Is a smart home a real home?

The sense of home is very personal, and as we age it is likely to become more personal as we spend more time at home. Younger people who build brand new homes are increasingly embracing smart technology. For older people, smart technology, especially that which collects data, disrupts the sense of home. So, from the lived experience perspective of older people, is a smart home a real home?

Older people want to stay in their own home. It is also the best place for people to manage the consequences of ageing such as dementia and physical conditions.

A living room with two couches and bookcase overlaid with a graphic of a smartphone with radiating lines indicating ambient monitoring of a smart home,

To age successfully and safely at home often means embracing a range of assistive technologies. They can be as simple as a raised toilet seat and using colour contrasts for interior design. But accepting these technologies is another thing. Grab bars are shunned because of the link with being disabled.

Assistive technologies impact on one’s sense of self – one’s identity. Assistive devices used outside the home feel particularly stigmatising and in too many cases these devices are abandoned. So can the same be said of digital assistive technology especially if it is monitoring your every move?

Tech and older people

Smart home technology in the age-related literature is more than a remote control for the window blinds. It is technology that collects monitoring data through sensors and wearables. The aim is to keep the person safe and improve their wellbeing. But who wants to have their life documented in a database?

A review of older people and the use of smart home technology looked at the issue of acceptance and use. The researchers wanted to find a way to make these technologies more acceptable to older people. They found that issues are not related to accessibility or usefulness but to an invasion of privacy and lack of human interaction.

Human-centred design solutions that take account of a person’s sense of familiarity and privacy at home could help overcome resistance. The researchers provide more detail about their research and the ethics of home monitoring devices.

A diagram of a two storey house with indications of the different types of smart technology that can be used and operated with a mobile phone.

The title of the article is, The smart home, a true home? How new technologies disrupt the experience of home for older persons.

From the abstract

Smart home technologies can support older persons to age in place, but adoption remains low in this age group. One reason is that they are not accustomed to having a home that is technologically enhanced. In this article, we focus on the older persons’ lived experience of “home” and show how this technology potentially disrupts it.

Humans rely on their physical body and they make decisions based on their perceptions of their physical body without the intervention of technologies. Smart home technologies potentially make the home seem unfamiliar and exposed.

By paying attention to the way smart home technology can disrupt the experience of home, the question of ethical use is brought into the frame. The design of these technologies has an important role to play in acceptance by older people.

Eco-inclusive house

If you live in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, air pollution and staying warm in winter are major considerations for home design. The other major consideration is how to make homes accessible using inclusive design principles. Oidov Vaanchig has done just that and written a short article explaining his eco-inclusive house.

Oidov writes detail about the cost of construction and the carbon footprint. The house relies on solar with minimal electrical consumption. Air quality is controlled with a filtration system because Ulaanbaatar has high levels of air pollution. Replacing the traditional ger and wooden housing stock with homes like this would reduce air pollution by 85%.

Oidov Vaanchig has done a great job in promoting his experimental house to the point where he received a visit from the United States Ambassador to Mongolia.

Oidov Vaanchig stands on the veranda of his eco-inclusive house. The house is of timber and he stands using two crutches.

Social exclusion

The ger areas surrounding Ulaanbaatar present many challenges for inclusion and accessibility. This house serves as a model for inclusive design as well. As Oidov says, implementing inclusive design principles can break the cycle of disability and poverty.

Oidov concludes his article by saying that the house “stands as a beacon of hope” in addressing air pollution and social exclusion. A lesson to all house builders in the developed world.

The title of the article by Oidov Vaanchig is, UB’s Eco-Inclusive House: A sustainable solution for air pollution and social exclusion.

While the design might not meet Western standards for accessibility, it is a groundbreaking attempt at a fully inclusive and passive house in extreme conditions.

The GDI Hub featured the house as a case study and has more detail. The Asia Development Bank supported the study.

Oidov Vaanchig takes a tour through his eco-inclusive house

Vulnerable groups, or vulnerabilising housing?

