Home with wrap-around ramp: Will it work?

rear view of the all white home at twilight. It shows the ramp coming up from ground level on one side wrapping around the back and up to the first floor on the third side.A couple in their 50s told their architects they wanted a home for four generations. The home needed to accommodate themselves, their daughter and her husband and child, and three older relatives. Focusing on the older generation, the architects made a major feature of a ramp that wraps around the house from the ground to first floor. Other floors are accessed by stairs. But was this design about functionality or creativity? Why a ramp and not a lift that could have served all floors? And what about the accessibility of internal spaces? Perhaps there was a reason for not solving the access issues with a home lift. 

Front view of the three storey home taken at twilight.The wrap-around ramp for family members who use a wheelchair seems like a good idea until you see how long it is. A powered wheelchair could manage the ramp, but most people use a manual wheelchair indoors. Imagine pushing someone in a wheelchair on this ramp.

The home is featured on the Dezeen website with photographs to show the position of the ramp and the rationale behind it. The photographs here are taken from the Dezeen article. Note that the home is in Nansong, China so there could be regulations preventing other design options. There are links to other designs for multigenerational living.

A lift would serve all family members across their lifespan and would be more useable than a ramp. It is not clear why this option was not chosen. Any member of the family can find themselves permanently or temporarily disabled at any time. So focusing on the currently disabled person produces a specialised design instead of one designed inclusively.

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.

For the history of nearly 20 years of advocacy see Universal Housing Design in Australia: Getting to Yes.

 

 

Why wouldn’t you?

Graphic of a purple house shape with green outline for a window and a door.The catch cry “Why wouldn’t you? is the three word tag used in promotional material to promote universal design in housing. A builder, and a building designer are calling their collaboration Project Silver. They are promoting Livable Housing Australia’s Silver Level for improved liveability. The mystery is if it would cost so little in the scheme of things, why aren’t the building designer and builder just doing it automatically? The catch cry should be to the builder – why wouldn’t you just do it? Then no-one would have to label the home as some kind of special design.

The six minute video (below) puts the case very well. It includes contributions from different people, including the mayor of the Sunshine Coast. It’s worth a watch. Another builder in Townsville is telling the same story

Editor’s comment: The builder claims Silver Level costs an additional $3000 to potentially save $60,000. Possibly it is another way to sell an “extra” and therefore the customer pays over and above the actual cost of the features.

Australian Network on Universal Housing Design supports the Gold Level of the guidelines. It considers this level makes homes fit for purpose for the majority of the population across their lifetime. 

 

Downsizing? But where to?

An expanse of green lawn in a suburban back yard.Policy makers and researchers have looked at the issue of older home owners and downsizing a few times now. The picture still looks the same. Whether older Australians want to downsize or stay put, our housing stock is not fit for purpose. For those who want to stay put, their current home is unlikely to support them as they age. This is particularly difficult for renters. For those who are prepared to move, there is nothing suitable to move to – not if they are planning to stay put later on. 

The latest report, Keeping a roof over our heads, by Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has more detail about their recent survey outlined in an article in The Conversation, titled, Lack of housing choice frustrates would-be downsizers.

When it comes to house size, Bruce Judd and colleagues from UNSW found that retirees generally want three bedrooms for flexibility of lifestyle. Some for visiting family and looking after grandchildren. Others need room for hobbies or a study. Some couples sleep separately for health reasons. Typically, retirees spend more time at home now that they are not working, so space becomes even more important.  

What’s interesting in all the studies, it’s generally the size of the yard and house maintenance that needs downsizing, not the home. Those who say they don’t want to move, might consider the idea if there was a more suitable place in their current neighbourhood. And not age-segregated living. However, if industry had rolled out the Livable Housing Design Guidelines as promised, there would be more suitable choices available throughout our housing stock.

