Liveable housing design is a way to ensure that Australian homes can meet the changing needs of occupants across their lifetime. Dimi Kyriakou explains how builders can stand out from the competition and provide better houses by embracing the new voluntary guidelines for this sector.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American author and abolitionist, once said: Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done.
It’s a quote that is encapsulated in the concept of liveable housing design.
In essence, a home with easy living design features is easier to get into, easier to move around in, more cost-effective to adapt and more responsive to the changing needs of its occupants. Most of all, it seeks to enhance the quality of life of everyone who lives in the home regardless of age or ability.
While undoubtedly logical (not to mention common sense), this type of design is not a mainstream feature in today’s residential buildings. What most people aren’t prepared for – designers, builders and consumers included – is the changing needs of occupants across their lifetime.
This is where liveable housing design truly comes into its own. Not only is it immediately beneficial for families who have a parent, child or relative with a disability who need easier access around the home, or the elderly who wish to live at home for longer, easy living design features are equally important to pregnant women, families with young children, ageing ‘baby boomers’ and those who sustain a temporary injury (including those weekend sporting warriors).
Last year, Livable Housing Australia (LHA) was established as a means to pioneer the concept. This not-for-profit organisation is a partnership between government, industry and community groups, backed by a $1 million commitment from the Australian Government and supported through its national patron, Therese Rein and chaired by the Property Council’s chief executive Peter Verwer.
“There are real opportunities for industry in adopting a more liveable approach to the design and construction of housing. The proposed liveability features are extremely cost-effective and make a dwelling attractive to a wider sector of the housing market,” Peter says.
“It makes both social and economic sense to design and build a liveable designed home as including these features at the home design stage has been shown to be 22 times more efficient than retrofitting a dwelling when the unexpected occurs.”
It’s a point reinforced by LHA executive director Amelia Starr.
“We often talk about the things we put in or on a home to make them more sustainable, whether it be energy efficient appliances or solar panels. What we often don’t consider is what we need to do to sustain the most important part of a home – the people who live in it.”
In a nutshell, LHA champions liveable housing design. Since its inception, LHA has been working on the development of Livable Housing Design Guidelines to assist the residential building industry and governments to better understand how to design and deliver liveable designed homes. They can also provide useful information for consumers seeking to introduce liveable design features into a new home or a major renovation.
“The demand for liveable designed housing will grow and these guidelines are usable, simple and achievable. They are easily included in the design of a dwelling from the start,” LHA board director and Victorian Building Commission director for regulatory development Dennis Hogan says.
“It’s about creating smart, sensible design and making people aware that these features can be included in their home. As this is a national initiative, there has been a lot of good collaboration and the guidelines reflect a consensus position between industry, government and community stakeholders. It’s nice to have all of the industry players and regulators on board to produce something we all agree on.”
He explains that the introduction of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines will present a valuable opportunity for builders to be socially responsible in their business.
“LHA is looking for champions, especially builders, who want to include these sorts of features in their dwellings, and have them available as options for their clients. Builders can set themselves apart from the others by offering liveable housing features in their designs.”
The Livable Housing Design Guidelines
Three levels of performance are detailed in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. While they are voluntary performance levels, the word ‘voluntary’ should not be taken lightly.
The optional nature of the guidelines makes it possible for builders to gain a market advantage over others. After all, there is growing demand for future-proofed housing in Australia and, essentially, it makes both social and economic sense to incorporate these requirements into residential building designs.
The guidelines can be applied to all new detached and semi detached houses, terraces and townhouses (Class 1a) and new apartment dwellings (Class 2). In most cases, the performance requirements are identical.
It should be remembered that common areas for some Class 2 buildings are covered by the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010. Given this, the requirements in the Premises Standards and the National Construction Code (NCC), Building Code of Australia (BCA) Volume 1 and 2 will take precedence over the Livable Housing Design Guidelines for this building class.
