Ageing in Place: Not there yet

A suburban house in UK showing before and after the ramp. The ramp makes several zig-zags up the front of the house. It looks ugly.What home modifications are needed most and how much are they needed? Mary Ann Jackson analysed 50 home modification reports in Victoria to get an answer. She found that when it comes to ageing in place we are not there yet. 

The homes visited all had a doorsill or step at the front door and tight spaces. A screen door complicated matters, and meter boxes also intruded on entry space. Many of the fittings, such as taps and handles were poorly designed to suit ageing in place. 

Jackson advises that accessibility issues are endemic to Australia’s existing housing stock. This is a big problem when 39.5% of households include a person with disability. 

Architect and Planner Jackson says, “Cooperation, collaboration, and a clear recognition of the emotional, physical, and economic cost-benefit of ageing in place will be needed to rebuild Australia’s housing stock to better accommodate all inhabitants throughout life.” The title of the newsletter article is Ageing in place – are we there yet?  

The picture above is famous for its technical compliance, but not usability, and definitely not aesthetics.

Older people and perception of home

Within the findings of an AHURI report is a section on the qualitative research on older people and the perceptions of their homes in terms of ageing in place. The report is titled, “The role of home maintenance and modification services in achieving health community care and housing outcomes in later life”, and is by Andrew Jones, Desleigh de Jonge and Rhonda Phillips for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, 2008. 

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.Phillippa Carnemolla’s conference paper expands on some of these ideas for ageing well at home. She found that home modifications address both social and individual needs. The title of the paper is,  The potential of a home modification strategy – a universal design approach to existing housing

 

Why home buyers don’t get UD

A banner advertising home and land packages. It says, "for people who want more".“We will build it if they ask for it” say the builders. But do they want home buyers to ask for it? And would they build it? The new home selling process relies on capturing the client’s personal and emotional commitment to the home before they sign the contract. And how do they do that? By getting them to choose the colours and styles of fixtures and fittings first. Once that happens the client becomes emotionally committed. The sale is made. Too late to consider universal design features – even if customers knew what they were.

This insight comes from an article in Sourceable by Darren Love. The opening paragraph says it all. 

“Builders seek innovative ways to market their products to clients. One method is to commit the client to a process that invests time and most importantly “emotional commitment” in the process. Focus the client on an ideal that the builder can make a reality.  The client’s “dream” of owning a house becomes real with the “help” of the builder.”

The title of the article is, Responsibility before Profit. It critiques the selling methods that builders use in this highly competitive market where cost cutting is part of the process. The article clearly explains why we cannot rely on the mass market housing industry to offer anything more than a choice of colour and upgrades to fixtures and fittings. 

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.

Specifications for universal design

new home construction site with timber on the ground.Universal design is a thinking process that aims for the most inclusive design solutions possible – designing universally. It is a process that improves through iteration. This means that you can’t specify a standard, which is for one point in time, because it stops the process of continuing improvement. But we don’t live in a perfect world and some people just want to know they got it right. Ergo a standard please. 

NATSPEC is an non-profit organisation with the aim of improved construction and productivity in the built environment. Their website has a long list of technical notes, which cover many construction elements. New to the list are:

These technical notes are just two pages long. They are good for quick reference and for anyone new to universal design concepts. The Accessible Housing guidance refers to the Adaptable Housing Standard (AS4299), Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and the Access to Premises Standard. it also references the National Construction Code and related standards.

Designing with inclusion in mind will sometimes mean that more than one solution is required. So a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be counterproductive. It also means doing the best you can with what you have at the time with a view to improving with the next iteration. 

