“My partner and I probably looked at every photo for rental accommodation on real estate websites and I don’t think we could find a single one with a modified shower or bathroom area.”

Such was the experience of Doug Herd, a wheelchair user in Canberra. According to the Canberra Times, Herd spent six months looking for a suitable home before eventually buying a one in Gilmore and modifying the bathroom.

Herd is not alone. Between November 2017 and February 2018, an online survey run by the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design found that 68 percent of the 1,329 respondents (mainly from home owners or occupants who felt that either they or a relative or friend needed accessible housing either to live in or from visiting friends or family) experienced difficulty in finding liveable housing. For the purpose of the survey, ‘liveable’ housing was defined as housing which is suitable for a diverse range of user needs.

Such experiences are backed by evidence. In 2010, the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development estimated that around 96 percent of all new homes constructed in that state lacked critical features in respect of visitability and adaptability. More recently, industry, government, consumer and community group body Liveable Housing Australia (LHA) indicated that less than five percent of all new homes are being built to the requirements in order to achieve Silver level or above under its Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG).

Now regulators are acting. In 2017, the Building Ministers Forum agreed that the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) would conduct a regulatory impact assessment on the costs and benefits of applying a minimum accessibility standard as a performance requirement to all new residential dwellings in Australia through the National Construction Code (NCC). Last September, the ABCB produced a paper outlining options for change. In Ocober and November, the Board held a series of consultation forums across each capital city. This year, it will begin work on a formal Regulatory Impact Statement for a potential change to the Code in 2022.

As things stand, the NCC does not set any requirements in respect of Class 1a buildings (detached houses, townhouses, row houses etc.) in respect of accessibility. For Class 2 buildings (apartment complexes), it requires an accessible path of travel to the door of each individual apartment on at least one floor as well as to and within at least one of each type of room or space provided as part of common areas. Where a ramp or passenger lift is installed, the accessible path of travel must reach the entrance door of each apartment and any common areas, served by the lift or ramp. However, there are no accessibility requirements for internal parts of individual apartments.

Apart from the NCC, some states adopt accessibility requirements through planning laws. Some also specify accessibility features in a portion of the public housing which they provide. At a Commonwealth level, the National Disability Insurance Scheme provides funding to enable participants to modify their home or rental property.

In its paper, options outlined by the ABCB involve basing the aforementioned accessibility standard on the requirements of the LHDG.

Three options are considered:

  • The accessibility standard include only five of the performance requirements associated with the achievement of LHDG Silver (Option 1)
  • The accessibility standard incorporate all seven performance requirements associated with LHDG Silver (Option 2)
  • The accessibility standard include all twelve performance requirements which are needed to achieve the LHDG Gold certification (Option 3).

Option 1 represents the most basic level of NCC intervention.

Under this option, minimum accessibility standards would include five only of the LHDG requirements for Silver level certification.

These are:

  • at least one level (step free) entrance into the dwelling to enable occupants to enter and exit the building
  • internal doors and corridors which facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces
  • a ground or entry level toilet
  • bathrooms and showers which are designed for easy and independent access for all home occupants; and
  • bathroom and toilet walls which are built to enable grabrails to be safely and easily installed if and when necessary.

According to the paper, Option 1 is designed to address in the building’s design aspects of the LHDG Silver level certification which are most difficult to incorporate retrospectively. The first requirement, for example, ensures that the entry door has sufficient clear opening width and does not incorporate a step-up (threshold) which could be difficult to modify post construction. The inclusion of doors and corridors which facilitate unimpeded movement between spaces, meanwhile, is designed to avoid any future need to relocate any internal walls which may be loadbearing and costly to reconfigure. As well as providing bathroom and toilet spaces which are more accessible, meanwhile, the last three requirements aim to minimise any future need to relocate any toilet or bathroom spaces which could affect the location of internal walls as well as waterproofing measures and plumbing and drainage installation.

Option 2 incorporates all seven elements of the LDGH Silver Level performance requirements. In addition to the five which apply in Option 1, these include two extra requirements.

First, there must be a step free path of travel to the dwelling from either the street entrance in the case of a Class 1 building as well as from an allocated parking space in the case of a Class 2 building.

Second, where installed, stairways would need to be designed in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of injury and to enable a safe pathway up and down the stairs.

Whilst the second of these points is embedded within existing NCC requirements, the first is not.

In regard to the step free path of travel, the paper cautions that this option could introduce some problems. In respect of Class 1a dwellings, such a requirement may restrict dwelling designs which involved a framed sub-floor space as opposed to a slab on the ground. Furthermore, it may require an excessive amount of ramping, which may not be feasible on small or steep allotments. As well, such a feature is external to be building rather than being part of the building itself and can often be added in a subsequent fashion without needing to modify the building.

Under Option 3, the proposed accessibility standard would include all twelve requirements to achieve LHDG Gold certification.

This includes all seven requirements above as well as five additional ones, specifically that:

  • The kitchen space is designed to support ease of movement between fixed benches and to support easy adaptation.
  • The laundry space is designed to support ease of movement between fixed benches and to support easy adaptation.
  • There is a space on the ground (or entry) level that can be used as a bedroom.
  • Light switches are located at heights that are easy to reach for all home occupants.
  • Occupants are able to easily and independently open and close doors.

