Livable housing: we ain’t getting any younger
So why are we still building homes as if we are never going to grow old? Is it because we don’t want to think about it, or we’ll worry about it when the time comes? Or is it because the housing industry is locked into a system that doesn’t want to, or can’t change? Centre for Universal Design Australia chair Dr Jane Bringolf explores these questions and more.
Livable Housing Australia
Livable Housing Australia (LHA) was set up in 2010 to guide the housing industry towards building homes that would allow most of us to stay put in our own homes in our later years. LHA was driven by major players, Property Council, Master Builders and some major developers. Together with representatives from the ageing and disability sectors, they devised the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. I’ll talk about these a bit more later.
While some of the features appear in retirement villages and a handful of discrete developments, there is little or no evidence that volume builders are interested in mainstreaming these features.
There are several possible reasons why nothing much has happened. As soon as ageing or disability are mentioned most people think hospital, public toilets, grab bars and therefore ugly. Some property developers think that anything other than the mythical “average family” is a government problem and not theirs. Then there is the spurious argument about cost. Let’s take those points one at a time.
The LHA guidelines are a long way from ugly, but unless individuals look at the guidelines, it’s likely most will continue to think “no-way”. The guidelines show how accessible and convenient features can be included in a fashionable way without standing out as being “disabled” features.
More than half the households in Australia have someone with a chronic health condition, a family member becoming less able as they age, or they might have a permanent disability. And that doesn’t count people who have accidental broken bones. A very small proportion of people with high level support needs require specialised housing and this is being covered under government programs. The rest are out there in the open market.
There are lots of myths about additional cost. If the design features in the LHA guidelines at Silver and Gold level are thought about at the initial design phase, there is little or no extra cost. In some tricky cases it might be 1% of the total construction cost. This was the conclusion of Landcom when they did extensive research on costings. Thinking about it at the beginning is the key. Changing the mindset of “how things are done around here” is the first step. For example, corridor and hallway space can be minimised or eliminated and the space used elsewhere. Open plan designs mean easy flow of movement through the home. No tricky tight spots. There can actually be small savings in materials. But let’s go back to the LHA Guidelines.
First, the guidelines are underpinned by the principles of universal design. That means thinking about all the potential occupants and visitors of a home and the way their lives might and will turn out over time. Secondly, universal design features are often silent – they are not noticed until they are needed. For example, a level, step-free entry into the home may not be noticed until you wheel in the pram, have granny visit, or a family member breaks their leg. And of course it will be a favourite with furniture deliverers and paramedics. Thirdly, universal design is not a special kind of design – it is a design-thinking process. And last but not least, as I mentioned before, it costs little, if any more, to incorporate these features if it is done at the beginning of the design process.
The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design advocates for mainstreaming universal design features in all new homes. It recommends the Gold level of the LHA guidelines as the most suitable for all households. There is nothing special about the features. It is just thoughtful design. The features suit the whole family in making the home more comfortable and safe to live in across the lifespan. They also make the home easier and cheaper to modify if special designs are needed later.
The key elements for accessibility for everyone are level entry into the home, wider doorways and corridors, and a bit of extra space in the shower and the bathroom. While tall broad men like the larger showers, they also allow space for a shower stool if needed. A little extra space for a carer to help shower a family member is handy too. Lever handles on all the doors can be used with your elbow when your hands are full, or if you have bad arthritis.
Main design elements
- A step free path of travel from the street or parking area to dwelling entrance
- At least one step free entrance into the dwelling
- Doors that allow unimpeded movement between spaces
- An easy access toilet on the ground floor of a two storey dwelling
- Step-free shower recess
- Reinforced walls around the toilet and shower to support grabrails if they are needed later
- A continuous handrail on the stairway
- Switches and powerpoints at a convenient height for everyone
- Lever handles on doors and D handles on cupboards
Purchasers who don’t think they need these features needn’t have them pointed out. Just like the walls and windows, they are just quietly there – included as standard. Smaller builders are getting on board with these design ideas as they recognise that there is a market for them. Or perhaps they are thinking about getting older themselves. And that’s just as well because there could be change around the corner.
The ABCB put out an Options Paper last year on this topic in preparation for a Regulatory Impact Assessment for accessible housing. If accessible features are included in the NCC in the future, it will be an easy transition for those who start incorporating these features now.
So what do I know about universal design in housing? Dicky knees and bad backs aren’t going to go away as I get older and I don’t want to go to age segregated living. So I amended a volume builder’s floor plan and created my own universally designed home. People who visit say it is lovely to have open plan – the home is so easy to move around in. My six-foot-four broad-shouldered son-in-law loves the size of the showers. I love the level access out to the alfresco and the decking that expands the outdoor space all at floor level. Small children don’t trip over the change in level to the wet areas, and furniture delivery is a breeze. I can invite my wheelchair using friend to Christmas lunch without a worry, and grandma is happy too.
From a technical perspective there is nothing new in my home – it’s all been done before in retirement villages. From a cost perspective: the builder did try to put me off some features by quoting exorbitant rates for some changes. Once we sorted them out the cost of wider doors was about $20 each. The set-down in the slab for level transition to wet areas was no charge. There were some savings on corridor walls that weren’t needed. So all in all, a good result all round.
I will be exploring Livable Housing and the concepts of universal design in future articles. I’ll also keep you updated on any potential regulatory changes.