Universal design and affordability in housing

Three stacks of coins sit alongside a wooden cut-out of a house shape. Universal design and housing affordability.Housing policy people think you can’t have universal design and affordability in housing. However, the opposite is likely to be true. The national Building Ministers’ Meeting in April this year agreed to include Livable Housing Silver level in all new housing. But not all states agreed to call it up in their jurisdiction. 

Victoria, Queensland, ACT, Tasmania and NT are right behind the changes to the National Construction Code, but NSW is not. Indeed, they informed advocates by letter that they have no intention of including silver level in NSW legislation. Their reasoning is that they believe they are doing enough already. By this, they mention some policies asking for a proportion of accessible dwellings in apartments. However, there is no evidence they are actually built, and if they were, there is no way of knowing where they are. 

Head and shoulders pic of Kay Saville-Smith
Kay Saville-Smith

The other reason for not changing the NSW code is that the politicians believe it costs too much. Accessible housing continues to be perceived as a niche area. A few good points were made by Kay Saville-Smith at a roundtable after the 2014 Australian universal design conference. Sadly, we are still no further forward and her words hold true today. 

Universal design is affordable design

Here are Kay Saville-Smith’s five key points about universal design in housing and affordability: 

“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. But 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. Universal design is different from design which is fashion based. The trick is to make universal design fashionable so no one would be seen dead without it.”

Her keynote presentation provides more information about affordability and why it is so hard to get traction with universal design in housing. 

For more history on the Building Ministers’ Meeting and decisions to include Livable Housing Silver level in the NCC, go to the housing design policy section. 

ANUHD’s response to NCC draft for accessible housing

Front cover of ANUHD's response to the Draft NCC.The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) has responded to the draft provisions to the National Construction Code (NCC) on accessible housing. Much of the required information is technical. So ANUHD is happy for others to utilise this information in their own response. All responses must be made by 2 July 2021. The Melbourne Disability Institute has also responded to the final cost benefit analysis by the Australian Building Codes Board.

While the Building Ministers agreed to most aspects of Silver level in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines, the devil is in the detail. Step-free hobless showers, step-free entry to the dwelling, parking spaces and doorways need greater clarity to ensure accessibility is maximised. Simple misunderstandings in drafting the technical changes can minimise the benefits of these changes. 

ANUHD provides a rationale for all their comments to the draft. This is yet another important moment in the campaign for all new homes to be accessible. 

ANUHD still promotes Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines as the most cost effective. Regardless, their comments serve to make the best of the current agreed changes to the NCC. 

Comments are open until 2 July 2021.  You can submit a response.  See How to use this response sheet and proforma.  You don’t need to be a building professional to respond. This is also about advocacy for all of us.

Further information is on the ABCB Consultation HUB.
The Melbourne Disability Institute critiques the final cost benefit analysis by the Australian Building Codes Board as being incomplete. It goes as far as saying the report “contains and inherent and under-acknowledged bias against building code reform”. 

New era in home design is good for business

A white labrador dog sleeps in the foreground and in the background the door is open showing level access to the alfresco.
Image courtesy Taylor’d Distinction

Everyone’s a winner in the upcoming amendments to the National Construction Code (NCC). These changes represent meaningful social change for Australia. They herald a new era in home design which is good for business as well as occupants. At last there is recognition that building design has a significant impact on the way we live our lives. So why has it taken so long for these amendments to happen? 

Housing sits in a complex web of regulations, financing, planning and market forces. The housing production system involves many stakeholders, all independent actors, but dependent on each other to maintain a level playing field. To complicate matters further, politicians decide amendments to the NCC. Consequently, the political dimension cannot be ignored. This is discussed further in the Sourceable article, A New Era in Home Design

But these changes will be good for business. With basic access features in place, modifications and renovations will become easier. Homeowners will be more willing to have modifications because it will minimise major works. Previous concerns over the value of their home will be reduced too. Smaller builders should get ready for this market.

However, the amendments to the NCC are not yet mandated. That should happen in September 2022, and there is some concern that industry will argue that this is too soon. 

There’s more work to do

Close view of the level entry to a doorway.
Image courtesy Taylor’d Distinction

In April 2021 state and territory Building Ministers agreed to include basic access features in new homes. But the Devil is in the detail. Before the changes to the NCC are mandated, a draft standard based on technical detail must be agreed. Consultation on the draft standard is currently open for comment.  Anyone can comment on the draft standard. The consultation period is open until 8 July 2021. 

To make it easier, ANUHD has shared a rough draft to help others with their comments and submissions. 

Construction code changes and home modifications

Front of a new house with 12 steps to the front door showing why construction code changes are needed..
New home with 12 unfinished steps abutting the boundary.

The ATSA Independent Living Expo was held alongside the UD2021 Conference in Melbourne. I used this opportunity to discuss the upcoming construction code changes and home modifications. My presentation explained the history behind the changes and what it means for the future.

