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 Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD), which has lead 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.
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, Western Australia, and South Australia are bucking the trend.
New South Wales believes it is already doing a good job. So they are refusing to adopt the changesto 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 governmentto 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.
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.
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 Appto 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.
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?
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.
A new OECD working paper says there is a housing crisis on the horizon for people with disability and older people. Most jurisdictions in Australia are signing up to some basic universal design features in all new homes. But will it be enough? In the UK, their home access regulations are being reviewed because they don’t go far enough. So partial access solutions are no solution, but for policy-makers it looks like they are doing something.
The OECD working paper says there is talk about housing for people with disability, but no real action. The shortage of suitable accessible housing is still lacking. And it will get worse. By 2050 more than one quarter of the population will be over 65 years – it’s 18% now. Major modifications will be needed if people are to age in place.
Social housing is a help provided it is accessible, but it is not the best option for everyone or every family. Grants and loans for home modifications can help too. People with complex needs might need specialised accommodation. Briefly, the working paper suggests the following policy actions:
Finding out what people with disability need from their housing and what supports are available. An evidence base is important.
Developing tools to match available stock with people needing it.
Strengthening access standards for new residential construction.
Providing financial incentives such as loans and income-tested grants for upgrading existing stock.
Ensuring people with disability benefit from increased accessible, affordable and social housing.
This paper discusses housing challenges facing people with disabilities in OECD and EU countries, and policy supports to make housing more affordable, accessible and adapted to their needs. It focuses on the adult population with disabilities living outside institutions, drawing on data from the European Union Survey of Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), household surveys, national population census and disability surveys, and country responses to the 2021 OECD Questionnaire on Affordable and Social Housing. The paper summarises housing outcomes; discusses policy supports to ensure that people with disabilities can be safely, affordably and independently housed; and outlines actions for policy makers.
A good reference document for people working in the housing policyspace.
The building ministers from each state and territory are a group of politicians who decide what goes into the National Construction Code. Their decisions are by majority rule. In April this year it was decided to adopt Silver level features in all new housing. However, there was one major dissenter – New South Wales said ‘no’. The Silver level refers to that in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines.
Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, ACT and Northern Territory will be adopting the features in their jurisdiction. Western Australia says it needs a bit more time. That leaves South Australia and NSW. The features will be in the new edition of the NCC due out September 2022. However, it is up to each state to enforce it.
After many letters of appeal to the NSW building minister, Kevin Anderson, advocates received a definitive no – NSW will not be adopting the features. It is not known whether this was a NSW Cabinet decision or just his own. Regardless, this decision is perplexing.
Why is NSW saying ‘no’?
One thing the construction industry wants and needs is consistency across jurisdictions. The NSW decision goes against this. Many of the larger developers are already incorporatingsome of the silver features, and even some gold, in their newer designs. The decision by NSW does not support this. The NSW Housing Strategy 2041 specifically supports universal design in housing. The NSW decision contradicts this. It makes no sense. So what is, or who is, the stumbling block?
In the response to advocates, Kevin Anderson’s office advised, in a nutshell, that they are already doing enough. However, when questioned for evidenceof this, it was not forthcoming. Without such evidence NSW cannot claim they are “already doing it”.
ANUHD did some research on the NSW development and planning policies. It’s an attachment to the letters referenced previously. They found that even if developers followed through with 20% of silver level in apartments, that is still a very small number in the overall scheme of things. It would be less than 10% of total new apartments. Regardless, there is no-one checking to see if the apartments actually got built to Silver level.
The other issue is that NSW still thinks that disability and ageing is a niche issue – a niche market. The statistics and evidence to the contrary is being ignored. Also ignored is that universal design and accessibility is for everyone – we will all need it sometime in our lives. And our family members too. Most people want to age at home and this is how to do it – in a home fit for purpose.
The Building Better Homes Campaign continues and they are encouraging everyone to write to their local member to lobby Kevin Anderson and other ministers with responsibility for planning and housing. We all need accessible housing.
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.
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-Smithat 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:
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.
The costs of poor design are externalised onto households, other sectors or hidden unmet need.
Comes out of an advocacy approach that pitches the needs of one group against another and treats universal design as special design etc.
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.
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 presentationprovides 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 policysection.
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 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.
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”.
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
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.
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 Codeto 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 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.
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 evidenceshowed 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 do not support the changes. That means they will not adopt them in their state based legislation – at least, not right away. Queenslandand Victoriaare keen to get going with the new legislation.
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. It also means more confusion for everyone.
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. This will be a better match for the old adaptable housing standard AS4299 for those who want to go beyond minimums.
The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) led the campaign for change for almost 20 years. ANUHDis 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.
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.