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 2021 it was decided to adopt features similar to “silver level” 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. South Australia and Western Australia say they need a bit more time. That leaves NSW. The features will be in the 2022 edition of the NCC ready for implementation in 2023. However, it is up to each state to enforce it.
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 incorporating some 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 evidence of this, it was not forthcoming. Without such evidence NSW cannot claim they are “already doing it”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We ain’t getting any younger
Why are we still building homes as if we never going to grow old? This question and others are the subject of a Building Connection magazine article about the purpose of Livable Housing Australia and their design guidelines. These guidelines, devised by industry and other stakeholders, clearly state that universal design features are easily included in regular housing and don’t need to be considered “special” just because they suit people who are older or have a disability. That’s because the features are convenient and easy to use for everyone. But why hasn’t the idea caught on in mainstream housing?
More than half Australian households would benefit from these features. That’s because If you add together the number of older people, people with disability and those with a chronic health conditions, it comes to more than 60%. The title of the magazine article on page 42 is, We ain’t getting any younger.