Universal design and affordability in housing

Three stacks of coins sit alongside a wooden cut-out of a house shape. Universal design and housing affordability.Housing policy people think you can’t have universal design and affordability in housing. However, the opposite is likely to be true. The national Building Ministers’ Meeting in April this year agreed to include Livable Housing Silver level in all new housing. But not all states agreed to call it up in their jurisdiction. 

Victoria, Queensland, ACT, Tasmania and NT are right behind the changes to the National Construction Code, but NSW is not. Indeed, they informed advocates by letter that they have no intention of including silver level in NSW legislation. Their reasoning is that they believe they are doing enough already. By this, they mention some policies asking for a proportion of accessible dwellings in apartments. However, there is no evidence they are actually built, and if they were, there is no way of knowing where they are. 

Head and shoulders pic of Kay Saville-Smith
Kay Saville-Smith

The other reason for not changing the NSW code is that the politicians believe it costs too much. Accessible housing continues to be perceived as a niche area. A few good points were made by Kay Saville-Smith at a roundtable after the 2014 Australian universal design conference. Sadly, we are still no further forward and her words hold true today. 

Universal design is affordable design

Here are Kay Saville-Smith’s five key points about universal design in housing and affordability: 

“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. But 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 affordability and why it is so hard to get traction with universal design in housing. 

For more history on the Building Ministers’ Meeting and decisions to include Livable Housing Silver level in the NCC, go to the housing design policy section.