State and territory Building Ministers agreed in April 2021 to amend the National Construction Code to include basic access features in new homes. This is meaningful social change for Australia, and time to re-think regular practice.

Major housing industry associations fought these amendments, but industry stands to gain longer term. With more suitable designs on the market, older people will be encouraged to move to a new home. Families with a disabled family member will likely be in the market as well. The amendments are included in the public comment draft which is open for comment until 2 July.  

The supply of home care packages will increase and established homes will need modifications. Currently the government subsidises home modifications for this group, but modifications are not the same as renovations. 

Modifications vs Renovations

Occupational therapists assess clients and decide on functional modifications as part of a home care package. They are often done in haste and have little aesthetic value due to funding constraints. Clients often refuse these modifications because of poor aesthetics and concern about devaluing their home. On the other hand, renovations usually have a designer involved. Recent research by Monash University commissioned by the Human Rights Commission, indicates that design-led modifications will gradually increase.

With basic access features already in place, modifications and renovations will become easier. Homeowners will be more willing to have modifications because it will minimise major works, and concern over the value of the home will be reduced. The NCC changes provide an opportunity for smaller builders to capitalise on this market. The Building Designers Association Australia is already on board, and has training courses to bring designers up to speed. 

If you want to check out the specifications for changes to the code, see the Livable Housing Design Guidelines Silver level.

Jane Bringolf, Editor

The picture above shows a very poorly sited home where the distance from the front porch to the property boundary was not quite sufficient to put 12 or more steps. 


Heavenly stairways the safe way

A man sits on the stairs in a home. The stairs are timber but there are no handrails only glass sides. The stairway is open to the living area.There is much to think about when designing and fitting stairs in a home, whether a new home or a renovation. Denver architect Doug Walters has 12 tips for safer stairways in his web article, “Beautiful Hazard”. Home stairway design should be both good looking and safe. The article uses photos to illustrate points.

There is a link to some elegant solutions. I note that nothing is said about extending the handrail to the final tread in some examples.

An article on stairway design using architecture magazine pictures, researchers found the lack of handrails occurred most often. The article includes several photographs and a list of the missing safety features. Available on ReseachGate

The Australian Human Rights Commission produced a document in 2008, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, and it focuses on stairways and the placement of tactiles, handrails, and contrasting nosings – a good reference guide on what not to do.

Adaptable Housing Guide

Front cover of Your Home manual.The National Construction Code will introduce accessible features for all new housing in 2022. In the meantime, the old Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299) will continue to be referenced.

Your Home was published online in 2013 by the Australian Government. It has a section on the livable and adaptable house. This guide is especially helpful for home renovations and modifications. 

There are many detailed diagrams to help explain design features and floor plans. The chapter makes distinctions between livable, accessible and adaptable designs. Reference to the public building access standard (AS1428.1) for an “accessible” home can lead to institutional designs that lack design creativity. AS1428.1 was not intended for application in residential dwellings, which is one of the reasons the Livable Housing Design Guidelines were developed. 

Introduction: Many people, when building a new home, anticipate spending a number of years, if not decades, living in it. Others may conceive of a shorter stay. Whatever the intention, any new home is likely to have to accommodate changing needs over its lifetime. A livable and adaptable house is one that is able to respond effectively to these needs without requiring costly and energy intensive alterations.

Going for Gold but Silver will do for now

shows roof tops of a development in a greenfield area. Photo taken from the top of a hill looking down.At last! The national Building Ministers’ Meeting agreed to change the building code to mandate accessible features in all new homes. This represents a major social change in Australia. While evidence showed that Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines was the most cost effective, Silver will do for now.  However, there is still work to do.

The building ministers were not unanimous in their decision. The Communique released after their meeting gives states and territories discretion in applying the changes. It states, “Each state and territory will be free to determine whether and how the new provisions will be applied in their jurisdiction to minimise the regulatory impact on the construction sector.”

WA, NSW and SA did not support the changes. That means they might not call them up in their state based legislation right away. 

Potentially, the property industry will find it inconvenient to work with differing codes across jurisdictions and decide to conform regardless. But that will mean longer time frames before full implementation.

So, from September 2022, those states that support the changes will have new homes designed to Silver level. A voluntary guide for Gold will be developed to encourage the industry to go beyond minimum. 

The advocates

The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) led the campaign for change for almost 20 years. ANUHD is a national network of committed volunteers who meet via Zoom every month. Dr Margaret Ward’s leadership and determination were instrumental to the campaign’s success. Her many letters over many years to politicians and others in power positions eventually paid off. Make no mistake, this change was not given willingly. And that is the never-ending story of all human rights campaigns. 

The success of the campaign is also due to the recent push by the Summer Foundation and their financial support for extra research and a campaign director. The Building Better Homes social media campaign showed politicians what the community wanted. 

CUDA has actively supported the campaign and congratulates all involved. This issue has been a regular feature across the six years of this website. If you are interested in the history, the section of this website on Housing Design Policy has several posts. Universal Design in Housing in Australia: Getting to Yes, by Dr Ward provides an history of the campaign and the barriers advocates faced.