Over and above the requirements stated in Options 1 and 2, this option would incorporate several new requirements which are not contained in the current NCC. Whereas the current NCC requires that kitchens and laundries be provided, it does not specify any aspect of their designs. Nor does the current NCC specify any room sizes or the provision or location of bedrooms. Finally, the current NCC does not contain any requirements in respect of either the provision of light switches or the design of doors.

Not surprisingly, preliminary estimates of cost impacts increase with each option. On a weighted average basis, the ABCB estimates that the introduction of Option 1 into the Code would increase the cost of new housing provision by $2,966 for each Class 1a house and by $2,950 for each Class 2 apartment. Under Option 2, the additional cost rises to $4,169 for detached homes and $11,276 for each apartment. Option 3 would be more expensive. Under Option 3, the accessibility standard requirements would add $20,710 to the cost of constructing a new home and $28,766 to the cost of building a new apartment.

Which is best?

According to Andrew Cross, an occupational therapist and registered architect who runs Design Able Living in Victoria’s Ocean Grove, the best answer is Option 2. Option 1, he says, is deficient in that it does not mandate a step-free path from the property boundary to the front door. This, he says, is critical. Whilst having accessible entrances at the front door is necessary and good, people first need to be able to get to the front door.

As for the Gold Standard in Option 3, he says having facilities such as bathrooms on ground floor levels would be wonderful. But he says as a minimum we should be looking at all requirements for the Silver level LHDG certification.

As well, he says some requirements associated with Option 3 should be considered with caution. Having a minimum of 1200 millimetres in the laundry space (requird under LHDG Gold), he says, could have flow on implications for on the design of property lots as the laundry space in buildings which meet this requirement would need to be much larger compared with average laundry spaces today.

As well, he says the costs associated with Option 3 mean that this option is unlikely to get through amid push-back from the development sector.

Finally, he cautions that in some cases, getting to LHDG Gold may not be feasible. In one recent case where his firm was working to get a man who had become a paraplegic after his own truck rolled on him home before Christmas, Cross says they were able to achieve what would roughly be considered a silver level certification. No way known, he says, would Gold have been achievable in that instance.

“Personally speaking, I would love to see Option 2,” Cross said.

“If we got to the next level, then great. But the silver level as a mandatory requirement certainly ticks lots of boxes that don’t exist at the moment.”

Joe Manton, Director of the Access Institute, adopts a different view and supports Option 3.

The liveable housing guidelines, she says, are not unduly onerous and may not add greatly to cost compared with what we are investing in now. Bringing new homes up to Gold, she adds, would future proof these homes for longer. This in turn, would enable more people to live in homes for longer and would reduce the number of people who need to move into supported accommodation.

The Gold standard, she says, addresses elements which enable residents to function effectively within their home as opposed to merely getting into the building. These features would also support people to have family members or friends who have access challenges to visit their home – thus helping those visitors to remain connected to society.

“I would support any improvement, but ideally I would like to see Gold adopted,” Manton said.

Both Manton and Cross say there is a strong role for minimum accessibility requirements. Leaving this to the market, Cross says, has failed. He cites one case in Melbourne’s east where a developer mandated LHDG Silver on their development only to withdraw it after receiving negative feedback.

Manton agrees, but distinguishes between liveability and accessibility.

What the Code should require, she says, are requirements around liveability. Liveability, she says, is an issue for everybody as growing numbers of people age. She says the NCC has an important role in enabling people to live in their houses longer by making houses more liveable.

As mentioned above, liveable housing is generally thought of in a broad sense as housing which is suitable for a diverse range of people.

This is different from accessible homes – homes which are specially designed or modified to address specific needs of individuals who have particular disabilities. Whilst this is important, Manton says it not realistic nor even desirable to expect the NCC to mandate installation of features such as ceiling hoists given the limited number of people who would require these. Besides, if we do build homes which are more liveable, we create opportunities to provide support for people down the track for people to improve the accessibility of their home should they need to, she said.

As a final note, Cross cautions against thinking about people with limited mobility as being restricted to those who are wheelchair bound. As well as those who have wheelchairs, he says we also need to think about people who are aging and have conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or who have had operations such as hip replacements.

On cost considerations, meanwhile, Manton raises several issues.

First, she says fears of significant increases in costs are often over-exaggerated. Incorporation of Liveable Housing Design Guidelines, she says, can be done in a manner which adds relatively little by way of additional cost compared with the overall costs of building a home.

Second, she says research has shown that if you do build liveable housing, then there is demand for this especially amongst the baby boomer generation.

Finally, she says building liveable housing is an investment.

“I often say to people, are we talking about a cost or an investment?”, Manton says.

“Is it an investment to build a house in which people can live in longer and be happier in and sustain their physical and mental health? Is that an investment or a cost?”

“Or is it a cost where people are forced to move out of a house purely because they can’t move around and have the support they need and then they need to move into supported accommodation where there will be significant potential impact on their mental health?

“For me, I believe it is an important investment. I think it is going to support future proofing of our housing stock moving forward so that as people do die or move out of their homes, there will be more homes available in which more people can live in longer.

“Long term, I see it as a significant investment. I don’t see it as a cost.”