Universal design in housing: making it happen

Basic access features are now mandated in the latest edition of the Australian National Construction Code. This achievement took 20 years of dedicated advocacy for universal design in housing. This was achieved against the backdrop of strong housing industry lobbying for the status quo.

A paper presented at the International Universal Design Conference, UD2022, documents the achievements brought about by people power. It follows three previous papers and could, and should, be the last chapter. But that depends on ongoing political decisions.

While the features are mandatory, not all states are ready to adopt these changes. Also, the features are very basic and will not meet the needs of an ageing population. Hence, advocates continue their work.

At the end of my presentation at UD2022 in Italy, I had two questions that indicated disbelief that this could be for ALL housing – many thought it was just for social or special housing.

Jane Bringolf
An illustration showing facades of different styles of free standing homes in lots of colours. They look like toy houses.

The conference paper has lessons for other jurisdictions and was written by Margaret Ward with input from Jane Bringolf. The title is, Universal design in housing in Australia: An example of people power. The paper is open access from the IOS Press website.

Or you can have a look at the slides in the short PPT presentation to get a quick overview.

Abstract: This paper follows three previous ones which have reflected on the grassroots campaign in Australia to mandate a basic access standard in all new housing. The original negotiations with government and the housing industry for this reform were at first disingenuous then reluctant despite human rights obligations.

A tenacious campaign over two decades by user stakeholders, researchers, and principled housing providers finally convinced political leaders to mandate national access provisions for all new housing in the National Construction Code. The paper discusses what assisted and hampered this campaign. It then discusses why politicians eventually favoured the interests of ordinary people over the self-interests of the housing industry.

Creative bathroom designs

A long black sink shaped like a shelf hangs longways from the wall. The backwall is full length window and it is difficult to see the tap. It looks very modern.Todd Brickhouse’s Newsletter has some interesting pictures of creative bathroom designs. All are wheelchair accessible and look really good. 

While these designs are great for wheelchair users, there are others who might find these designs tricky to use. A case in point is a cantilevered sink against a glass wall. Maybe in real life it doesn’t trick the eye as much. However, I wouldn’t classify these designs as universal design. The sink might confuse anyone with perception problems. Have a look and see what you think. 

What the pictures clearly show is that accessible and universally designed bathrooms can look good. There is no limit to creative design.  Pale marble tiles line the walls of this bathroom. There is one long shelf with a mirror behind. A bath with a hand held shower is fitted just above the bath rim.Of course, a custom design for your own home should work for you if not others. 

This newsletter also has a picture of a man who got a tattoo of a cochlear implant on his head to make his daughter feel more comfortable with hers. 

Todd also has a magazine. He is based in New York. 

 

Co-designing bathrooms with older people

Public toilet in Kawakawa New Zealand. It has large mosaic tiles all at different angles. The toilet seat is timberHow do you know what older people want in their bathroom design? Simple. Ask them. And have lots of Post It Notes handy. Having a more flexible and safer bathroom at home is one of the keys to ageing in place. Knowing “what’s best” is not necessarily in the hands of design experts or health professionals. Co-designing bathrooms with older people is a better option.

The Livable Bathrooms for Older People Project investigated and evaluated all aspects of bathroom design, fixtures and fittings. The report details how the project was conducted, the role of participants in the process, and the outcomes of the research. There are many explanatory pictures demonstrating the process. The report is available on ResearchGate, the UNSW Library list, or can be purchased from Google Books.

The Co-Design research was carried out by Associate Professor Oya Demirbilek. The Co-Design Sessions Lead Investigator with assistance from PhD Students Alicia Mintzes, Steve Davey and Peter Sweatman. University of New South Wales. 2015.

Note: The picture is of the renowned public toilet in Kawakawa New Zealand. It would be very confusing for someone with perception issues.  Editor’s photo.

Planning moves in later life

A study on planning to move in later life is based on the notion that people will need to move regardless. If this is the case, the question becomes, who does the planning? The researchers are taking medical approach in two ways. First, by suggesting older people should be encouraged to plan their move. Second healthcare professionals can “help them better adjust to a new living environment”. 

Poor health was the main reason for not planning a move, and wanting to live closer to children was the main reason for a planned move. Planning for moves in late life: who plans and how does planning influence outcomes?, shifts the focus from staying put to moving so that people can age-in-the-right place.  

architecture blueprint with rule and pencil

Does educating homeowners about universal design influence any repairs following a home insurance claim?  Researchers found that almost all homeowners included universal design features in repairs. This lead to a voluntary 6- week online training program to educate contractors who work with customers to discuss and promote universal design with policy holders at the time of a claim. 

