Universal Design, Affordability and Cost in Housing

Head and shoulders pic of Kay Saville-Smith. Universal design and affordability in housing.
Kay Saville-Smith

At a roundtable meeting following the 2014 Universal Design Conference in Sydney, Kay Saville-Smith  shared her experience on universal design and affordability.  She was happy to share her five key points about universal design in housing: 

“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. Actually, the reasons why universal design is seen as costly can add cost. Five points are interesting: 

    1. Most products are not designed but driven off existing tools, processes and organisational  structures. To change these does require some investment (hump costs) but these are one off and should not be seen as an ongoing cost. Indeed, those changes can bring reduced costs in the long term through increased productivity etc.
    2. The costs of poor design are externalised onto households, other sectors or hidden unmet need.
    3. Comes out of an advocacy approach that pitches the needs of one group against another and treats universal design as special design etc.
    4. Win-win solutions need to be built with the industry participants that are hungry for share not dominant players who have incentives to retain the status quo.
    5. Universal design is different from design which is fashion based. The trick is to make universal design fashionable so no one would be seen dead without it.”

Her keynote presentation provides more information about why it is so hard to get traction with universal design in housing. The picture is of Kay Saville-Smith.

Universal design: designing for human needs

Graphic of Maslow's hierarchy of needs showing how all people are considered at the bottom two tiers, but only some at the top tiersThe Center for Health Design has published an article based on designing for human needs. It advocates for age-friendly workplaces, person-centred healthcare, ageing in place and active living.

Central to the argument in their report is the application of universal design. “When designing for aging, there are great opportunities at hand to design for ourselves – for every age – for all. An ageing population is not all about Baby Boomers – in 2046 the oldest Millennials will be turning 65.

The Maslow hierarchy of needs (as shown in the diagram) makes an appearance with the claim that designers think about the lower tiers for the young and old and reserve the upper tiers for young and middle aged adults. But why can’t environments support social system, fun, happiness, and inspiration at the same time as being safe?

Universal design is discussed as sustainable design, the triple bottom line, ageing in place, the workplace, and healthcare.  The report ends with “…universal design has the potential to bridge the gap between basic human rights and higher human needs – for everyone.” You can download the pdf, Universal Design: Designing for Human Needs – An issue brief on the impact of ageing.

You can visit the Health Design website for more topics and information.


Zoo signage everyone can understand

The sign says Please do not feed the animalsMichael D W Richards presents an interesting article on the need to standardize zoo signage so that everyone can understand, particularly DO NOT FEED signs. He concludes,

“To achieve this goal they should utilise a design which is reliant on both imagery and text to convey a message, with imagery at the forefront of the design. A human hand, an item of food and an image of an animal should be displayed. … When imagery and text is displayed on feeding restriction signs, all visitors benefit. This form of provision should not be seen as excessively catering for the needs of marginal groups. Rather it should be viewed as an approach that represents a heterogeneous society, increasing access to information and enjoyment for all, through engaging signage.”

The title of this article is Designing Accessible ‘Do Not Feed’ Signs for Zoological Gardens. It is part of a series about zoo accessibility.

Photos or Pictograms?

elephant-5What kind of signs inform and appeal to zoo visitors most? This was an answer Richards at wanted to know. Using qualitative and quantitative research methods he found the answer. It seems the photographic signs were most popular, but that is not the whole story.

The title of the article is, Directional Zoological Signage Image Preferences: An Inclusive Design Perspective


Accessible Design in Australia

Accessible Design in Australia 1999 front coverIn 1998 a group of passionate people came together with the aim of creating a centre for accessible design. They consulted widely and held two symposia, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. The findings from these symposia are documented in Accessible Design in Australia

For various reasons, the project ended at this point and no further action was taken. However, soon afterwards a small group, led by Dr Max Murray, started the Association of Consultants in Access Australia, (ACAA). This has become the professional body for access consultants in Australia. 

Centre for Universal Design Australia has picked up the threads of the original idea to follow through on the aim of having a central point or body for creating an inclusive Australia. 


Norway universally designed by 2025 – Update

Top half of the front cover of the Norway Universally Designed 2025. The graphic is various shades of blue with a woman operating an automatic teller machine.The Norwegian Government has taken the principles of universal design and applied them across all policies to create maximum inclusion. This makes everyone responsible for inclusion at every level – in the built environment, outdoor areas, transport, and ICT. Here is an update to “Norway Universally Designed by 2025”.

In 2008, the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, launched its first Action Plan 2009-2013. It sets the goal of Norway being universally designed by 2025.

In 2010, Norway amended its Planning and Building Act to include universal Picture of the front cover of the Norway Universally Designed Action Plan.design. The Delta Centre was given responsibility to coordinate the actions in the 2015-2019 plan in 2016. This plan is more comprehensive and covers ICT and communications to a more detailed level. This is in recognition of how we are becoming more reliant on digital applications.

Olav Rand Bringa provided extra insights at the 2018 UDHEIT conference in Dublin. The title of the paper is, From Visions to Practical Policy: The
Universal Design Journey in Norway. What Did We Learn? What Did We Gain? What Now?



Barriers to Universal Design in Australian Housing

A single storey home has few barriers to universal design in housing.From the Editor: I prepared a 2000 word version of my PhD thesis for easier reading. The title is Barriers to Universal Design in Australian Housing. I wanted to find out what the barriers are and if we could do something about it. 

The simple answer is that the industry runs on regulations which holds the house building system together. So nothing will change without regulation. Outdated ideas about market segmentation, general resistance to change, and risk avoidance are key issues. Cost was cited most often as a barrier, but without any evidence of the costs.  

A line of complex manufacturing machinery used to show the complex process and number of stakeholders involved in mass market housing.


The graphic shows that the house building industry is a system with several stakeholders. This system relies on everyone doing the same thing in the same way. The best way to achieve this is through regulation.


Read the conference paper to find out more about the complexities of the house building industry and why there is resistance to change from both builders and purchasers. You can also download the accompanying slide show from the 2011 FICCDAT conference.

The full thesis is available from the Western Sydney University archives. I did my best to make it as readable as possible within the constraints of academic writing.

(FICCDAT is, Festival of International Conferences on Caring, Disability, Aging and Technology.)

Hope I die before I get old

I presented this paper and presentation at the 2011 State of Australian Cities Conference (SOAC). It raises the issues of housing an ageing population in a context of industry believing retirement villages and aged care are the places to put older people. However, the majority of people will age in their current home – a home that is not suitably designed for this purpose. Around 200,000 new homes are built each year – each one a lost opportunity. 

SOAC slide cover

Download the paper  Hope I die before I get old article PDF

Download the slideshow Hope I die before I get old Slideshow PDF

Jane Bringolf

The cost of NOT including accessibility in new homes

House half built showing timber frameworkWhen talking about the costs of including basic access features in new homes, we should also discuss the cost of NOT including those features.

Download an academic article from the Journal of the American Planning Association, by Smith, Rayer and Smith (2008) that spells out the economic argument using economic methodologies. The key point is that conservatively, a new home built today with a minimum of four different households over its lifetime is 65% likely to have an occupant with a permanent disability. If we include visitors the likelihood rises to 91%. It is often forgotten that people with disability live in families – not alone. This is an open access article.

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