Time to future proof Australian housing
23 February 2021 at 7:48 am
Only a mandatory approach to accessibility standards will future-proof Australia’s housing for coming generations, and cater to the demands of an ageing population, write Dr Di Winkler and Dr Peter Mulherin outlining the Building Better Homes Campaign.
Given our ageing population, the number of Australians with mobility issues is expected to almost double from 3 million to nearly 6 million within 40 years. In about a month’s time Australia’s building ministers will meet to consider the inclusion of minimum accessibility standards in the National Construction Code (NCC). This will be a critical decision for the millions of Australians with mobility impairments who cannot get access to housing that meets their needs.
Ministers will be choosing between the current voluntary guidelines, or mandatory accessibility standards. The opt-in approach, long favoured by the building industry, has been in place for over a decade and has failed to deliver the promised supply of accessible homes. A recent study by the University of Melbourne found that out of over 1,000 Australians with mobility impairments, 73.6 per cent lived in housing that did not meet, or only partly met their accessibility needs. Only a mandatory approach will future-proof Australia’s housing for coming generations, and cater to the demands of an ageing population.
Momentum is building to change the NCC, demonstrated by an online petition to building ministers that will soon exceed 10,000 signatures. Disability Discrimination Commissioner Ben Gauntlett has also called for changes, stating that as well as satisfying human rights obligations, making housing more accessible would mean a significant saving for governments as seniors remained in their homes for longer, rather than moving into expensive residential aged care.
Two weeks ago, 35 organisations sent an open letter to Australia’s political leaders requesting that mandatory accessibility standards be incorporated in the NCC. These organisations are part of the Building Better Homes Campaign, a growing coalition of 50 organisations representing senior Australians, people with disabilities, and the health and housing sectors. Partners include National Seniors Australia, Medibank Private, Alfred Health, Occupational Therapy Australia, Building Designers Association of Australia, National Disability Services, People with Disability Australia, and the Summer Foundation.
Notable individuals have also joined the campaign, such as 2011 Australian of the Year Simon McKeon, author Jackie French, paralympic gold-medallist Kurt Fearnley, and comedian Tim Ferguson. Campaign partner and author Caro Llewellyn, recently wrote about growing up with a father with a disability, as well as her own experiences of living with multiple sclerosis. Llewellyn insists that the NCC needs to be amended, in order to “make up for the woeful shortfall of accessible housing” in Australia.
The Summer Foundation and La Trobe University are currently investigating the most important accessible design features for Australians with a mobility impairment. This study surveys people with mobility issues including seniors and people with disability, and collects evidence on the impact of incorporating specific accessible features into new housing. The survey is open for another two weeks and asks participants which accessible design features are essential to them when visiting friends and family, or when choosing a new home.
Making accessible design features mandatory through the NCC is sometimes viewed as being an expensive way of catering to a small section of the Australian population. But by making some features compulsory, it will future-proof Australia’s housing for generations to come. Furthermore, as former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes notes in recent ABC coverage, many of the accessible design features are “pretty simple basic-access requirements, like one entry to the property without a step and light fittings at a particular height”. Retrofitting homes with accessible features is very expensive compared with including them from the outset of the build. As Innes points out, while many accessible features could be easily incorporated at the design stage of new builds, “If you try and refit a property afterwards, that’s when it gets expensive”.
A recent audit of 20 of the most popular homes being built by Australia’s biggest builders found that all of the homes included several accessible design features. This indicates that incorporating mandatory accessibility standards in the NCC would not make the building stage as costly or difficult as some anticipate. The fact that some of the country’s most successful builders already include some accessible features in their designs indicates that they are neither prohibitively expensive nor too complex.
Housing is critical social infrastructure that impacts us all, and is with us for decades. Let’s build houses that are fit-for-purpose for all of us.