The myths and magic of universal design
Are accessible, adaptable, seniors, universal and “disabled” homes all the same? Not exactly. The one thing they have in common is that they all sound as if they are for a niche or separate market. Some are. Some are not. Dr Jane Bringolf explains.
The Livable Housing Design Guidelines were devised so that all the terms mentioned above could be merged and thereby make life simpler. That’s because they are underpinned by the principles of universal design. This means they are accessible and good for seniors and people with disability, and at the same time, good for everyone else, including children. However, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
The term livable housing has just been added to the list. That means there is still a lot of confusion out there. Confusion generates misunderstandings and these lead to myths – commonly held beliefs spread by word of mouth. So let’s have a look at some of these.
For the purposes of this article I will use the term ‘accessible’ meaning accessible for everyone because technically, it’s not a disability or ageing specific term.
Myth 1: we don’t need all homes to be more accessible – current regulations go far enough
Local government authorities sometimes require 10 or 20% accessible dwellings in multi-unit developments. Usually builders are referred to the outdated Adaptable Housing Standard.
The proportion idea stems from the notion that the number of dwellings needs to correspond with the number of peole needing accessible homes now. But our lives change over time. Disability and chronic ill health can happen at any time to anyone. When these dwellings are on-sold they disappear into the general milieu of the market. Later, they cannot be found by other people who need them. So the proportion argument doesn’t work.
The population is ageing. Many studies show that older home owners want to stay put in their own home or one located in their local community – except that they can’t find one.
While your own home might be accessible, the homes of your friends and family are not. This has a significant impact on family and social life. Something as simple as visiting a neighbour for a cuppa is not possible. And if grandma can’t get out of her own home, it’s not just sad; it has serious social and health implications.
Myth 2: accessible homes look institutional and unattractive
There are a small number of dwellings that are built specifically for a particular person with a significant disability.
The Australian Government’s Specialist Disability Accommodation program is designed to support this small group of people with high support needs. As the title suggests, it is specialised design and not universal design.
The Livable Housing Design Guidelines and similar publications show pictures of modern, attractive, functional homes. No grab rails, no strange looking bathrooms and no odd-looking fittings.
Re-arrangement of the floor plan to allow for more open space is welcomed by families and visitors. Bathrooms that are a little larger are great for bathing small children, and for broader than average people.
Wider doors and step-free entry are good for bringing in the shopping, the pram and the new furniture. And of course, for anyone on crutches, using a cane or a mobility device.
Myth 3: people might not want to buy an accessible home
This relates to the belief that they look different and not ‘normal’.
Universal design features are generally invisible because they are seamlessly included. Accessible homes look good. A step free entry or larger bathroom is not a ‘disabled’ feature. Unless it is pointed out few will notice. The homebuyer will be looking at the home in the same way as any other.
Of course if they are specifically looking for an accessible home, these features can be highlighted.
A thoughtfully designed home will be appreciated by everyone – occupants and visitors – regardless of their size, age or level of capability
Myth 4: accessible homes cost more to build
This is the most often quoted myth and has become an industry mantra.
Several economic cost studies, here and overseas, all agree that if there is any additional cost it is minimal – less than one percent of the total build. Most costs can be designed out if thought about at the beginning.
Past experience in applying the Adaptable Housing Standard is often used as a guide on the topic of cost. This outdated 1995 standard does cost more because of special features and the need to have two modes of design – before and after adaptation. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines show how to make homes accessible from the start with no before and after required. Convenient for everyone and cost neutral.
Myth 5: it will only suit a very small section of the population
This is where it’s time to crunch numbers.
If you add together the number of older people, people with disabilities and those with a chronic health condition, it comes to more than 60% of the population. And it’s not all about individuals.
People with disability, chronic health conditions and older people live in families – it affects a whole household. It is not a niche section of the market; it is the majority of the market.
An economic study in the United States found that a new home built today has a 60% chance of accommodating a person with a disability, and if you add in visitors, that goes to 91%. Again, this makes it a mainstream issue, not a niche situation.
Myth 6: sometimes it’s just not possible to make all homes accessible.
Of course there are one-off occurrences such as a pole house on the side of a cliff where it is more difficult to achieve. This is the design challenge.
A split level or multi storey home can still have accessible elements. The main one is designing one level with an accessible entrance with access from the street or parking area. Bespoke homes such as these benefit from a home elevator, which is convenient for everyone. It doesn’t have to be installed right away – just design provisional space for it. If I had a bespoke home, the last thing
I would want to do is leave it just because I couldn’t function in it.
Other responses include the notion that older people would be better off in retirement living rather than making all homes accessible. Some people choose this option because there is nothing else available and others because the lifestyle appeals. But age-segregated living is not preferred by the majority of older people.
The Livable Housing Design Guidelines, devised by industry stakeholders, 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.
Our home is the pivot point of our life. It’s where we start our day and where we relax and unwind. It’s where family memories are created, it is our safe place. The design of our homes has the potential to impact our lives in either negative or positive ways. It’s time to dismiss the myths and embrace the magic of universal design.
As Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”.
Building Designers Australia and Ecolateral are about to launch their practical hands-on course. They recognise that accessibility has to be an underlying principle throughout the planning process if homes re to be accessible and easy to use by everyone. Watch this space for more.