The title of the article is Educating home contractors on universal design modifications: an academia and corporate collaboration,  

Your Home guide – 6th edition

Front cover of Your Home 6th edition. Your Home is in its 6th edition (2022) published by the Australian Government. It has a section on the livable and adaptable house. This guide is especially helpful for home renovations and modifications as well as new builds.

The National Construction Code has introduced accessible features for all new housing in 2022 and the guide is yet to catch up. The old Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299) continues to be referenced alongside the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. 

The web version is easy to navigate and covers every aspect of design including adaptation to climate change. It can also be purchased in hard copy. 

There are many detailed diagrams to help explain design features and floor plans. The chapter makes distinctions between liveable and adaptable designs. Drawings and floor plans provide sufficient information for designers, renovators and homeowners alike. 

From the introduction:

Many of the homes we build today will still be in use in 50 or even 100 years. Ensuring our homes are both liveable and adaptable is a key challenge for all communities.

Liveability means ensuring our homes are comfortable, healthy, efficient and connected to the community. But it also means the home is functional, safe, secure and attractive for current and future occupants.

Adaptability means that our homes can cope with changes to our households and to the climate. Making homes that are flexible, adaptable, and resilient helps us to respond to both predicted and unexpected change. It also means that we limit our environmental footprint to ensure that our communities remain sustainable.

London’s inclusive design standards

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) is similar to the Sydney Olympic Park Authority. They are both focused on maintaining the benefits of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Sydney claimed the title of “most accessible games ever” and then the title went to London. Inclusive design is now a priority in all developments related to the Olympic precinct, and London’s Inclusive Design Standards are designed to show the way.

“Venues excelled in their inclusive design and the story could have ended there. However, LLDC embraced this approach and made ‘Championing equalities and inclusion’ one of their four corporate priority themes.”

Broness Grey-Thompson LLDC Board Member
Two people walk either side of a woman using a wheelchair. They are on a wide path in a parkland area. Inclusive Design Standards front cover.
Front cover of the Standards

Inclusive design is the favoured term in the UK while other countries and the United Nations use universal design. They mean the same thing – creating inclusive societies.

The Inclusive Design Standards begin with all the relevant legislation and standards followed by a page on how to use the document. The standards have four key parts: inclusive neighbourhoods, movement, residential, and public buildings. Each part has two sections – the design intent and the inclusive guidelines. The guidance is just that and design teams can create solutions that achieve the same outcomes.

The document is comprehensive in covering every aspect of development and design in great detail. Each section lists the intent of the design – the why – and then lists actions. Each section includes case studies and photographs illustrate ideas. The bibliography has additional resources.

This is clearly a standards document and not a guide. It has numbered clauses for designers to reference. As such, it is not an accessible document itself. The language and size of text makes for detailed reading. A summary document with the key points would be useful as a starter.

Livable Housing Design: a DCP approach

How many local governments in New South Wales have Livable Housing Design Guidelines in their Development Control Plans (DCP)? And what mechanisms do developers use to find this information? With different terms being used for the same thing, how do developers navigate this environment? This is what Masters student Matthew Gee Kwun Chan wanted to find out. 

aerial view of three people at a desk looking at a set of construction drawings

Banks, property developers, planners, building designers, engineers, certifiers, and consumers all have a vested interest in housing. But do they all want a simpler system?

Chan’s literature review is broad ranging covering the complexities of housing regulation both voluntary and mandated. That’s before acknowledging the many stakeholders in the housing supply system.

The recent change to the National Construction Code (NCC) to mandate LHDG “silver” level is discussed in the context of the refusal by New South Wales to adopt this change.

NSW Government claims increased cost as the reason for not adopting the changes. This claim is challenged by economists, activists and consumers. NSW Government responses indicate that they still view the LHDG as “disability housing” not a mainstream issue. Consequently they claim there are sufficient properties available in the market and in social housing to meet current and future demand.

Local government and DCPs

Councils create DCPs to provide detailed information for implementing Environmental Planning Instruments (EPI). Some councils can seek higher accessibility standards beyond the statutory minimum. However, Chan found that councils “fail to adopt LHDG in their DCPs despite making the argument for such in other council documents”. He provides an analysis of 24 selected councils to compare their development and planning documents.

Chan claims that conflicting terminology is not the issue here. Rather, it is the amount of information, or lack thereof, about LHDG in the DCPs and where to find out more. So, the barriers to implementation are not helped when professionals lack understanding of the requirements. This is exacerbated by minor conflicts between DCPs, LHDG and Australian Standards. The regular reference to the Adaptable Housing Standard of 1995 is also unhelpful.

Document analysis reveals that each Council has its own interpretation of the LHDG and how it relates to other instruments. In some cases the references are outdated. Reference to the public domain access standard (AS1428) further complicates matters.

Brightly coloured graphic of little houses clustered together

Out of the 24 LGAs with DCPs enacting LHDG, 2 present the silver level without the hobless shower, and 2 without a stairway handrail.

