Australian society is changing, we’re living longer, we’re going to be working longer, and obesity and disability rates are increasing. It’s now time to future proof new buildings for the needs of society.

The demographics in society are shifting. Australian society is on average getting older. In fact, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (the ‘ABS’) estimates that the number of people in Australia over the age of 65 will increase from 14 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2100.  We could assume that this shift will translate into an increase in the number of persons with a disability.

Australian data is comparative to international population projections prepared by the United Nations. The UN predicts this age group over the age of 65 will double within just 25 years. Australians are also living longer. The number of people aged over 85 is projected to increase from 344,000 in 2007 to 1.7 million in 2056.

Early last year, the Federal government proposed a change to the retirement age, increasing the age of eligibility to the age pension to 70 years of age. Unless we see some extraordinary advances in medical treatments over the coming decades, we can expect that this ageing population will continue to experience the same diminished visual acuity, depth perception, reduced hearing, loss of the sense of smell, as well as a higher prevalence of people with mobility impairment as they age. This will impact Australian workplaces if people need to work longer to maintain their income. If so, workplaces need to cater for this ageing workforce, beyond the minimum requirements within the current Building Code of Australia.

Australians, like other western nations, are on average also getting bigger. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that the number of people classified as obese or overweight has increased from 56 per cent in 1995 to 61 per cent in 2007-08.

These issues will need to be considered carefully as we plan future buildings, particularly when designing skyscrapers where evacuation via fire escape stairs could prove very challenging. Fire engineers may need to re-assess their data when calculating evacuation times when a fire escape stairs is full, taking into account people potentially moving a lot slower.

The obvious solution is to consider the use of evacuation lifts, or ‘lifeboat’ lifts that get people down to an exit level much quicker. This has widely been acknowledged by numerous experts for over 40 years as a practical solution to speed up fire evacuation. This solution also addresses the needs of people with disability, the elderly and the very young, who would find evacuating by stairs over a long vertical path difficult.

In fact, we only need to look back to the evacuation of the New York World Trade Center Towers in 2001 to see examples of how some of the occupants found the egress route via the stairs difficult. It has even been estimated that approximately 1,000 of the 9,000 surviving occupants had some form of impairment or activity limitation which restricted their ability to via the stairs. These included reduced mobility impairments, obesity, pregnancy, asthma, heart conditions, advanced age and recent surgery. Some of the survivors who made it out on that tragic day even reported seeing people in wheelchairs left behind who had been told to wait for the fire fighters and others struggling with the exertion of descending the stairs.

The tight fire escape stairwell of the Aon Centre skyscraper, Chicago

The tight fire escape stairwell of the Aon Centre skyscraper, Chicago

In Australia, workplaces need to comply with Australian Standard AS3745-2010, Planning for emergencies in facilities. The standard recognises the needs of those people that are “easily fatigued, easily experience acute anxiety or those that easily experience extreme confusion” under the heading “Occupants and visitors with a disability.” Consideration of this statement when planning for emergencies could therefore help those types of people identified in the World Trade Center Tower evacuations as well as small children.

Australia followed the lead of other countries in 2011 and introduced accessibility standards under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. These were also adopted into the building code in 2011. There is now an expectation from community that buildings will be accessible and that they will be able to move around within the building and find appropriate toilets. However, the approach to the provision of safe evacuation strategies and egress routes for all occupants has not kept up with the approach to accessibility and inclusion.

This has created an imbalance that needs to be corrected with codifying new building code requirements, including consideration for the use of evacuation lifts, refuge areas, evacuation chairs, enhanced accessible signage, and improved notification systems with visual alarms and tactile alarms.

It is clear that more consideration will need to be given to the needs of this ageing workforce, with an expected increased prevalence of people with sensory and mobility impairment.