Universal Design, Affordability and Cost in housing

Head and shoulders pic of Kay Saville-Smith

At a roundtable meeting following the 2014 Universal Design Conference in Sydney, Kay Saville-Smith  shared her experience on universal design and affordability.  She was happy to share her five key points about universal design in housing: 

“The usual argument is that universal design is consistently unaffordable (by which they mean more costly) than poor design because of the difficulties of retrofitting the existing environment and lack of economies of scale. Actually, the reasons why universal design is seen as costly can add cost. Five points are interesting: 

  1. Most products are not designed but driven off existing tools, processes and organisational  structures. To change these does require some investment (hump costs) but these are one off and should not be seen as an ongoing cost. Indeed, those changes can bring reduced costs in the long term through increased productivity etc.
  2. The costs of poor design are externalised onto households, other sectors or hidden unmet need.
  3. Comes out of an advocacy approach that pitches the needs of one group against another and treats universal design as special design etc.
  4. Win-win solutions need to be built with the industry participants that are hungry for share not dominant players who have incentives to retain the status quo.
  5. UD is different from design which is fashion based. The trick is to make UD fashionable so no one would be seen dead without it.”

Her keynote presentation provides more information about why it is so hard to get traction with universal design in housing. The picture is of Kay Saville-Smith.

Downsizing? Baby Boomers defy predictions

Facade of a large two storey home commonly called a McMansionIt’s unlikely that baby boomers thought about their latter years when they bought their dream home. But they are having to think about it now. The renovation industry is due for a boom, particularly those versed in age-friendly universal design features. Housing experts predicted “the great senior sell-off”. But boomers aren’t selling – they are staying put as Bruce Judd and his team at UNSW found. They like what they’ve got, and they are comfortable in their neighbourhoods. So retirement village living is less likely to attract. 

Mimi Kirk in a CityLab article looked at new research from Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies that discusses issues related to housing type, affordability and the different expectations of millennials and boomers. One other reason for boomers not selling is that millennials are not really interested in the style of homes of their parents and grandparents own. There goes the myth that boomers are (selfishly) holding onto homes that millennials could buy. Millennials are looking for smaller more affordable starter options. This also goes for boomers who want to downsize. Time for developers and builders to take note and to take up the challenge of all new homes by 2020 to be to the Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

Kitchens and older people

3 pictures of kitchens used in the study. One shows a china cabinet, the next a step ladder and the third an ironing board More than any room in the house, the kitchen needs to be a place where tasks can be done easily and efficiently. Kitchens are also an important area for social interactions during meal preparation and clean up. As people age, more thought needs to go into kitchen design to overcome issues such as reaching, bending, grasping and holding. However, this should not mean a complete kitchen renovation if these issues are considered in the original kitchen design.

Kitchen Living in Later Life: Exploring Ergonomic Problems, Coping Strategies and Design Solutions is the result of research from different disciplines in the UK. As an academic paper there are some technical references, but the reports of the interviews with older people are quite revealing.  Reaching and bending caused the most problems, as well as grasping and lifting. Lighting was also an issue, especially for reading the small print on packaging. The article proposes solutions, some of them related to rearranging things for ease of use.

As kitchens in the UK include a washing machine (there are no separate laundry areas in the home) the research extended to laundry tasks. Ironing proved to be the most difficult. An interesting study, particularly as we can all relate to both good and bad kitchen design and fitout. This is especially the case with, say, a broken wrist, or slipped disc, which can happen to anyone at any time.

Related topics are kitchen appliances, and the work at the University of Cambridge Inclusive Design team and their online Inclusive Design Toolkit. 

Urban density: not the answer to everything

Picure of very high rise buildings on the waterfront at Dubai UAEWithout asking older people, politicians and planners make frequent calls for older Australians to give up their three bedroom homes to make way for “working families” and move into apartments. Regardless of a somewhat ageist inference that older people are “hogging all the houses”, with the political focus on working families, little room is left to discuss the housing needs of older cohorts. Research by Bruce Judd and his team at UNSW on downsizing found that the majority of older people want to stay put, not move into apartments. But there still remains the question, will these homes support them in their latter years? This is a discussion that the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has been chasing for many years, but with little political or market success. Within the older cohorts the number of people with dementia is expected to rise significantly, but not much thought has been given to their housing needs.

