Universal Design in Housing: Politics vs Practice

A modern living room showing lots of circulation space between furniture.What is so difficult about including universal design features in all new housing? Is it cost? Is it technical difficulty? The answer to both of those is, no. Perhaps this is more about a regulation ideology. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has a policy statement that says as much. But do they have a case to continue that position for universal design in housing?

In 2006 when the HIA policy was written (and ratified again in 2018) we hadn’t signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We didn’t have a National Disability Strategy or Livable Housing Design Guidelines either. But other businesses are recognising their ethical obligations for equity and inclusion and that inclusion has a strong business case. And here is the difference – the housing industry is a fragmented system that relies on regulation to hold all the parts together to guarantee consistency and certainty. Consequently, nothing will change without regulation.

So, should we have regulation for all new homes to have universal design features? To answer this question the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis. It concluded that costs outweighed benefits. Even if this is the case, is cost the reason not to have homes fit for purpose today and tomorrow? 

In responding to the cost benefit analysis, two camps emerged. The community and academic sector claimed the cost benefit analysis was skewed in favour of costs. Consequently the cost argument doesn’t hold. The HIA and Property Council of Australia continue to prosecute the cost argument as a basis for the status quo to remain. So who will decide the outcome? It will be a political one made by a sub committee of COAG – the Building Ministers’ Forum

You can check out some of the submissions to the Australian Building Codes Board: 

Australian Network for Universal Design supports mandating the Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and a subsidy system for rental housing. 

Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, plus a subsidy for rental housing.

COTA NSW  (Council on the Ageing NSW) strongly supports the adoption of Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

Rights&Inclusion Australia supports Gold level and Gold level + because they best meet the RIS objective.

Community Housing Industry Association supports Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. They acknowledge Silver is a partial solution but improvements might be possible over time.

Housing Industry Association supports subsidies and other financial incentives rather than regulation.

Property Council of Australia supports information and education initiatives for consumers. “If the additional costs laid out in this submission were estimated and included, this would reinforce the negative cost/benefit ratio outlined in the RIS.”

CUDA supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines and questions whether a cost benefit analysis was the right approach to answer the object of the project, “To ensure that new housing is designed to meet the needs of the community, including older Australians and others with mobility limitations.

Editor’s note: The HIA’s policy statement focuses on wheelchair users and this is common in the industry. It ignores all other disabilities and long term health conditions and that we are talking about families. Consequently they see this as a responsibility for government, not the market. They argue, “The overwhelming majority of private homes will not be used, now or in the future, by people requiring wheel chairs [sic]”. This statement also ignores the human right to visit your friends and family. It should be noted that the HIA has a seat on the Building Codes Board. 

Universal design in housing: The time has come

House half built showing timber frameworkTime has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.

Smaller building firms have shown that for a maximum of $3000 they can deliver universally designed homes. That’s because they thought of the design from the outset. They have changed the cookie cutter.

One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) is asking for people to comment on their consultation document on Accessible Housing. This is a difficult read. It is a very long and convoluted way of concluding costs outweigh benefits. However, the wrong question was researched. It shouldn’t be, “can we afford to make changes?” It should be “we need to make changes, what’s the best way to make it happen?” 

Fortunately, two eminent economists responded to the call to comment and they have concluded the opposite. The benefits outweigh the costs. Also dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB document at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall. 

You can respond with your story of how the design of your home, or that of a family member, has impacted their life. Good, bad and ugly stories are welcome. Send an email to Kieran O’Donnell at the ABCB. Every story counts. Like a picture, it paints a 1000 words for politicians.

Just because accessible features make sense to most of us, do not assume it is a done deal. We still need grass roots action.

For others who want to respond directly to the ABCB document, Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has circulated a final draft of their response. It covers every point. The date for close of submissions is 31 August 2020.

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.

 

Accessible Housing Standard: A good response

Front cover of the RIS document.The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) has advocated for universal design in housing for almost 20 years. Finally the Building Ministers’ Forum (part of COAG) agreed to look at the issues. This has been done in the form of a cost-benefit analysis. ANUHD has shared their draft response that contains all you need to know to respond with a submission. 

The Australian Building Codes Board results are reported in a Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS). Bottom line? Costs outweigh benefits. However, this is not the end of the story. But it is a complex one. The Silver and Gold levels of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines formed the basis of the cost benefit analysis. 

ANUHD has prepared a comprehensive draft response for sharing. Disability and ageing advocates, housing advocates, housing designers and policy makers can use this as a guide for their own submissions. It will help with finding the way through the complexities. 

If you are confused as to why we are still fighting for accessible homes, the answer is in a short policy document from the Housing Industry Association

Survey – Please respond

The RIS is supposed to include qualitative data, but has failed to do so. The University of Melbourne is filling this gap. You are asked to complete a survey by 26 August so they can get the data submitted by the closing date 31 August.. 

ANUHD has lobbied for a more inclusive and accessible process to make submissions. This is because the process is geared towards the housing industry rather than home occupants or community advocates. The concession is that individuals can send their personal experiences by email to Kieran O’Donnell at the Australian Building Codes Board.