Chan found that on one hand councils wanted more accessible inclusive environments, including housing, but they also wanted group homes, seniors housing and boarding houses. Some councils only encourage dwellings to LHDG while others require additional features as in the Gold and Platinum levels.

Case study

Four Sydney suburban development sites were studied: Berowra Heights, Darlinghurst, Miranda and Roseville. The analysis is necessarily technical and detailed and shows how many regulatory instruments planners and designer need to heed. The need to have an accredited assessor for some dwellings adds another step in the approval process. There is an argument here for rationalising these instruments, particularly those relating to the design of dwellings.

In the final part of the thesis, Chan challenges the NSW Government’s refusal to adopt the design features in the 2022 NCC. His rationale is that individual councils are trying to solve the problems themselves and refusal to adopt the NCC changes works against them. This is what has brought about differing provisions using different instruments across the system. And it won’t get better without adopting the silver level in the NCC.

The complexity of applying LHDG in DCPs could be solved by adopting the changes to the NCC. This would clear up most of the complexities, create a level playing field and give certainty to developers. 

Conclusions and recommendations

The thesis concludes with many recommendations. Some are related to revision of standards and related instruments. One of the recommendations for councils is to include the LHDG in their DCPs for all housing. The recommendations for the NSW Government appear to be “workarounds” on the basis of not adopting the NCC changes.

The title of the thesis is, To promote or to limit Livable Housing Design Guidelines within Development Control Plans is the question for governments and built environmental professionals. It is available for download in Word, or download as a PDF.

There is also a spreadsheet of all the councils showing those with and without DCPs requiring dwellings to LHDG.

Editor’s comment: Note that the LHA website is administered by Master Builders Australia. Training for Livable Housing Assessors is provided by Access Institute Australia. The LHA board consists of housing industry representatives who are not made public on the LHA website, but are listed with ASIC.

Update on accessible housing standard

The 2022 edition of the National Construction Code (NCC) will include updated standards for all new housing. This standard is similar to the Livable Housing Silver Level that many local governments require for a percentage of apartments. Although the standard will be in the 2022 NCC, states and territories are responsible for ensuring implementation. This means it is not a done deal for all Australians – yet. There are still wrinkles to iron out.

Interior of a small apartment showing a dining table and a couch. Good light is coming in the windows. Accessible housing standard.

Small apartments are easier to make accessible because there are no corridors and hallways.

The preview of the 2022 edition of the NCC had an exemption for dwellings less than 55 square metres. It was originally thought that it would be difficult to apply the new housing standard to small dwellings such as studios. Once it was realised it was easier because there are no corridors or hallways, these dwellings are now included in the NCC.

Smaller dwellings are often required by people on low incomes who also have a disability or long term health condition. So it was really important to include small apartments in the standard. Of course there will still be some exemptions such as really steep sites. However, these are rarely the sites chosen by mass market developers and builders. Individual bespoke homes on cliff faces are not the target of the new standard.

New advisory committee

A new advisory committee to support implementation of the new standard has been set up by the Australian Building Codes Board. The committee will bring together representatives of user groups, advocates, design professionals, regulators and the construction industry. They will work through any emerging technical issues and help shape the information to help industry apply the standard. Their first meeting was in September.

A woman with long blonde hair is reaching across the meeting table to point to a piece of paper. Three other people look on.

Bringing a small group together, representing all the most interested groups, will help us develop workable consensus positions on any questions that arise.

Gary Rake, CEO Australian Building Codes Board.

For more, see the media release, Livable Housing Provisions in the National Construction Code 2022. This is a big reform. It offers a new level of inclusion in housing and will make Australian homes more suitable for all stages of life. However, there will still be a need for specialist housing for people with high level needs.

As of September 2022…

Victoria, Queensland, ACT and NT will adopt the silver standard in the NCC from May 2023 with a transition period until 1 October 2023. Tasmania will take another year with a transition period until October 2024. NSW and WA have not committed to the standard, but SA has agreed in principle and is now working on an implementation timeline.

The long road to Livable Housing

And the journey isn’t over yet. While the Livable Housing Standard is now in the national code, it is up to each state and territory to implement it. Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, ACT and Northern Territory have agreed to implementation. South Australia has come late to the party but is now working on an implementation strategy.

Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) has been leading the charge for the reforms for twenty years. They believe that Western Australia could also sign up to implement the standard eventually. However, NSW has flatly refused to entertain the idea.

The livable housing story of citizen advocacy is documented in a conference paper.

Given that the industry likes to have consistency across the board, this could pose additional difficulties. For more on the history of Australia’s quest for accessible housing see these posts:

New South Wales said ‘no’

New era in home design is good for business

Going for Gold but Silver will do for now

There are more posts in the Housing Design Policy section of this website.

