By all accounts, Australians are getting older.
As at 2012, around 3.2 million people throughout the country, or 14 per cent of the population, were aged 65 or older. By 2031, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that number will almost double to between 5.7 million and 5.8 million (around 19 per cent) and by 2061, it will reach between 9 million and 11.1 million. Whereas less than one in 50 Australians are now 85 or older, that proportion will fall to almost one in 20 over the next 50 years.
All this will precipitate a deterioration in levels of mobility and the need for the built environment to cater for higher rates of frailty and disability.
In the public space, it largely appears we're ready. Requirements under disability discrimination legislation have meant the majority of our offices, hotels and shopping centres now allow for reasonable levels of accessibility. Major transport hubs, meanwhile, are generally equipped with lifts and ramps, though they are not necessarily in place on some less busy stations and some ramps that are in place at older stations are too long or have gradients which are less than optimal.
But in housing, we are largely falling down. A number of larger builders such as Grocon, Stockland and Meriton have signed to the Property Council of Australia’s Livable Housing Australia initiative and have committed to an aspirational target of designing and building all new housing within their stock to minimum livable housing design standards by 2020. That initiative, however, is voluntary and take-up is said to be low outside of the major builders.
New rules for apartment complexes inserted into the Building Code of Australia several years ago mandated accessibility in common areas and up to the front door of individual dwellings, but do not ensure the doorway itself is sufficiently wide to enable wheelchair access into the apartment or that accessibility within the dwelling itself is adequate. In Melbourne’s north, the Moreland City Council has moved to require a minimum of 10 per cent of apartments in new multi-residential buildings to be adaptable so that any future owners who might suffer from physical limitations are easily able to have the dwelling modified to meet their personal needs, but this kind of foresight is not yet commonplace across the broader local council landscape.
George Xinos, a principal and access consultant at Functional Access Solutions in Melbourne, said demographic trends are likely to amplify what is already a shortage of accessible housing throughout the country.
“Already for people with significant disabilities, there is very much a shortage of housing around, both privately and publicly,” Xinos said. “And as the population ages, we know that aging and disability are strongly correlated, so there will be a much higher need for housing that is easily made accessible for people.”
“It’s a critical issue and it’s probably going to be something that will be a little bit of a disaster down the track.”
Lee Wilson, a disability access and egress consultant also based in Melbourne, agrees.
Wilson said developments like the Mooreland Council initiative are welcome and the apartment complex accessibility requirements are a step forward, but added that we need more councils to get on board with initiatives similar to that of Moreland. He also noted that the limitations of the apartment rules in terms of not requiring accessibility beyond the front door are problematic.
“From a public space perspective within the built environment, I think we are doing quite well,” Wilson said. “But in the housing side of things, we have got a lot more work to do with planning or providing suitable accommodation using the principles of universal design, buildings that can be adaptable and have wider corridors, wider doorways and things like that.”
In terms of what needs to be done, Xinos says mandatory standards in the home should be applicable. He says these standards need not be intrusive and that there are lots of ways accessibility and adaptability could be built in without necessarily adding extra cost where the accessibility requirements are factored in at the planning stage, such as through not providing thresholds in doors and through thinking about the grading provided in driveways and roads.
Beyond that, both Wilson and Xinos say a broader cultural shift is needed toward universal design – a concept in which buildings, products and environments are inherently accessible to older people and the end user is placed at the centre of everything the designer does.
Xinos noted sustainability as a consideration took time to gain traction but is now commonplace and an assumed part of design across all new buildings, and that he would like to see a similar change when it comes to usability.
“If these sorts of concepts trickle down into the training of future professionals, as well as our current professionals, the mindset will change,” he said.
“We need to probably look at a cultural shift so designers are thinking about the end users, gaining their input and re-evaluating their outcomes to inform future buildings as well.”