The three levels of performance range from basic requirements through to best practice in liveable home design.
- Silver Level: Consists of seven core liveable housing design elements, which focus on the key structural and spatial elements that are critical to ensure future flexibility and adaptability of the home. Incorporating these features will avoid costly home modification if required at a later date.
- Gold Level: This level provides for more generous dimensions for most of the core liveable housing design elements and introduces additional elements in areas such as the kitchen and bedroom.
- Platinum Level: All 16 elements are featured in the platinum level. This level describes design elements that would better accommodate ageing in place and people with higher mobility needs. It requires further generous dimensions for most of the core liveable design elements and introduces additional elements for features such as the living room, window sills and flooring.
LHA’s goal is to achieve the Silver rating described in the guidelines for all new homes by 2020.
To achieve this level of accreditation, there are seven core elements that need to be included in the dwelling design. While these core design elements will not always be necessary for every client, they are seen as the design features that will suit the majority of needs.
- A safe and continuous path of travel from the street entrance and/or parking area to a dwelling entrance that is level.
- At least one level (step-free) entrance into the dwelling.
- Internal doors and corridors that facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces.
- A toilet on the ground (or entry) level that provides easy access.
- A bathroom that contains a hobless (step-free) shower recess.
- Reinforced walls around the toilet, shower and bath to support the safe installation of grabrails at a later date.
- A continuous handrail on one side of any stairway where there is a rise of more than one metre.
“We’re transforming the market to start thinking about these sorts of aspects in the design stage of development. At the moment they’re rarely thought of unless the client has a specific need,” Dennis explains.
“The market transformation comes in two parts. Obviously there’s the building industry, where designers and builders start to think about adding these features to their dwellings. The other part is transforming the owner’s mindset so they think about the future and what their current and future needs will be. A smart builder will be that link to the second stage.”
The road ahead
Even though the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are voluntary and there are currently no building regulations that require these features to be installed, Dennis says that a certification process will need to be in place to validate the designs.
“LHA’s proposal is to issue a quality mark for homes that meet the Silver, Gold and Platinum performance levels. This will involve a two-step process commencing with a design appraisal and as-built inspection following construction.”
This of course, leads to another essential aspect of the initiative: educating and training qualified assessors to sign-off on the accreditation for the design and as-built stages. At the time of printing Building Connection, LHA was still finalising this process, however an interim assessment pathway is available for builders and developers who wish to have their designs and dwellings assessed under the guidelines.
“The main thing is that the home owner will be given a verification from LHA that their home’s design meets either the Silver, Gold or Platinum performance levels of the guidelines and hopefully it will lead to a better re-sale value for the consumer as they will have a quality home that can be sold to a much wider potential market.”
Bringing the consumer in to discuss the liveable home design at an early stage will ensure you end up with a better product and, ultimately, a happy customer.
It can also paint you as a knowledgeable member of the building industry. After all, the introduction of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines will provide builders with an invaluable opportunity to research the concept and think about incorporating this area of social responsibility into your business.
While the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 already outlines some legal requirements when it comes to accessibility in the home, a national agreement like the Livable Housing Design Guidelines provides a user-friendly framework for the industry to move forward with tangible benefits – and for that it should be applauded. It starts with builders embracing the concept and working with customers to ultimately provide them with a better product.
At the very least, it will help builders stay ahead of the pack.
“The framework is there so builders can start getting their heads around the idea of liveable housing design. If a consumer is getting a quote from different builders and one of them offers a liveable design over the others, they will be able to distinguish themselves from the competition.”
And the best part is – it’s just plain common sense.
Livable Housing Australia will be officially launched in September 2012 at Parliament House in Canberra. Building Connection will continue to follow the progress of LHA over the coming months with updates as they become available.
If you are interested in becoming an LHA assessor or have a development that you wish to be considered under the pilot accreditation program, please contact LHA executive director Amelia Starr at email@example.com.
Livable Housing Australia (LHA)