Universal design in housing: is cost the real issue?

A spacious kitchen with white cabinetry. Is cost the real issue?
Image by Taylor’d Distinction

After twenty years of citizen advocacy for access features in new housing, the Australian Building Codes Board took action two years ago. They commissioned a cost benefit analysis which informed the Building Ministers’ decision to say yes, let’s do it. However, the housing industry still refuses to agree with the Building Ministers and continues to lobby for no changes. They’ve had a partial effect with their mantra “it will cost too much”. But is cost the real issue? And are those costs real?

An article in The Fifth Estate discusses the way various facts and figures go unquestioned. Figures plucked from the air appear to carry more weight in NSW, SA and WA than actual evidence presented to the Building Ministers Meeting. Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, ACT, and NT are ready to roll with the new features. That will leave mass market developers with different rules in different states. 

The title of the article is, States disagree on access features for new housing

The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD), which has led the advocacy work, has a one page simple version of why cost is not the real issue.  We also know that there will be no new products needed and no new techniques needed. Some builders and trades are using the techniques in retirement villages and in adaptable apartments. So what is the real issue? 

The Guardian also has a good article with a similar message. 

Queensland Government likes accessible housing

Facade of a large two storey home commonly called a McMansion. Queensland Government likes accessible housing.The Queensland Government is wasting no time in adopting access features for all new homes. The Government is preparing industry for the changes to the National Construction Code agreed by state building ministers in April. The Victorian Government is doing the same. Only New South Wales, and Western Australia are bucking the trend.

New South Wales believes it is already doing a good job. So they are refusing to adopt the changes to the building code. However they are only able to claim 125 dwellings to Silver level in the last year. Social housing is only 5% of the total housing market, so that is a drop in the bucket. Old stock is still inaccessible. The claims were reiterated by Minister Anderson in a NSW Senate estimates committee meeting (page 20 of Hansard).

The Queensland Government is keen to support industry and local government to transition to the new requirements. “This will make a real difference to the large number of people who struggle to find accessible housing”. 

The Victorian Government’s media release encourages all jurisdictions to adopt the changes. If all states and territories adopt the standard we should have 50% of housing stock with access features. The Minister for Planning said that it is time a regulatory standard for all housing in Australia. That’s because the voluntary solution hasn’t worked. 

The Master Builders Association in Victoria is still complaining about the changes. They have been the major barrier to implementation in the last eleven years. Their claim that a voluntary standard is best has not resulted in any mainstream accessible homes.

There are more posts on the 20 years of campaigning by advocates in the Housing Design Policy section of this website. 

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

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.

 

Universal design and existing homes

Modifications are different to renovations and they are not usually chosen willingly. Modifications are often work-arounds – a ramp here, a grabrail there and a rubber wedge for good luck. These tacked-on fittings fail to add value to a home and that’s why they are removed after they are needed. So we need universal design in existing homes when thinking about modifications.

Home Mods App logo with stylised spanner looking like a person with their arms in the air.DIY (Do It Yourself) is a popular activity for home-owners especially with places like Bunnings that have everything you could possibly need.  But what renovations should people think about for their later years? UNSW has devised a free App to answer that question.

Builders and building supply businesses should also find this app very useful. The App shows how to select products and how to install them in an easy step-by-step way that allows homeowners to choose the cheapest options that suit them best. 

Home Mods – costs and gains

A man in a bright yellow T shirt is painting and archway in a wall inside a home. The wall is grey and there are tools on the floor. Accessible housing, costs and gains.The need for all new homes to have basic universal design features will continue to increase as the population ages. Evaluating the costs and gains of modifying homes is the subject of an article from Europe, Improved Housing Accessibility for Older People in Sweden and Germany: Short Term Cost and Long -Term Gains.

The authors claim that even if the costs are large, they are one time costs. Whereas costs for home services will continue. This article by Slaug, Chiatti, Oswald, Kaspar and Schmidt was originally downloaded from ResearchGate.

The personal value of home modifications is measured in quality of life and health outcomes. Research by Phillippa Carnemolla found that home modifications reduced care hours substantially. 

Costs? or Savings?

A man kneels on the floor, he is laying floor tiles.Lesley Curtis and Jennifer Beecham claim that the expertise of occupational therapists can help save money in health budgets as well as improve the lives of people needing assistance at home. Their article is about home modifications and identifying the hidden savings in providing home adaptations. They argue that significant savings can be made if you tally all aspects into the calculations. The article is available from Sage Publications. You will need institutional access for a free read. The title is, “A survey of local authorities and Home Improvement Agencies: Identifying the hidden costs of providing a home adaptations service”. Or try ResearchGate and ask for a copy. 

 

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