A newly published article, Housing and age friendly communities policies for future direction – A stepped approach puts the spotlight on this issue. Participants in the study were representatives from peak housing organisations, including strata managers, and advocacy organisations to assess how well their membership were prepared for this group. 

The article comes from the International Research Forum on Multi-owned Properties Deakin University, Melbourne 9-10th February 2017.

The picture was taken in Dubai, UAE. 

Designs for autonomy in later life

UD followers with an interest in housing design might find interesting “Adaptive environments for enabling senior citizens: An holistic assessment tool for housing design and IoT-based technologies”. The study asks the question, “Could houses and appliances have the potential to improve autonomy and quality of life of citizens?” The approach combines the design features of the dwelling with some basic assistive technologies to see how they can improve the autonomy of older people living at home. The research aims to support the creation of a new standard for housing in the European context. You will need institutional access for a free view, or you can  purchase it for a small fee. The authors are  based in Ireland and Italy.

Abstract: The population of older adults will continuously increase over the coming decades. As they get older, people will require assistance and regular monitoring, with higher costs for welfare system and families. Two vital aspects of a healthy lifestyle, are domestic autonomy and maintenance of relationships within the neighborhood. This leads to an interesting research issue: “Could houses and appliances have the potential to improve autonomy and quality of life of citizens? Which methods and tools could enhance wellbeing and healthy conditions? The house has the potential to be a safe, adaptive environment, integrated with technologies for life support. This work seeks to investigate the key implications of architectural accessibility, interior Design features and interactive technologies, related to User Experience Design. The proposed Design approach called “Environment Design to Sustain Users” is based on a scenario composed of two empirical strategies. The reported research aims to support the creation of a new standard of houses in which people can live in a healthy way, enjoying the opportunities of ICT, which shall be “enabling” and integrated in an unobtrusive way so as to be accepted by the user.

Architecture students’ attitudes to UD

architecture blueprint with rule and pencilThe attitudes of architecture students to universal design is the focus of a Deakin University study. It builds on previous work (Design 4 Diversity) in 2010 on inter-professional learning for architecture and occupational therapy students. The findings of this latest study show that while architecture students viewed access to public environments favourably, there was a mixed response in relation to private homes.

Reasons not to include universal design features in homes included cost, client desires and restrictions on creativity. For example, “Over-designing for the sake of making the residence accessible in the future, just in case, is an unnecessary cost”; “Private homes should be designed to the individual”; and “Legislation restricts design, resulting in negative impacts the ‘requirements’ did not intend”. (Ed Note: These phrases have been used many times by practicing architects and designers as followers of UD are aware.)

The study used a quantitative approach and applied statistical techniques to the data. The first part of the document covers the history of universal design (as all such studies do) and there is an extended section on methods and statistics. For followers of UD, the Discussion section might be of most interest. 

The authors of Students’ Attitudes to Universal Design in Architecture Education, are Helen Larkin, Kelsey Dell, and Danielle Hitch. It was published in the Journal of Social Inclusion, 2016.

See also previous work by Larkin et al, on this topic, and the 2016 UD Conference presentation by Nicholas Loder and Lisa Stafford, “Moving from the Margins: Embedding inclusive thinking in design education” 

R&D incentives for UD in housing: Norwegian experience

Drawing of a new development showing lots of apartment buildings with a park in the middleMaking small changes to housing design to create greater accessibility seems too difficult for the house building industry in spite of the many guidelines explaining what’s required. In Australia, marketing ploys using the “tick of approval” method to advance such changes have only appeared on select properties – mostly those through government procurement. What would happen if there were financial incentives instead of costs to have a home recognised as accessible or universally designed? This is the topic of an article from Norway which argues that grants can be a driving force for innovation in universal design and that this requires the collaboration of several different stakeholders. The research was funded by the Norwegian State Housing Bank.

Given that the house building industry in Australia is a fragmented system where there is a reliance on regulations, rules, and protocols to hold it together, this research is timely as it recognises that collaboration is essential to innovation and improvements in design quality. 

View of a Norwegian waterfront with housing and the Aurora Borealis The article, Grant as a Driving Force for Innovation in Universal Design is by Tina Therese Larsen and Torben Blindheim from the Norwegian State Housing Bank, Norway.

The picture above is Pilestredet park development and the lower picture is a general waterfront scene in Norway showing the Aurora Borealis.