The term “vulnerable” was used repeatedly during the COVID pandemic to label people with certain health conditions, and anyone over the age of 70 years. Transport professionals also talk about vulnerable pedestrians as if other pedestrians are “normal” pedestrians. So, is there such a thing as vulnerable groups, or are people subject to vulnerabilising conditions? In the context of housing, Ilan Wiesel and Emma Power discuss the question of vulnerable groups or vulnerabilising housing.

Much has changed in housing design and technology yet homes remain inaccessible. The authors discuss the role of the housing industry and their role in maintaining the status quo on inaccessibility.

A new home showing the entry with six steps to the front door. Vulnerable groups or vulnerabilising housing?

Wiesel and Power discuss inaccessible housing as a ‘vulnerabilising assemblage’. There is a growing body of literature that lists the direct harms of inaccessible housing. However, their study considers both direct harm and future harms and documents these. The paper begins with an academic focus, but many readers will find the case study more interesting.

The paper discusses the conceptual shift from vulnerable to vulnerabilising, and then conceptualises the groupings of vulnerabilising things and processes. The authors side-step housing as a market or a system and think about it as a group of different ideologies and subjectivities. The assembly of this collection of ideas, actors and markets is not fixed but changing.

Exposure to harm

The case study explores the nature and experience using an online questionnaire and in-depth interviews. “Exposure to harm” is used to identify participants’ concerns about how they are exposed to possible harm in their home. The risk of injury or further injury emerged strongly. It creates significant emotional stress and this is harmful as well.

A man with spinal cord injury broke his leg several times transferring from his wheelchair in the bathroom. Many years later, a major bathroom modification prevented his falls. This is an example of home design vulnerabilising his body. (Image courtesy Caroma)

Modified bathroom showing level entry and a toilet with armrests fitted. Vulnerable or vulnerabilising?

The fear of homelessness and risk of house fires and the ongoing stress and worry about these risks also affected mental health. And then the worry of forced institutionalisation.

There is much to unpack in the case study and a long list of the many harms inaccessible housing brings to occupants. And not only current occupants but to those who will occupy the home in the future. Disabling conditions are a fact of life and can happen to anyone at any time.

From the abstract

The concept of ‘vulnerabilising’ marks a shift in the focus of analysis and intervention away from individuals and groups labelled vulnerable, towards the processes that generate and reproduce vulnerability.

To that end, we develop a framework that conceptualises how ‘vulnerabilising assemblages’ operate. We mobilise assemblage thinking and engage with theoretical debates on the nature of vulnerability as a universal, albeit unequal, human condition.

Addressing inaccessible housing as a case study, we identify three mechanisms through which people with physical disabilities become vulnerable:

  • through exposure to harm;
  • through erosion of defenses against harm; and by
  • legitimising or motivating harm.

We call on researchers, policymakers and grassroot activists to shift their attention from vulnerable bodies to vulnerabilising assemblages.

The title of the article is, Primed for harm: Inaccessible housing as a vulnerabilising assemblage.

Parkinson’s home design study

We know that as people grow older, the desire to stay in their current home increases. Different health conditions begin to emerge as we get older, and home design becomes an important factor in managing these conditions. Researchers from Italy chose to explore Parkinson’s disease in relation to home design using inclusive design methods.

Parkinson’s disease is one of the most frequently occurring neurological conditions along with dementia. Parkinson’s disease affects voluntary movements which make daily tasks more difficult.

An older woman in a red jacket uses a cane to walk with a younger woman along a pathway.

Similarly to other studies, the researchers found the size of the bathroom the main area of difficulty. This is for manoeuvring in a wheelchair or shower chair and placement of a shower seat.

People with reduced mobility find stairs difficult. But the visual impact of stairs can reduce “freezing” in people with Parkinson’s disease. However, overall, participants in the study preferred a single level dwelling. Being able to work in the kitchen from a seated position was the third most important factor. The design of kitchen appliances also emerged as a design factor along with furniture design.

The article has some explanatory drawings and pictures depicting their design solutions. Many of these solutions are beneficial for other health conditions and disabilities. Circulation space within the home is the main criteria for all of them.