 

ANUHD update on accessible housing regulation

Timeline for the next steps to the Regulatory Impact Statement. ANUHD update gives links to submission.Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) update has important information about the continuing work for regulating (or not) universal design features in all new housing. This update is about the extra work done after the close of submissions on the Consultation Regulation Impact Statement. The advice to government is to adopt Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. Here the ANUHD update on accessible housing regulation:

 

The Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation submitted a response to the Consultation RIS for accessible housing with the recommendation that, based on the independent assessments and research they commissioned, Governments adopt Option 2, that is to regulate to Livable Housing Gold Level in the National Construction Code, as the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

The independent assessments and research are:

    • REVIEW OF THE ECONOMIC REPORT
      The review identified four key issues that individually have a large impact on the benefit-cost ratios reported. Taken together, they totally reverse the economic credentials of the regulation. 
    • Please note: The issues raised in the analysis are highly technical. The researchers provided more concise executive summary to improve accessibility. If you have particular questions, please contact md-i@unimelb.edu.au.
    • SURVEY OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY
      This extra data aligns with the advice from the Office of Best Practice Regulation to include qualitative analysis in all Regulatory Impact Statements, particularly when important elements cannot be quantified or monetised.
    • AUDIT OF ACCESSIBLE FEATURES
      This study found that many accessibility features are already incorporated into the most popular house designs being built in Australia, but not in a systematic way. It also demonstrates that accessible features are basic elements of good house design for the general population, and indicates that the likely cost of including further accessible features to be fully consistent with the accessibility standards in new builds is very low.
    • SUPPLEMENTARY REPORT
      MDI and the Summer Foundation prepared further information for the ABCB on 6 October 2020 to substantiate their position that that governments should adopt Option 2, which would set minimum mandatory standards for accessible housing at the Gold (LHDG) standard.

CUDA and ANUHD made comprehensive submissions to the Consultation Regulation Impact Statement. 

Other submissions can be viewed online on the ABCB website. 

Economic value of universal housing design

Front cover of the report showing an older grey-haired couple sitting together smiling. Title is exploring the economic value in housing built to universal design principles.Consumers buy things that they want and need now rather than purchasing things with the future in mind. Well, that makes sense. For everyday items this poses no problems. But for expensive, longer lasting items, such as a home, it can be a problem. Many older Australians live in a home that was purchased in mid life. It was suitable then. But now that cherished home is challenging their independence in older age. That’s why all homes should have universal design features.

A new report based on a survey of care-givers, both paid and unpaid, provides insights into their experiences and observations on the impact of home design on their caring role. The researchers found that housing design features and proximity to amenities had a value that extended beyond those of residents. That is, it facilitates community capacity and social engagement, physical wellbeing and ease of providing care services. 

The executive summary concludes with a statement that supports universal design in housing for people to age well:

“The public value implicit in universally designed housing is conceptually demonstrated by associated increases in ageing well outcomes and reduction in the need for, the level of, and the time spent on, care to support positive ageing outcomes (ie. generating efficiency gains in achieving ageing well outcomes).

The key findings of the study 

    • Universal design features impact on the level of care needed to support ageing well.
    • The location of the home and access to amenities also has an impact on the level of care needed.
    • The time needed to support people with basic living activities is reduced.

The title of the report is, Exploring the economic value embedded in housing built to universal design principles: Bridging the gap between public placemaking and private residential housing.

The study was undertaken by RMIT University and the Longevity Group Australia.

Abstract: In this report, we explore the public value implicit in housing incorporating universal design principles. Value is conceptually demonstrated by identifying housing design and location attributes, associated with increases in ageing well outcomes via the reduction in the need for, the level of, and the time spent on care to support ageing in place. To do this a survey instrument is developed to capture the experiential knowledge of in home care service providers and their observations of the impact of the home on the ageing well outcomes of the seniors they care for and also on their capacity to provide care. We find that certain housing design and location feature have value that extends beyond that experienced solely by its residents, facilitating community capacity and social engagement, physical wellbeing and ease of delivery of public services such as care support.  