UD as a driver of housing quality

Big houses are still being built without accessibility in mindHousing quality and architectural practice are under scrutiny in building and infrastructure management in Norway, which claims to lead the way on universal design. Although there have been fundamental changes in the building code and regulations, it seems that none of this has guaranteed improvements in quality on the usability of homes. This is in spite of going further than most other countries in the direction of performance requirements.

Perhaps the reliance on regulations was misplaced in terms of creating quality. The authors of this article conclude that architects, more than any other group in the construction industry are trained to break conventional frameworks. How the regulations are applied by the user is the key to success – this is where the education of architects and building designers comes in. Architects are often willing to innovate, the authors claim. “One chief intention of the building code is to promote universal design in the built environment. It seems that the appending regulations may not follow up the intention as it could be expected. Amendments are probably needed and should be based on a broader view on the design process.”

It seems we could learn from this experience – regulations are one thing, but applying them appropriately and for maximum effect is another.

Energy Efficiency and UD in home renovations

Roof of a house covered in solar panelsThis article argues that energy efficiency and universal design in housing are largely incompatible because the former has an engineering approach whereas the latter has a sociological approach. The authors view energy efficiency as a product (a noun) and universal design as a process (a verb) and infer that this is a problem because one has measurable outcomes (energy efficiency) and the other has not (universal design). The article is useful inasmuch as it puts energy efficiency and universal design into the same sentence. The article has some interesting and explanatory graphs and comparisons that are worth a look. 

Abstract: Policy and societal objectives indicate a large need for housing renovations that both accommodate lifelong living and significantly increase energy efficiency. However, these two areas of research are not yet examined in conjunction and this paper hypothesizes this as a missed opportunity to create better renovation concepts. The paper outlines a comparative review on research in Energy Efficiency and Universal Design in order to find the similarities and differences in both depth and breadth of knowledge. Scientific literature in the two fields reveals a disparate depth of knowledge in areas of theory, research approach, and degree of implementation in society. Universal Design and Energy Efficiency are part of a trajectory of expanding scope towards greater sustainability and, although social urgency has been a driver of the research intensity and approach in both fields, in energy efficiency there is an engineering, problem solving approach while Universal Design has a more sociological, user-focused one. These different approaches are reflected in the way home owners in Energy Efficiency research are viewed as consumers and decision makers whose drivers are studied, while Universal Design treats home owners as informants in the design process and studies their needs. There is an inherent difficulty in directly merging Universal Design and Energy Efficiency at a conceptual level because Energy Efficiency is understood as a set of measures, i.e. a product, while Universal Design is part of a (design) process. The conceptual difference is apparent in their implementation as well. Internationally energy efficiency in housing has been largely imposed through legislation, while legislation directly mandating Universal Design is either non-existent or it has an explicit focus on accessibility. However, Energy Efficiency and Universal Design can be complementary concepts and, even though it is more complex than expected, the combination offers possibilities to advance knowledge in both fields. 

Article by Ermal Kapedani, Jasmien Herssens and Griet Verbeeck. Faculty of Architecture and Art, Hasselt University, Belgium.

Home access improves quality of life

Kitchen with drawer storage 2According to a systematic literature review by an international research group there is a link between modifications that make people feel safe and an improved quality of life. Preventing falls and the fear of falls, not being restricted from getting around the home and out of the house all help to lift depression and improve self esteem.The research team used the WHO ICF (International classification on functioning, disability and health) as a measurement tool for measuring activities of daily living (ADL). The title of the article is, Accessible Home Environments for People with Functional Limitations: A Systematic Review

Edited Abstract: The aim of this review is to evaluate the health and social effects of accessible home environments for people with functional limitations, in order to provide evidence to promote well-informed decision making for policy guideline development and choices about public health interventions. [After assessing 94 articles] … Fourteen studies were included in the review. A narrative approach was used to synthesise the findings of the included studies due to methodological and statistical heterogeneity. Results suggest that certain interventions to enhance the accessibility of homes can have positive health and social effects. Home environments that lack accessibility modifications appropriate to the needs of their users are likely to result in people with physical impairments becoming disabled at home.
The team included members from Ireland, South Africa, Czech Republic and Northern Ireland. 
Picture shows a kitchen with easy reach drawer storage and an oven at waist height.