Assistive devices

Participants reported frustration with products immediately identifiable as “products for the disabled”. The authors note that although these products are useful, they are stigmatising. Consequently they are often rejected by those who could really benefit from them. Their appearance makes them different from “normal products”.

As with the universal design approach and co-design methods, places and products for people with disability are good for everyone.

“…designers often forget the meaning and full force of the words human-centred design as a fundamental affirmation of human dignity…”

Designers have “the responsibility to continuously search for what can be done to uphold and enhance the dignity of human beings as they lead their lives…”

A blank sheet of paper with an eraser, two pencils and a light globe.

The title of the article is, Inclusive Environments: Utopia or Reality? How to
Create Inclusive Solutions Starting From People’s Needs

A note on terminology

Note that the authors make reference to inclusive design being different from universal design and design-for-all. Their distinction is based on the notion of universal design being only for people with disability. This is often the case in the United States, but is not the case in Australia. The term universal design is embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, this does not mean it is exclusive to people with disability.

Consequently, the terms inclusive design and universal design mean the same thing. Human-centred design also has the same goals, but has emerged from the ergonomics literature.

From the abstract

Inclusive design is an approach that puts users at the centre of the design process. This means working with people rather than working for them. This article focuses on the application of inclusive design and human-centred design approaches specifically aimed at Parkinson’s disease.

The article describes a case study of the applied methodology for solving challenges posed by Parkinson’s disease. The case study shows how an inclusive design mindset favours a holistic and creative approach, capable of bringing together different user groups throughout the various stages of the design process.

Articles on home modifications

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. Articles on home modifications.The National Construction Code now includes a step free entry and other minor changes for accessibility. For many people it will minimise the need for home modifications. It will be easier and cost effective when modifications are needed. Many research articles put the case for accessibility in the 20 years leading up to the Livable Housing Design Standard. These articles remain relevant for existing homes and in jurisdictions yet to mandate access features in new homes. Listed below are a mix of magazine and research articles.

Ageing in Place: Are we there yet? (2019) Mary Ann Jackson

Your Home: Adaptable Housing Guide (2022) published by the Australian Government

The potential of a home modification strategy – a universal design approach to existing housing (2014) by Phillippa Carnemolla.

The role of home maintenance and modification services in achieving health, community care and housing outcomes in later life (2008) AHURI Report by Andrew Jones et al. 

Better supporting older Australians to age in place (2021) AHURI Brief. 

Accessible housing – what’s it worth? (2020) by Dušan Katunský.

Accessible housing: costs and gains (2017) 

Ageing better at home (2018) Centre for Ageing Better 

Adaptable housing for people with disability in Australia: A scoping study (2021) Australian Human Rights Commission. It looks beyond the code change for new housing to the issues in existing housing.

Nordic housing and ageing in place

How long can older people stay put in their homes? The answer rests on two things: home design and easy access to support services. Retaining a sense of connection to community is another important element which is why the quest to stay put is so strong. And of course, staying put also reduces the stress on the welfare budget. But are there alternative models of housing that can support older people in their later years? Three Nordic housing researchers found some.

A town nestling on the edge of a fjord with houses reaching up the hill. Nordic housing.

Older people aren’t all the same. One thing they do share in common – they want to maintain their autonomy and preferences.

Nordic countries have a reputation for providing strong social and welfare supports for their citizens. But population ageing is stretching the limits of these policies. The researchers reviewed the current situation in Nordic countries to identify issues and potential solutions. Using case studies they show how older people can live independently and inter-dependently.

The application of universal design across Nordic housing is enabling people to stay home longer. However, the case studies showed that loneliness is a growing challenge. Consequently, defining an age-friendly environment is much more than a step-free entry.

The challenge is to find solutions that promote activity, participation and a feeling of safety. Consequently, we need a joined up approach to housing and neighbourhood design. That is, apply universal design to everything. Then it will be good for everyone.

The way housing and urban environments are designed influences opportunities for informal social contact. Good examples are usually in designated specific older age communities. So the knowledge is there, it’s just assumed it’s only needed for older people.

