At the Building Ministers Meeting on April 30, state and territory building ministers agreed to amend the National Construction Code (NCC) to include basic access features in all new homes.

These amendments have been included in the first stage of the public comment draft for the 2022 update of the National Construction Code which was released on May 10.

The proposed changes are expected to be adopted by states and territories on 1 September 2022.

These changes represent meaningful social change for Australia. It recognises that building design can have a significant impact on the way we live our lives.

The Access to Premises Standard provides basic access features in public buildings, but private dwellings have been exempted from such regulation. Ironically, a person who needs these access features can visit a public building but not their neighbour’s home. In some circumstances they cannot even leave their own home.

So why has it taken so long for policy-makers to join the dots on this issue? And why has it taken 20 years of citizen action to lobby for these small but important changes to the NCC to make new housing more accessible?

Housing sits in a complex web of regulations, financing, planning and market forces. The housing production system involves many stakeholders, all independent actors, but dependent on each other to maintain the status quo and a level playing field. Consistency is essential for maintaining profit margins. Despite industry strongly resisting changes to these regulations, it is regulation that maintains consistency and the level playing field.

The other complication is that decisions for amending the NCC are decided by state and territory Building Ministers and the political dimension cannot be ignored. Evidence of need and weighing benefits against costs were only part of the decision-making process.  As with many political decisions, some horse-trading was required in the decision process.

Community advocates were advocating for Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines for all new housing. Detailed economic research by Dalton and Carter on behalf of the University of Melbourne found that Gold level represented the most cost effective features. They dismissed the CIE report commissioned by the ABCB as incomplete, something CIE conceded later in the Decision RIS. So CIE’s finding of the costs significantly outweighing the benefits was always questionable.

However, the Building Ministers’ Meeting decided to mandate Silver level as a minimum standard with a guideline for upgrading to Gold level.

Silver level features are:

  • Step-free access from the street into the home
  • Internal doors with at least 820mm clear opening
  • Ground floor toilet with circulation space in front of the pan
  • A step free shower
  • Reinforcement in bathroom walls to install grab rails later
  • Handrails on stairs

Gold level provides more generous dimensions in the living areas and has provisions for kitchens and bedrooms. Many Silver and Gold features are already being incorporated in new homes as standard, which means the expense and difficulty is low, contrary to the claims by industry associations. This was the finding of a study by the Summer Foundation and La Trobe University.

The impact will be felt by all families across Australia. This decision recognises that everyone has a right to live in a home by themselves or with their family in a place of their choosing. It also recognises that regardless of physical capacity, everyone should be free to visit their family and friends in their homes. However, it will be some time before sufficient housing stock is available to meet demand.

Major housing industry associations fought these changes, but many smaller developers and builders are already adjusting their designs. Building Designers Association Australia has been running training courses to bring home designers up to speed with universal design features. They have a long waiting list for their Crossing the Threshold course. The claim by volume builders that the extra costs are prohibitive are countered by designers who say any extra costs can be designed out.

The housing industry stands to gain in the longer term. With more suitable designs on the market, older people will be encouraged to move to a new home. Families with a disabled family member will likely be in the market as well. Families with young children will value the spacious living and easy entry into the home with prams and shopping. It will make life easier for paramedics too. It will also improve rental housing stock over time.

The home renovation sector stands to gain too. With the supply of home care packages increasing, established homes are going to need modifications. Currently the government subsidises home modifications for this group. But modifications are not the same as renovations.

Occupational therapists assess clients and decide on functional modifications as part of a home care package. They are usually done in haste and have little aesthetic value due to funding constraints. Clients often refuse these modifications because of poor aesthetics and concern about devaluing their home. On the other hand, renovations usually have a designer involved. Recent research by Monash University commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission, indicates that design-led modifications will gradually increase. This report has some forward-thinking ideas about the way forward for the housing industry.

With basic access features already in place, modifications and renovations will become easier. Homeowners will be more willing to have modifications because it will minimise major works and concern over the value of the home will be reduced. The NCC changes represent an opportunity for smaller builders to get ready for this market.

It remains to be seen whether all jurisdictions will commit to changes in 2022 as it was not a unanimous decision. The Building Ministers’ Communique advised that each jurisdiction is free to determine whether and how the new provision will be applied. Nevertheless, in the name of consistency and a level playing field, industry might make the decision for them.

Once these features are mandated next year, any builder who wants a waiver from the standard must argue why the dwelling must exclude people from living in it. Similarly, any state or territory that does not support these changes will need to argue against the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of Disabilities 2019 recommendation.

We are often unaware how much building design controls our bodies and our lives. That is, until our bodies no longer fit the design. Then we see how easily the design could have been adapted if only the designers had taken an inclusive and accessible approach.

The changes to the NCC will support all Australians across their lifespan. While some might describe the changes as “accessible housing”, these are regular homes with a few tweaks to make them more useable by more people. They are not “special homes” for a particular group of people. They are inclusively designed using a universal design approach.