Home Builder goes for universal design

A view from the kitchen to the alfresco showing an adjustable bench top acting as a table.A home builder in Queensland, is building Livable Housing Silver level homes and he wants everyone else to follow his lead. He has persuaded Townsville City Council and industry stakeholders to come together to make this possible.

In a promotional video accessibility is only mentioned once at the end, but the key features are pointed out throughout the video. It’s a slow 11 minutes so recommend viewing at an increased speed setting. Although Silver level is promoted, the size and design of the dwelling makes it closer to Gold level. 

In a 9 minute video (below) various people explain the importance of Silver level to them. The best parts of the video are in the second half where Martin Locke shows how Silver level homes are modern and “normal”. One key point is that it shows there are no design or technical impediments for having Silver (or Gold) level in all new housing.

Wheelchair users are only one part of the story of universal design in housing. The emphasis on wheelchair users perpetuates the idea that this is “disability housing” and this puts it in the “specialised housing” bracket. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines are about everyone, not just wheelchair users.

Locke believes Silver level can be rolled out without additional regulation. However, after ten years of voluntary guidelines, industry has not participated. The industry, particularly  mass market builders, rely on regulation to hold the system together so that all the designers, engineers, and trades know what they are doing and can work in tandem.

It’s great to see at least one community trying to make a difference in this space. Martin Locke and the Townsville City Mayor are to be congratulated for their efforts in bringing people together to show the way for the house-building industry.

Housing, older people and resilience

An old weatherboard farm building sits in front of a tall dark brooding mountain.People want to stay put as they age. That means housing design is critical in supporting this desire, as well as ageing-in-place policies. A new study from New Zealand looked at issues of appropriate housing for older people, and how people and communities can develop resilience to adverse natural events. The findings relate to ageing societies across the globe and within the context of changing environmental conditions. The decision tools that researchers devised from this participatory research are useful for older people and for architects and other designers. 

The title of the article by Bev James and Kay Saville-Smith is “Designing housing decision-support tools for resilient older people“. There are several useful references at the end of this excellent study. 

ABSTRACT: Our ageing populations make it critical that older people continue to live and participate in their communities. ‘Ageing in place’, rather than in residential care, is desired by older people themselves and promoted as policy in many countries. Its success, both as policy and practice, depends on housing. House performance, resilience, functionality and adaptability are all essential to maintaining independence. Three New Zealand research programmes have worked with older people to investigate issues around housing, ‘ageing in place’ and how older people and communities can become resilient to adverse natural events. Using participatory research techniques, those programmes have generated evidence-based decision-support tools to help older people maintain independence. These tools have been co-designed and widely tested with older people and others. Designed to help older people identify priorities and information requirements, assess diverse factors determining thermal performance and dwelling resilience as well as repairs and maintenance needs, the tools help improve decisions around: repairs and maintenance assessment and solutions; dwelling and location choices and housing options. Various organizations have adopted the tools. This work demonstrates how research outputs can be used to facilitate older people’s housing choices while also giving architects and designers guides for meeting older people’s housing needs.

Image by David Mark.

UD in Housing: Does it really cost more?

Facade of a large two storey home commonly called a McMansionDo homes really have to be larger to incorporate universal design features? Unlikely says Kay Saville-Smith, a housing researcher from New Zealand. In her keynote address at the UD Conference in 2014 she explained why. Her presentation discussed the “size fraud” and the mistaken idea that homes need to be larger and therefore more expensive. She also referred to the “blame game” where nothing changes because no-one takes the first step. Below is an excerpt from the full transcript of her presentation, Making Universal Design a Reality – Confronting Affordability.  

“Builders like to talk about cost per square metre so the larger the living space, the cheaper the perceived cost. Although the floor space need not expand to bring in UD features, it is believed that you do. So people say they won’t pay for that – or more to the point the builders say that”.