Older people aren’t all the same

Too often it’s assumed that older people all need the same things. They don’t – they are as diverse as the general population. They have different lifestyles and want different housing choices. The one thing they share in common is wanting to maintain autonomy and preferences, especially as they become more frail.

The title of the article is Nordic approaches to housing and ageing – Current concepts and future needs. The article is relatively easy to read with case studies that show a variety of solutions, some of which are communal. The solutions enable older people to continue being part of their neighbourhood in different ways.

From the abstract

The Nordic countries have a reputation for having both universal welfare systems and high housing standards. However, the demographic development and ageing in place policies bring challenges to the present housing and care services for the older population. During the last decades, there has been a significant decrease in the coverage of care for older people. This is related to the increase of older people as well as challenges related to the availability of the workforce and raising care costs.

The objective of the comparative descriptive analyses is to point out the challenges and future possibilities for housing. This is illustrated by some new cases all of them showing solutions that enable older people to continue being a part of city life in their own neighbourhoods. They also show a variety of solutions that at the same time gives possibilities to live independently and live interdependent in different kind of co-housing and neighbourhoods.

A liveability framework for housing

A group of researchers in Queensland have developed a liveability framework for social and affordable housing. They interviewed key stakeholders from industry and government who make decisions about housing and housing policy. But will it work? With significant industry resistance to regulation changes, it will take more than an academic exercise to improve matters.

Building scaffolding representing a framework for a building.

Researchers tested the elements of the draft framework by interviewing stakeholders. They claim the framework has the potential to drive the adoption of better outcomes for whole of life solutions.

The five elements of the draft framework are:

  • Liveability – place based and community focused
  • Accessibility – person centres and community focused
  • Social, environmental and economic value – building the value equation
  • Regulatory and policy environment
  • Improving adoption

The case study used for testing the framework was based on an existing medium density development with access to transport and services. Twelve representatives from community housing, state government, advocates and industry associations were participants in the study.

The title of the paper is, Creating Liveable and Accessible Social and Affordable Higher Density Housing: the case of Green Square, Brisbane.

The social and affordable housing sector is a very small percentage of housing in Australia. The key issue is to gain adoption in stand-alone homes in master-planned sites which is 70% of all housing.

Upcoming changes to the NCC

The accessibility aspect of housing should be solved with the 2022 edition of the National Construction Code. This edition includes the key elements of the Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. The housing industry continues to resist the adoption of these changes.

Editor’s comment: The framework is specific to social and affordable higher density housing, but offers nothing new to the this field of work. Similar frameworks attempt the same thing – trying to find a way to encourage implementation. Frameworks are clearly not the answer. This is a policy issue and not a design issue. Good designers are able to design out the problems, including cost, or at least design around them.

From the abstract

Ensuring liveability and accessibility in medium to high density urban housing and precincts is critical to maximise investment and minimise future risks to our community. This research investigates and develops our understanding of liveable and accessible social and affordable housing, with a focus on medium- and high-density urban precincts. The paper presents the findings of a case study undertaken in the Green Square Close precinct in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.

Findings are derived from a literature review and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders from the housing industry and government. The results inform a liveability framework for social and affordable medium to high density housing utilising five key elements.

These elements include; 1) Liveability – place-based and community focused, 2) Accessibility – person centred and community focused, 3) Value equation – cost benefit, 4) Regulatory and policy environment and 5) Adoption and overcoming barriers.

The liveability framework also establishes sub-elements across these five elements to improve understanding of whole of life needs. The development of a liveability framework for social and affordable medium and high-density housing presents opportunities for decision making in the co-creation of, and investment in this critically needed housing.

Inclusive energy efficient home renovations

A case study from the Netherlands describes an inclusive process for designing energy-efficient home renovations. A neighbourhood of 280 apartments is the subject of the study. With a mix of homeowners, renters and social housing tenants, it was essential to involve residents in the renovation process.

Several tall apartment buildings situated next to a canal.  Energy efficient home renovations.

Involving residents in major renovations is essential for bringing together the technical and social aspects of design.