Universal Design in Housing: Politics vs Practice

A modern living room showing lots of circulation space between furniture.What is so difficult about including universal design features in all new housing? Is it cost or is it technical difficulty? The answer to both is, no. Perhaps this is more about a regulation ideology. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has a policy statement that says as much. But do they have a case to continue that position for universal design in housing? 

In 2006 when the HIA policy was written (and ratified again in 2018) we hadn’t signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We didn’t have a National Disability Strategy or Livable Housing Design Guidelines either. But other businesses are recognising their ethical obligations for equity and inclusion and that inclusion has a strong business case. And here is the difference – the housing industry is a fragmented system that relies on regulation to hold all the parts together to guarantee consistency and certainty. Consequently, nothing will change without regulation.

So, should we have regulation for all new homes to have universal design features? To answer this question the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis. It concluded that costs outweighed benefits. Even if it did cost more, is this a reason to continue building homes as if we are never going to grow old? 

In responding to the cost benefit analysis, two camps emerged. The community and academic sectors say the cost benefit analysis was skewed in favour of costs. Consequently the cost argument doesn’t hold. The housing industry continues to prosecute a cost argument as a basis for the status quo to remain.

April 2021 update: The Building Ministers’ Meeting agreed to mandate Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines in the National Construction Code. 

Key submissions to the ABCB

You can check out some of the submissions to the Australian Building Codes Board: 

Australian Network for Universal Design supports mandating the Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and a subsidy system for rental housing. 

Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, plus a subsidy for rental housing. This is based on their economic study that points out deficiencies in the ABCB report.

COTA NSW  (Council on the Ageing NSW) strongly supports the adoption of Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

Rights&Inclusion Australia supports Gold level and Gold level + because they best meet the RIS objective.

Community Housing Industry Association supports Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. They acknowledge Silver is a partial solution, but improvements might be possible over time.

Housing Industry Association supports subsidies and other financial incentives rather than regulation.

Property Council of Australia supports information and education initiatives for consumers. “If the additional costs laid out in this submission were estimated and included, this would reinforce the negative cost/benefit ratio outlined in the RIS.”

CUDA supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines and questions whether a cost benefit analysis was the right approach to answer the object of the project, “To ensure that new housing is designed to meet the needs of the community, including older Australians and others with mobility limitations.

Editor’s note: The HIA’s policy statement focuses on wheelchair users and this is common in the industry. They argue, “The overwhelming majority of private homes will not be used, now or in the future, by people requiring wheel chairs [sic]”. This statement also ignores the human right to visit your friends and family. 

Universal design in housing: The time has come

House half built showing timber framework. Universal design in housing. The time has come.Time has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.

Smaller building firms have shown that for a maximum of $3000 they can deliver universally designed homes. That’s because they thought of the design from the outset. They have changed the cookie cutter shape.

One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.

The evidence

Two eminent economists responded to the call to comment on the draft changes and have concluded that benefits outweigh the costs. Dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB analysis at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall. 

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.

For the history of nearly 20 years of advocacy see Universal Housing Design in Australia: Getting to Yes.

 

Accessible Housing: what’s it worth?

Three stacks of coins sit alongside a wooden cut-out of a house shape.Home builders argue that people won’t pay extra for universal design features. The assumption of extra cost aside, they are also assuming that people wouldn’t pay more. But would they? A study from Europe asked just that question and the answers are surprising. Renting is the norm in many European countries and so it is difficult to compare with owning. However, finding out how much extra rent people are prepared to pay gives us some indication.

A survey of renters in Germany and Slovakia found that 40 per cent would pay an extra 10% more, and 40 per cent would pay up to 20% more for a more accessible dwelling. Only 12% said they would not pay more. And the age of the respondents wasn’t a factor in the findings. The survey covered many other aspects of home living, and the findings are detailed in the article. There’s lots to take away from this study – the willingness to pay more for an adaptable or accessible dwelling is just one factor.

You can access the article via ScienceDirect or via ResearchGate, or directly download the PDF.   