Personal stories are very important. They will add the missing information in the cost-benefit analysis. The cost benefit analysis significantly contradicts the costs of UD features calculated by Livable Housing Australia – an industry body. They found there was little, if any, extra cost.

You can find out more on the history of this project by using the search term “ABCB” in the search box on this website. A previous post on the costs and benefits has all the links for information and how to respond.

Editor’s Comment: I wrote an article for Sourceable about some of the issues: Australia cannot afford NOT to build accessible Homes

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes

 

UD in housing: Beyond wheelchairs

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.“Accessible” housing is more than wheelchairs and mobility for occupants and visitors. However, this is the perspective that the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has taken to its consultation paper on the proposal to include accessibility features for housing in the building code. This approach does not consider the broader picture for individuals, families and the community. This matters because it has to do with costs, who pays them and how they are measured. 

A cost benefit analysis is an economic exercise. It does not measure outcomes. And because outcomes are a bit harder to measure, they often get left out. However, the change to the building code for public adult change toilets did measure more than the cost of the building. So it can be done.

The Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) recommends no changes to the building code based on costs outweighing benefits. The calculations were based on the Silver and Gold levels of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines that were established in 2010. These voluntary Guidelines were devised by the housing industry and drafted to minimise any extra cost. 

This RIS is a very complicated set of documents. There is a five page overview of the project and how the RIS works. You can provide feedback by answering questions online.  Do not be put off by questions you can’t answer. Just answer the ones you can. You can also submit a document by email to Kieran O’Donnell.

The RIS provides options other than Silver or Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. CUDA and the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design recommend Option 2, Gold level, as being the most workable minimum with the greatest benefit for the cost. What is really clear is that voluntary guidelines have failed to make the change happen. That’s why we have the push to make them mandatory.

The Consultation Hub has all the documents related to the project at the bottom of the page. Documents are provided in PDF and Word. They include the cost benefit analysis, and a preliminary draft for the building code should changes be approved. 

Note that in the preliminary draft for the building code they have reduced the doorway widths and step free doorways. They have deviated from the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. Of course if you can’t get in or out then any other features are a waste of time. 

You can read CUDA’s response to the Accessible Housing Options Paper for background and context. CUDA’s response to the RIS will be posted on this website before the closing date of 31 August.

CUDA also made a submission to the NSW Housing Strategy Discussion paper in July 2020.

There is a list of housing resources in a previous post. Or use the search facility on this website.

 

Reasons for UD in housing

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.The idea of universal design in housing is not new. In spite of academic research proving the need for it, and practice guidelines based on real lives, we are still a long way from achieving access for everyone at home. With the Accessible Housing Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) out for comment, I thought it useful to pull together a few resources on housing. 

The Home is for Every Body takes a planning perspective.

Longevity, housing, carrots and sticks is a Japanese perspective on the political complexities.

Flexible housing offsets risk discusses the need for innovation in home design.

Designs for Quality of Life explains the value of home modifications 

No Place Like an Accessible Home  has qualitative and quantitative research by London School of Economics.

Is there a market for accessible homes? is another UK study based around wheelchair users.

The value of home modifications is a report by AHURI

WHO Housing, Health & Accessibility is a comprehensive guide with a chapter on accessible homes.

Lifetime Homes: A critical review looks at what works and what isn’t working

You can access the full list in the Housing Research section of this website. And there is the housing policy short e-learning course to get you across the issues in quick time. 

There is more on the RIS in a related post, UD in housing: Beyond wheelchairs. The consultation process is not inclusive or accessible unless you are an industry stakeholder. But you can send your story to Kieran O’Donnell at the Australian Building Codes Board by email

 

Home design and independent living

An older woman sits in an armchair. She is wearing a purple knitted jacket and is smiling into the camera.Our homes have to work for us – all of us. COVID has highlighted how important this is. But do our current home designs support all home-based activities for the whole household? Probably not.

The Conversation has a timely article on how home design liberates people with disability or long term health condition and improves their quality of life. It is written in the context of the Australian Government’s housing stimulus package. The title of the article is, Renovations as stimulus? Home modifications can do so much more to transform people’s lives. The bottom line is that designs that increase independence, significantly decrease care hours and improve quality of life. 

The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has campaigned for universal design features in all new homes. Their 20 years of advocacy has resulted in the Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) for accessible housing. The RIS was devised by a firm of economists for the Australian Building Codes Board. Using standard economic modelling, it was their job to weigh the costs and benefits of including basic universal design features in all new housing. They found that costs outweigh benefits to the community. However, the community currently bears the cost of not having universal design features in our homes.

Early entry to aged care, carers not being able to do paid work, increased falls, longer times in hospital, and the list goes on. So perhaps we should be comparing one cost with another. To say not having a cost is a benefit hides the current and ongoing and cumulative costs to individuals, families and the community. The “benefit” is not a bonus, not the “cherry on the cake”. It just reduces the current cost. And the features are good for everyone – it’s not special.

As a consultation document the RIS calls for submissions to either confirm their assessments or to provide additional information for their calculations. Submissions are open until 31 August 2020.