The principles of civic and energy justice underpinned the approach to the project. Given that the resulting designs will largely be the same for every home, they need to be inclusive and considerate of ongoing energy costs for everyone. That means an inclusive design process is required.

Participatory action research

Expert stakeholders and six residents were interviewed and 50 residents were observed and interviewed during a tour of the demonstration apartment. Mutual learning was a key part of the iterative process involving prototypes.

Attention was paid to diversity, accessibility of research materials and interview materials were both verbal and visual. Technical design features were part of the results, but values emerged from the process. These values were health, sustainability, property value, cost of living and comfort.

The paper goes into more detail on the findings and the process. As part of the process, researchers developed a renovation guide to help residents understand what the proposed changes mean for them. They acknowledged time constraints which meant residents did not have time to experience the apartment. Rather, they only had time to view it.


Recommendations for improving the process include:

  • Location. Any sessions should be in the neighbourhood and in an accessible venue.
  • Time. Different meeting and interview times will suit different people.
  • Invitations. The guide acts as an invitation but might not work for everyone.
  • Language. Dutch is a second language for some people so a session in English might be necessary.
  • Other options. Apart from meetings, phone and email should be available. Not everyone feels comfortable in a group.

The lessons from the paper could be applied in housing situations such as social housing and co-housing. It also adds to the literature on inclusive design and co-design, and participatory action research.

The title of the article is, Values arising from participatory inclusive design in a complex process. There are diagrams to illustrate the complexity of designing an entire home and it’s technical systems, indoor climate, the lives and values of residents, and connection to systems and services.

From the abstract

This paper addresses inclusive design in a situation of complexity and how to improve it. The focus is on the inclusive design of a complex process and its tools, which is increasingly an issue in systemic design challenges. The current situation of climate change means we need to work on sustainability and inclusion at the same time.

The paper presents a case study of an energetic renovation process and the stakeholders’ activities and views in it. In a research-through-design process, the paper traces the possibilities to intervene in the process with communication tools to increase inclusivity of both process and outcomes.

Energy efficiency and universal design

Are energy efficiency and universal design incompatible? Potentially. Energy efficiency has an engineering approach and universal design has a sociological approach. This is what makes them incompatible according to researchers in Belgium. Energy efficiency is a measurable product whereas universal design is a process. So how can they both be addressed in home renovations?  This was the topic of a conference paper in 2016.

Thinking has moved on and we now talk about sustainability from both perspectives and the importance of having both. However, this paper brings the concepts into the same conversation and highlights areas of potential conflict. The paper has some interesting and explanatory graphs and comparisons that are worth a look especially for academics and theorists. 

Roof of a house covered in solar panels

The title of the paper is, Energy Efficiency and Universal Design in Home Renovations – A Comparative Review

Housing options in later age

Long term care, nursing homes, and residential care are names for care in a facility dedicated to supporting older adults. But how many people desire this option? Usually it is a place of last resort because staying put is no longer an option. But can we do better than this?

Residential aged care, not to be confused with retirement villages, is usually a last resort rather than a choice. We all need better housing options in later life.

Front Cover of the report. Staying put in later age. Housing options in later age.

A report from Canada looks at the issues of long term care, ageing in place with a brief mention universal design. The 14 page document takes a Canadian perspective of international solutions and options which are all specialist solutions.

The first recommendation is to encourage alternatives to long term care. The alternative recommendation is to develop housing and care models that incorporate universal design features into new builds. The second recommendation focuses on support services.

The report discusses seven different types of housing, five of which are based on segregation by age. Here is a brief overview:

Current housing options

Independent Living /Active Lifestyle Accommodation is for adults requiring minimal assistance. They are either detached homes or suites within apartment buildings. These solutions are best when offered within the existing neighbourhood.

Assistive Living / Supportive Housing is designed to provide safe and accessible homes for people requiring personal care and housekeeping services.

Retirement Living homes are usually privately owned and suit older adults with higher incomes.

Co-housing consists of private dwellings with kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and shared common areas such as gardens and walkways. This model is not exclusively for older adults and offers connectedness as well as privacy.

Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) develop overtime due to older adults remaining in their own homes as they age. This model is aimed at helping older adults to live as independently as possible. The concept of NORCs originated in the US.

Villages are member-based, grassroots organizations developed and governed by older adults in the US. Villages provide free and discounted services and staff and volunteers coordinate activities. This model helps reduce the risk of social isolation. Faith based organisations or private companies own villages in Australia.

Intergenerational housing is the fastest growing housing arrangement in Canada. A diverse range of individuals of different ages live together and share life experiences and skills. Multigenerational housing encourages older adults to remain engaged in the community.

The title of the report is Housing & Care Models to Support Older Adults to Remain in Their Communities. The report concludes with additional resources and references.

In Australia…

More people will have the choice to stay in their current home as more dwellings are built to the Livable Housing Design Standard mandated in the National Construction Code. However, only Queensland, ACT and Victoria have adopted the Standard in their building codes as of May 2024. Other states aim to adopt later in 2024 or 2025. However, NSW and WA have made a policy decision not to adopt the Standard.

Including people with intellectual disability in co-design

Picture of a large family looking jubilant outside their housePeople with intellectual disability are often left out when it comes to design. Whether it’s built or digital environments, services or products, this group is often overlooked. However, with co-design methods, people with intellectual disability could and should be included. But, this is still a new idea and there is very little literature or case studies on working with this group.  The literature review found the following gaps in knowledge:
    • General lack of literature on co-designing with people with an intellectual disability
    • No specific literature encapsulating the co-design process, in the context of intellectual disability, and housing
    • No frameworks or benchmarks on co-design with people with disability
    • Lack of evaluation of the design outcomes of co-design process
    • Lack of research that can assist parents plan for their ageing children. 
Housing design for people with physical disabilities has evolved over time but is not easily adapted to suit people with intellectual disability. There is an obvious need to consider people with both intellectual and physical disability.  The title of the article is, Co-designing in Australia housing for people with intellectual disability: an integrative literature review“. You can download the web version or the PDF version

Intellectual disability and social inclusion

people walking down a wide pedestrian zone. Intellectual disability and social inclusion.Local government authorities are exactly that – local. They are the tier of government closest to the everyday lives of people. Local neighbourhoods are where people feel either socially included or not. People with intellectual disability are much more likely to feel socially excluded. A research project undertaken by the University of Technology (UTS) took a novel approach to the issue. To begin, they recruited researchers with intellectual disability to participate in all aspects of designing and carrying out the research. This was a key step for informing the research process. The purpose of the study was to understand the experiences of people with intellectual disability in their local community.  They found that people with intellectual disability have valuable information to share. However, their voices are unheard and consequently their needs not understood. The discussion starter was the question, “What would you do if you were boss of your local council?” The answers were that they want their council to:
      • Provide accessible information in a range of formats about what is happening in the community and how to participate.
      • Provide someone to speak to – or even better, face to face contact.
      • Employ people with intellectual disability.
      • Help them access better transport and find ways to make them feel safer and more welcome. 
      • Improve public toilets and offer quiet spaces at noisy, busy events. 

A framework for change

The researchers adopted the framework the WHO Age Friendly Cities program. which is pitched to community life at the local level. This is a good framework for councils to use with people with intellectual disability as well as older people.
WHO age friendly logo of 8 petals showing the 8 domains of life.
WHO 8 Domains Framework
Participants wanted to know what is available and how to get around the community. They also wanted respectful interactions with others in the community and said familiar faces and places were important. These findings have some important information for councils and their social policy. Grouping people with intellectual disability under the generic term “people with disability” risks leaving them out. Councils should adapt communication and engagement strategies to suit people with intellectual disability.  The title of the article is, Opportunities to support social inclusion for people with intellectual disability at a local level. Published in the Design for All India Newsletter. It is based on a published study, If I Was the Boss of My Local Government: Perspectives of People with Intellectual Disabilities on Improving Inclusion. The author is Dr Phillippa Carnemolla who is also a CUDA board member. This is a comprehensive article with recommendations for local government. 

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