Environmental sustainability initiatives are not often associated to access and disability.

A number of strong links do however exist and further discussion in this area is certainly merited.

It is universally understood that we live in an ageing society and that disability is strongly correlated with age. It is therefore safe to assume that the requirements people place on the built environment now and what the requirements will be in the future will also differ greatly.

Providing buildings which are designed to be universally accessible now means that the need to refurbish or rebuild later is greatly diminished. It is indisputable that a substantial amount of embodied energy goes into the construction of any scale building. Limiting building works to the construction and maintenance of the building and minimising unassociated further refurbishments will of course significantly reduce the embodied energy subsumed in the building and its total lifecycle environmental footprint.

Accessibility and the associated legislation regulating its implementation have seen a prolonged period of evolution and change in Australia.

Two sets of legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the Building Code of Australia (BCA), provided two sets of somewhat divergent requirements. For the most part, the DDA advocated for inclusion of a far more varied set of needs – essentially access to all persons despite their particular abilities.

The more recent Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 claim to bring these two pieces of legislation into unison. Many of the requirements included in this standard directly relate to what was previously considered to be in line with the DDA.

A strong argument can be made that access consultants, architects, developers and builders who had previously embraced the spirit and intent of the DDA were also acting responsibly from the perspective of environmental sustainability. They were in effect looking to provide for the future needs of their buildings’ users. In doing so, they have also produced buildings which will not need extensive further refurbishments to bring them into line with the new standard.

The scope of the new standard however, is largely associated to the ‘base build’ and does not encompass, for example, furniture and fitment or the external realm when not associated to a particular building (and therefore the building certification process). Consequently, there is more that needs to be addressed by key stakeholders beyond the new standard to ‘future proof’ their projects. It should be noted that the DDA is also a complaint based system which applies to all premises – new and existing.

When considering the needs of people with disabilities, a largely forgotten part of the built environment is housing. Class 1 and sole occupancy units within Class 2 buildings have been completely overlooked in the more recent standards and Building Code of Australia (BCA). Only the common areas of Class 2 buildings with some sole occupancy units available for short term rent have been addressed in some way.

Some state and municipal based regulations as well as voluntary accreditation guidelines do exist, but their coverage is generally inadequate for the current demand let alone the future demand which is likely to grow exponentially. Most people with even a mild level of disability generally need to undertake extensive refurbishments of any home they intend to inhabit in order to see some level of independence and dignity.

This is in spite of the fact that an Adaptable Housing Standard has existed since 1995. The objective of this standard is to reduce the amount of modifications required to meet the needs of people with disabilities from an economic perspective; however the implications for environmental sustainability are also obvious.

A significant issue which is often alluded to but not given the consideration it deserves is that of social sustainability. Many models for sustainability recognise an interaction of three elements – environmental, social and economic. Social sustainability addresses the issues of equity, diversity, interconnectedness and acceptance.

There is widespread agreement that healthy communities are those which accept and foster these ideals. By doing so, more diverse groups of people see meaningful employment and educational opportunities, and are able to participate and contribute in social activities inclusive of governance and representation. Positive economic outcomes, as well as more stable and cohesive governance and processes are often the result of this increased participation. The built environment provides the context – and reducing or removing the barriers that can see people excluded is the component of this complex interaction that we as professionals working in the industry can contribute to and aspire to improve.

Environmental sustainability initiatives in the construction industry generally focus on the here and now of construction. Requirements such as removing VOCs from our buildings and reducing energy use are of course exceedingly important, but I believe these initiatives should recognise some of the issues raised in this article.

The development of accessible environments has generally relied on the stick of regulation to see change. It would be nice to see the carrot of incentive encouraging professionals to embrace access and universal design. Recognition of some of these items in programs such as Green Star and FirstRate 5 would certainly be a very welcome inclusion for people with disabilities.