We are very pleased that Dr Ward will be one of the speakers at the upcoming Universal Design Conference. She will update us on the situation as it is currently unfolding. There’s sure to be a lot of interest in this topic.


Designing homes with dementia in mind

Graphic showing the design process.
The design process

In most cases, designing homes with dementia in mind does not mean a special type of design.  It’s not news that people prefer to live at home as they age. So, universal design for dementia-friendly dwellings helps people live at home for as long as possible. However, for some people with dementia this can prove challenging for them and their family members.

Once basic accessibility features are considered, as they should be in all homes, it’s about the details. The research that underpins the guidelines for dementia friendly dwellings found four key design principles:

      1. Integrated into the neighbourhood
      2. Easy to approach, enter and move about in
      3. Easy to understand, use and manage
      4. Flexible, safe, cost effective and adaptable over time

Heading for the Dementia Design GuideThe Dementia Friendly Dwellings Guideline is from Ireland, but the good ideas are not country specific. The online resource produced by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design is divided into separate downloadable sections: 

      1. Home location and approach
      2. Entering and moving around
      3. Spaces for living
      4. Elements and systems

The Dementia Friendly Dwellings Guidelines complement Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland and are intended as a first step in raising awareness. They provide a flexible framework for designers to apply the guidelines creatively to all new home types through incremental steps.


Universal Design in Housing: Builders are doing it

A blank checklist.Builders are beginning to incorporate some basic universal design features in new home designs. An audit of 10 of the largest home builders in Australia revealed some interesting results. But it is still a hit and miss affair – the features are not consistently applied. So builders are doing it – just some of it and so it is not yet universal design in housing. 

The Summer Foundation and University of Melbourne carried out the research. Their preliminary findings show that many of the new homes meet several criteria of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. That means it can’t be too hard or too costly as the housing industry claims. However, these features are probably by default rather than design.

Three key features that would make a home accessible are absent from all designs. These are wider doorways, circulation space in front of the toilet pan, and a shower on the ground level. Those three features are the ones that cost the most to modify later. 

The short report has a chart comparing the accessible features across the 10 builders. The report concludes that housing to suit people with mobility impairments does not compromise the design for others. The title of the report is, Preliminary Findings: Audit of Accessible Features in New Build House Plans.

Housing to 2040: Scotland’s strategy

Front cover Housing to 2040.Scotland has a grand vision for housing. It’s strategy encompasses all the vexed policy issues in one document. The central principle is that housing impacts all other aspects of life. Health, wellbeing, life chances and job prospects are all affected by our housing situation. With this in mind, Scotland’s ambitious strategy sets out a 20 year work program to 2040. 

The policy issues addressed are: homelessness, affordability, security of tenure, affordable warmth, independent living, the housing market, housing standards, and zero emissions. The section on independent living is where the specifics of accessible housing sit. One aim is to change the accessible housing standard to incorporate accessibility into all new homes. But not yet. However, it is a good example of how to draw all the vexed housing issues into one document.

Universal design elements still require good overall planning and design, consideration of climatic conditions, and connected communities. Scotland’s Housing to 2040 weaves them all together. The government website has additional downloads related to the document.

There is a short PDF version incorporating an infographic for those who want a quick overview. However, the page on Principles has little contrast between words and background so it is difficult to read. 

Key sections related to accessibility

“To make sure that we build in accessibility and adaptability to new homes and future proof them, we will introduce new building standards to underpin a Scottish Accessible Homes Standard which all new homes must achieve. This will mainstream a high standard of accessibility, delivering a step change in the availability of housing options for disabled people and enable the delivery of new homes in all sectors which can be readily adapted to meet varying needs. (p56)

“We will build on the review of the Housing for Varying Needs Design Guide and the implementation of all tenure wheelchair accessible housing targets, intending to introduce these new requirements into building standards from 2025/26 alongside the new Housing Standard. (p56)

“Provide help to older and disabled home owners who want to move to a home that better meets their needs. We will work with all those involved in making a house move happen, from the solicitors to removal companies, to develop a scheme that helps with every step of the process. We will also consider with banks the potential for cost effective bridging loan schemes to help people to move over several days and take the pressure off a single-day move. (p57)

Key Action

Action 20: Ensure that everyone who wants to is enabled to live independently in a home of their own.
• Review Housing for Varying Needs.
• Introduce a new focus on increasing the supply of accessible and adapted homes and improving choice, particularly for younger
disabled people.
• Use NPF4 to help make more accessible homes available by helping to deliver tenure-neutral wheelchair housing targets, supporting sites for self-provided housing and delivering homes in accessible locations.
• Introduce new building standards from 2025/26 to underpin a Scottish Accessible Homes Standard which all new homes must achieve. (p 63)

The timeline shows that the housing standard will be introduced in 2026 and will be fully enforced in 2030. It remains to be seen whether the ideas are implemented or stay as words on a page. Twenty years is a long time.