Editor’s Note: Another way to measure the worth of universal design in housing is to ask, “How much would you pay to stay home and not go to aged care – what would that be worth?”

Abstract: The role of this study was to determine which changes people think they need to make in their home in response to getting older. At an advanced age, the likelihood of different limitations, such as vision impairment, hearing impairment, or physical inability, are increased. At present, when faced with such limitations, tenants are often forced to leave their long-term living spaces, as these spaces cannot serve their “new” individual needs. This transition from the privacy of their home to a new environment is often a painful change. They must leave a well-known environment, as their homes cannot be adapted to their new needs. The aim of this paper is to develop a comprehensive approach for the design of an exterior and interior space which can serve people through all stages of life, particularly in terms of mobility. This means that, even if an unexpected situation incurs changes in an individual’s movement abilities or physiological limitations not only by natural aging, but also according to accidents or disabilities their living space can be adapted to the given conditions. The results of a survey conducted in Germany and Slovakia are presented. In the survey, respondents expressed their opinion on what they considered important in creating an adaptive environment, considering various life changes. Based on the results of the survey, studies of possible modifications of flats and houses are developed. These results are analyzed in terms of three age groups: people aged below 35, those aged 35–50, and those aged over 50. People under 35 are considered to be quite young, with different views on life and on the environment. Their priorities typically differ from those of people around 50. People aged 50 more; have been under medical treatment for a consistent amount of time. This group of people is still active; however, they experience different design requirements for their potential home.

 

Government perspective on accessible housing

Brightly coloured graphic of little houses clustered togetherWhat do government representatives think is the best way to supply homes suitable for people with disability? A research study by an occupational therapist and an architect found out. Mandating accessible features in all new mainstream housing is the way to go. That means both owners and renters would benefit. Plus it would suit ageing in place and not be detrimental to the rest of the population. One participant suggested that the Livable Housing Design Guidelines should be turned into an Australian Standard. That would also help guide home renovations. The research also looked at technology and support issues. 

Although this research was specific to Australia’s National Disability Strategy, the findings on housing share similar responses found in other research: there is no real benefit in segregated “disability housing”, but much to be gained from housing that also suits people with disability. The title of the article is, Government perspectives on housing, technology and support design within Australia’s National Disability Strategy. It is also available on ResearchGate or the Wiley online library.  

In the Results section of the article, authors Libby Callaway and Kate Tregloan summarise the participants comments about making all homes accessible: 

“Several opportunities to take advantage of, and to stimulate, both accessible and adaptable housing supply and demand were identified through the focus group. Participant 5 stated, “This is a conversation about housing for people with disability, not disability housing”. Aiming to design and build homes that may also be rented on the open market or on-sold highlighted the need for suitable housing models beyond single houses. This need for a range of housing options, suitable for on-selling, has been identified in both current research and NDIS policy documents (Wiesel et al. 2015a; National Disability Insurance Agency 2016c). Roundtable participants recommended a legislative approach to increase accessible housing supply. They felt this would ensure an increase in volume via inclusion of accessible design principles and relevant standards within regulations for all buildings (e.g. via the Building Code of Australia) and other regulatory devices. This was seen to offer benefits to people with disability as well as other community groups, such as ageing Australians who want to remain living at home. It was anticipated that a relatively low-cost impost would offer great community benefit, depending on the level of requirement established (e.g. silver-level Livable Design compliance; Livable Housing Australia, 2012). Participants suggested this approach may offer greater flexibility for any subsequent home modifications required for people with disability. Participant 7 summarised the need for further work in this area: “Making all housing accessible isn’t already a national level of discussion . . . Liveable Housing design can be taken over [and incorporated] into the Australian Standards”

There is much more to this study which includes inclusive communities, integrated technology and transportation.

Editor’s note: While such an approach will suit most people with disability, there are some people who will need a home designed or adapted around their particular needs and that of their carers. This is the role of the Specialist Disability Housing funded under the NDIS.