes you through the content. Universal Design gets a mention at the 25 minute mark. It is introduced by Henry McTavish.

Universal Design in Housing: Australia’s obligations

A graphic of four housing types: small house, town house, apartment block and multi-unit dwelling.Signing up to a United Nations (UN) convention isn’t just a feel-good affair. It actually brings obligations. That means reporting on a regular basis to the relevant UN committee. In Australia, the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department is responsible for government reports on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But it isn’t all up to the government: people with disability must be involved. Their reports are known as “Civil Society Shadow Reports”. This is where the story gets interesting when it comes to universal design in housing.

Margaret Ward’s paper, Universal design in housing: Reporting on  Australia’s obligations to the UNCRPD, traces the reporting history specifically relating to housing. She writes that the Commonwealth Government has avoided action by doing nothing. Further, it has not adequately reported on this failure to act. But the story does not end here. 

This peer reviewed paper was written for the UD2020 Conference that was to be held May 2020, which is now to be held May 2021. It is published on the Griffith University publications website where you can find other papers for the conference. 

Abridged abstract: The UNCRPD obliges Australia to embrace the concept of universal design as a guide for its activities. The UNCRPD triggered significant changes in the last decade directed by the 2010-2020 National Disability Strategy. This paper reviews Australia’s national and international reports on these obligations over the last decade. Both the Australian government and the housing industry largely disregarded the National Dialogue agreement, and misrepresented the progress made in achieving accessibility within the housing stock. The question remains whether a net benefit to society will be found to be of greater priority than the self-interests of the private housing sector and the political vagaries of government. Again, it will take the voice of people with lived experience and those who represent them to make the argument.

The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia

A graphic showing facades of different styles of free standing homes in lots of colours. They look like toy houses.Margaret Ward and Jill Franz inspected eleven new dwellings in the Brisbane area. They found that none of the dwellings were visitable:

“In summary, when providing the eight features for visitability, the interviewees identified two themes for non-compliance (“lack of thought” and “otherness”) and three themes for compliance (“fashion”, “requirement’ and “good practice”). Although all dwellings provided some features, no dwelling provided a coherent path of travel necessary to make a dwelling visitable. Some examples of this incoherence were: a step-free driveway which led to a step at the door; a wide front door which led to a narrow corridor; and a narrow internal doorway which did not allow entry of a wheel-chair to a spacious bathroom. The provision of these access features separately and severally did not provide visitability as an outcome in any of the dwellings.”

The title of the article is, The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia: Down to the Detail

Margaret Ward also delivered the Robert Jones Memorial Lecture in 2014 on this topic.

Ageing in Place: A timely book

Front cover of the book.Across the globe, older people want to stay put as they age. They do not aspire to residential care and are also moving away from the retirement village model. But are our planners, designers and builders listening? COVID-19 pandemic is also challenging established policy about where older people want to live.

Bruce Judd, a long time Australian researcher in this area, is the editor of a new book, Ageing in Place: Design, Planning and Policy Response in the Western Asia-Pacific. The book looks at ageing in place in built environments in Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia and NZ. 

From the book review:

“Encouraging older people to age in place in their own homes is a common response internationally to the economic and social demands of population ageing. It is recognized that the nature of the built environment at various scales is critical to optimizing the social participation and wellbeing of older people and hence in facilitating ageing in place. This insightful book showcases a range of design, planning and policy responses to ageing populations from across the rapidly changing and dynamic Western Asia-Pacific region.

Ageing in Place considers diverse cultural, political and environmental contexts and responses to show that regional governments, industries and communities can gain, as well as offer, important insights from their international counterparts. With significant changes in caring, family dynamics and the supporting roles of governments in both Eastern and Western societies, the chapters demonstrate a clear and increasingly convergent preference for and promotion of ageing in place and the need for collaborative efforts to facilitate this through policy and practice.

The unique geographical focus and multi-disciplinary perspective of this book will greatly benefit academic researchers and students from a variety of backgrounds including architecture, urban planning, sociology and human geography. It also provides a unique entry point for practitioners seeking to understand the principles of design and practice for ageing in place in homes, neighbourhoods and care facilities.”

A related article on smart home technology for older people links with the concepts in the book. 

The book is edited by Bruce Judd, Emeritus Professor, City Futures Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia, Kenichi Tanoue, Professor, Department of Environmental Design, Faculty of Design, Kyushu University, Japan and Edgar Liu, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Specifications for universal design

new home construction site with timber on the ground.Universal design is a thinking process that aims for the most inclusive design solutions possible – designing universally. It is a process that improves through iteration. This means that you can’t specify a standard, which is for one point in time, because it stops the process of continuing improvement. But we don’t live in a perfect world and some people just want to know they got it right. Ergo a standard please. 

NATSPEC is an non-profit organisation with the aim of improved construction and productivity in the built environment. Their website has a long list of technical notes, which cover many construction elements. New to the list are:

These technical notes are just two pages long. They are good for quick reference and for anyone new to universal design concepts. The Accessible Housing guidance refers to the Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299), Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and the Access to Premises Standard. it also references the National Construction Code and related standards.

Designing with inclusion in mind will sometimes mean that more than one solution is required. So a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be counterproductive. It also means doing the best you can with what you have at the time with a view to improving with the next iteration.