She goes on to say, “…there are still the two old barriers to renovating and building homes with universal design and indeed the streetscape, and those two things are twofold. One is what I’ve talked about in the past as the vicious cycle of blame that goes on in the building industry, which is no-one wants to change to do anything because the other person hasn’t asked them to do it. Investors don’t want universal design, so I the builder can’t build that, but if investors want it, sure I will build it. Investors will say I can’t build it because the builder won’t come in at the right cost, and both of them blame the architect, of course, because the architect is off site at that point. So that is one issue. The other issue is that we have the “innovation chasm” where we have solutions but getting them taken up and getting to a tipping point where it’s an expectation of what you get out of the housing market, is a big jump and typically you need about 30% or so of the market to be taking that kind of innovation challenge rather than taking the opportunity to be an early adopter. 30% is a big jump…”  

Good Design is for a Lifetime

A luxury free-standing two storey home with a large green space in front. There is a for sale sign on display.An article on an American home builder’s website has some good information and dispels many myths. The one about “ugly and costly” is dealt with well. While they are American designs, the principles apply elsewhere. The title of the article is, How Great Aging in Place Design Prepares you for a Llifetime. There are lots of examples on the website of kitchens and bathrooms. There is also a section titled Universal Design.

Editor’s comment: Few older people will use a wheelchair at home, but they might like to sit to do some tasks. So the idea of lower benches could be a mistake unless you know all home occupants are either of short stature or wheelchair users. All family members have to be catered for in a workplace such as the kitchen. Lower bench sections or adjustable height benches help here. A pull-out workboard in the drawer section of the cabinetry is also another way to provide a low workspace for children and others who might need it. Also, in Australia and elsewhere, few homes have the kind of space shown in the pictures to allocate to a kitchen, so designs need to be considerate of all likely kitchen users. Creativity is required. Lowering benches and not having under bench cupboards is the easy solution.

Image by Paul Brennan 

Frank Lloyd Wright and UD

A view showing the large windows overlooking the gardenHouzz online magazine has an article about a 1952 Frank Lloyd Wright home that they claim is a model of universal design. The Chicago home was actually designed specifically for a “disabled homeowner” – a wheelchair user. This kind of presentation of universal design confuses people and adds to the notion that universal design is for people with disability and not a mainstream idea. The article by Gwendolyn Purdom describes the single-storey construction, A view of the open plan kitchen. The home has a lot of timber in the construction and the furniture.lowered doorknobs and light switches, wider doorways, drop down cabinets and sufficient turning space for a wheelchair. Pictures of work benches with nothing below are the wheelchair obvious features. Apparently the features blend seamlessly into the home. The article goes on to provide sound advice to others such as thinking about universal design from the beginning of the design. The original owners kept the home exactly the same until their death in 2012. This home has been open to the public since 2014. Several pictures illustrate the article. I doubt Frank Lloyd Wright took any of these design features into his future designs to make them mainstream. This was most likely a one-off. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the furniture too.

Thanks to Richard Duncan for finding this item.

Longevity, housing, carrots and sticks

A view of a narrow street with two storey buildings on either side and shops with high rise buildings in the background. With 28% of the population over 65 years, suitable housing is a critical policy area for Japan. In his latest article, Satoshi Kose argues for ageing in place and compares Japan with UK and US housing policy from an ageing perspective. Voluntary guidelines for new housing has not worked and Kose says in his conclusion that viewing housing construction as a booster for economic growth where quality of design is out of question means that “Japan must pay the cost of that ignorance as the country grows older and older.”

Australia should heed this warning. The title of the article is, “Housing Design for the Ageing: Struggle Toward Supporting Age-in-Place Instead of Special Housing for Seniors”. The article discusses the attempts made in Japan, UK and US to introduce universal design features but with little success. He concludes we need both carrot and stick approach – regulations and incentives. The housing industry is complex in all three cases and this is why we need both carrot and stick (for our housing donkey?)

Satoshi Kose has been writing and researching housing design over many years. He is Emeritus Professor at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture. This paper was presented at the UDHEIT2018 Conference