This is a moment in time where we have a chance to update home design for how we live today and tomorrow. If you have a story about home design, send it to ANUHD or respond directly to the Consultation RIS. Submissions can be your own story in your own words.

A home has to support people studying, working, doing a hobby, exercise or just needing a quiet space. And let’s not forget our personal care, household chores and maintenance. It also has to suit people caring for others – family members or paid staff. 

 

Accessible Housing: Costs outweigh benefits

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.The Australian Building Codes Board has released the long-awaited Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) on accessible housing. Bottom line of this complex document? The costs outweigh the benefits. But how did they measure both the costs and the benefits?

The RIS follows the consultations and submissions related to their Options Paper. A RIS is about weighing up implementation costs with community benefits. In this case, the RIS is about the cost and benefits of the Silver and Gold levels in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This is only for new dwellings.

An article in Sourceable has picked out the most relevant information from the RIS executive summary for an easier read. It is worth reading this before going to the Australian Building Codes Board website for the full documentation. The Board’s website also has an explainer and project overview

Have your say. Personal stories and case studies are highly relevant to this consultation. What does it cost not to have accessible features, and what it has cost to have the family home modified? And it is not just dollars – it’s also about quality of life, and ability to do ordinary things. Don’t have a story? There is an online survey you can do which poses questions about the RIS to see if you agree. Submissions are open until 31 August. 

Case studies that show the actual costs in practice are also very useful, particularly if they are less than those shown in the RIS. They calculated Gold level features to cost more than $21,000 per dwelling, and $3,400 for Silver. 

The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) also has a webpage with relevant information. This RIS is preliminary information. So there is time to submit useful information to help decision-makers. CUDA and ANUHD will be drafting responses for sharing, so watch this space.

For an overview of what housing policy and including universal design features have a look at the easy and quick to do online course Home Coming? It’s free and has a lot of good information and statistics to help your submission. 

 

Tomorrow’s Homes: A sustainability perspective

Tomorrows Homes front coverUniversal design in housing faces the same policy and industry challenges as the sustainability movement. Consumers are unclear about their choice, and confused by terminology and rating systems. Home builders are locked into supply chains that limit innovation, and financial institutions can’t see the value of such designs. 

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has devised a policy framework for transitioning to sustainable homes. It identifies five key actions:

    1. National leadership
    2. Benchmarking and upskilling
    3. Building a foundation of leading homes
    4. Engaging consumers
    5. Leveraging finance

Tomorrow’s homes: A policy framework outlines how the structure of the housing industry creates restrictions on doing anything differently. It also has suggestions for appealing to consumers by using language they relate to. Comfortable, healthy, affordable, easy to use – in short, appealing to their aspirations. Consumers don’t frame their aspirations in words such as sustainable, accessible, or universal design. And they don’t aspire to ageing or disability.

The document concludes with a call for home builders to engage in the sustainable housing market now rather than wait for regulation. However, a voluntary approach hasn’t turned out well for accessible housing. 

Anyone interested in the housing market and housing policy will find this a useful document. Easy to read and well laid out it argues the case for policy reform in housing design. 

For a crash course in housing policy, sign up to CUDA’s free housing policy online learning: Home Coming? Framing housing policy for the future

Housing for Indigenous people

A small house with a large veranda sits on orange soil in a remote location.All new housing should be designed for accessibility to the silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This is one of the recommended policy actions from AHURI research on indigenous housing. A systematic inspection process for new builds to ensure compliance with the guidelines is also needed. They also recommend a new classification in the building code for “housing for Indigenous people”. Researchers found housing conditions were poor, inaccessible and that few people were aware of modifications for making life easier. 

Indigenous Australians have a high rate of disability and chronic illness but there is little housing available to support them. Disability is under-reported in this population, particularly in remote areas. This is because the concept of disability varies between urban and rural locations. In urban areas where people know about the NDIS their understanding of disability is similar to the non-indigenous population. Remote communities relate disability as wheelchairs.

The title of the project is, The lived experiences of housing among Indigenous people with disability.  The AHURI website has the full report, a positioning paper and a policy bulletin.

Editor’s note: Regardless of cultural heritage, all Australians need to have housing fit for purpose and it will be interesting to see what the Australian Building Codes Board’s Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) on accessible housing will recommend in June 2020.

WHO Housing, Health & Accessibility

Multi coloured graphic depicting the key elements in the guidelines "How housing can improve health and well-being".There are five key areas for healthy housing and accessibility is one of them. The WHO latest guidelines on housing and health takes into consideration ageing populations and people with functional impairments. It recommends an “adequate proportion of housing stock should be accessible.

In the remarks section it argues that living in an accessible home improves both independence and health outcomes. Although the guidelines argue for a proportion of housing stock it has put the issue on the agenda. It shows it is as important as all other factors. However, the notion of proportion can lead some agencies to think that means specialised and segregated housing. It is worth noting that the lead author of this section is an Australian, Professor Peter Phibbs.

The other key areas are crowding, indoor cold, indoor heat, and home safety. For more detail there is an additional document showing method and results of the systematic review that underpinned this section of the Guidelines – Web Annex F. and includes interventions such as home modifications and assistive technology.