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. 

 

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.

 

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. Builders are doing it! But it is still a hit and miss affair – the features are not consistently applied. 

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. 

Local Government and SDA

Front cover of Whittlesea housing diversity strategy.Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) is not just something the NDIS deals with. When it comes to planning and building, local government has to get involved. SDA will not solve all the housing problems for people with disability within a council area. So, the City of Whittlesea is pro-actively tackling this issue. Their approach is outlined in a paper for the upcoming Universal Design Conference.  

As Linda Martin-Chew points out in her paper, many people with disability are not eligible for SDA housing. So Council needed to understand the risks and benefits for residents with disability and the SDA market. As Whittlesea has a strong focus on access and inclusion they decided to take action. 

Linda’s paper, From niche to mainstream: local government and the specialist disability housing sector outlines how Council tackled the issues. This should make for an interesting and informative presentation at the Conference. 

Why do we need UD features in housing?

House half built showing timber frameworkTo answer the question: because it will benefit all Australians. UD features are easy to implement, and largely cost neutral, but the housing industry is fighting for the status quo. The two Royal Commissions related to aged care and disability care found that inaccessible housing prevented people from remaining at home and living independently. But there are a lot of myths and misconceptions in this space. 

The Building Better Homes campaign is about the call to mandate universally designed features in all new homes. It’s also about creating resilient, flexible and sustainable housing. These features will increase general amenity and allow people to age in place. For people with a disability, it will allow them to live independently. 

A line of complex manufacturing machinery used to show the complex process and number of stakeholders involved in mass market housing.It has to be regulated across the housing building system so that the process stays efficient. There are too many stakeholders to consider in one-off exceptions. 

Of course, most people resist change. This resistance is sometimes founded on misinformation and myths that get perpetuated. Evidence often gets lost in discussion or confused with opinions and anecdotes.

Jane Bringolf addresses some of the common myths and misunderstandings in her article, Why do we need universal design features in all new housing?  Myths and comments include:

      • only a few people need it
      • I’ll worry about it when the time comes
      • it costs too much
      • it will look like a hospital

UD in home design: a turning point

A front door with level, no step entry.Australia is at a turning point for introducing universal design (UD) features into all new housing. For almost twenty years advocacy groups have campaigned for homes to be accessible for everyone. That means current and future occupants as well as visitors. And you can add furniture deliveries and paramedics. Human rights, good economic sense and principles of inclusion are all wrapped up in well reasoned arguments. But will it be enough to persuade politicians to make the necessary changes to the National Construction Code? 

An article in Designs 4 Living magazine gives a quick overview of why we are at a turning point. After years of campaigning the issue is finally on the political agenda. The housing industry is campaigning for the status quo to remain. So, in spite of hard economic evidence to support basic universal design features, it will be a political decision.  

The article by Jane Bringolf is titled, UD in home design: A turning point for Australia. It’s on page 11 of the online publication.

There’s more background in a conference paper that unravels the complexities of the house building system in Australia and why regulation is the only option. The title is Barriers to Universal Design and What to do About Them. Also by Jane Bringolf.

CUDA made a submission supporting the inclusion of universal design features in all new housing.

Universal Design in Housing: A 20 year campaign

A graphic in shades of green showing various types of dwellingsAdvocates for universal design features in all new homes are nervous. State and territory building ministers will be making a decision on whether to make access features mandatory. Industry is advocating for no change to the building code. Some states claim they are already addressing the problem of accessible housing through piecemeal planning policies. Others think it’s something the NDIS is doing. Regardless, we need all new homes fit for purpose.

The evidence shows is not difficult to achieve – it’s very doable.  But evidence has largely been ignored about the need, the cost effectiveness, and the technical issues for more than ten years.  Will the evidence count, or will it be a political decision?

What will sway the politicians when they meet and vote on this in March? Will it be the evidence? Will it be the lobbying from industry? Will it be the lobbying from advocacy groups? Or will it be the voice of the people from a public petition?

Petitions are about people power. This is a one-time opportunity to sign the petition to give everyone a better chance of staying at home regardless of age or ability.

Every new home built today has a 60 percent chance of having an occupant with a disability.  Moreover, more than 30% of households currently have a person with disability – and this affects all members of the household. And it’s not just about people who use wheelchairs – it’s a mainstream issue.

You can find several research papers and articles on housing design policy on this website. The history of twenty years of advocacy and links to our international obligations are useful background. Our free online course on housing policy and universal design is also worth a look. 

Universal Design in Housing: Australia’s obligations

A graphic of four housing types: small house, town house, apartment block and multi-unit dwelling.Signing up to a United Nations (UN) convention isn’t just a feel-good affair. It actually brings obligations. That means reporting on a regular basis to the relevant UN committee. In Australia, the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department is responsible for government reports on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But it isn’t all up to the government: people with disability must be involved. Their reports are known as “Civil Society Shadow Reports”. This is where the story gets interesting when it comes to universal design in housing.

Margaret Ward’s paper, Universal design in housing: Reporting on  Australia’s obligations to the UNCRPD, traces the reporting history specifically relating to housing. She writes that the Commonwealth Government has avoided action by doing nothing. Further, it has not adequately reported on this failure to act. But the story does not end here. 

This peer reviewed paper was written for the UD2020 Conference that was to be held May 2020, which is now to be held May 2021. It is published on the Griffith University publications website where you can find other papers for the conference. 

Abridged abstract: The UNCRPD obliges Australia to embrace the concept of universal design as a guide for its activities. The UNCRPD triggered significant changes in the last decade directed by the 2010-2020 National Disability Strategy. This paper reviews Australia’s national and international reports on these obligations over the last decade. Both the Australian government and the housing industry largely disregarded the National Dialogue agreement, and misrepresented the progress made in achieving accessibility within the housing stock. The question remains whether a net benefit to society will be found to be of greater priority than the self-interests of the private housing sector and the political vagaries of government. Again, it will take the voice of people with lived experience and those who represent them to make the argument.

The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia

A graphic showing facades of different styles of free standing homes in lots of colours. They look like toy houses.Margaret Ward and Jill Franz inspected eleven new dwellings in the Brisbane area. They found that none of the dwellings were visitable:

“In summary, when providing the eight features for visitability, the interviewees identified two themes for non-compliance (“lack of thought” and “otherness”) and three themes for compliance (“fashion”, “requirement’ and “good practice”). Although all dwellings provided some features, no dwelling provided a coherent path of travel necessary to make a dwelling visitable. Some examples of this incoherence were: a step-free driveway which led to a step at the door; a wide front door which led to a narrow corridor; and a narrow internal doorway which did not allow entry of a wheel-chair to a spacious bathroom. The provision of these access features separately and severally did not provide visitability as an outcome in any of the dwellings.”

The title of the article is, The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia: Down to the Detail

Margaret Ward also delivered the Robert Jones Memorial Lecture in 2014 on this topic.