Accessibility becomes the new standard
5 May 2021 at 4:26 pm
Australia’s building ministers have decided to include accessible design features in the National Construction Code. Di Winkler and Peter Mulherin look at what that means.
From September 2022, new homes in Australia will include accessible design features, after a meeting on 30 April saw building ministers decide to include minimum accessibility standards in the National Construction Code (NCC). After years of advocacy from seniors, people with disabilities, and advocacy groups, this is a landmark decision that will improve housing accessibility in Australia for decades to come.
Given the estimated 3 million people living with a mobility limitation, replacing the existing voluntary guidelines on accessible design with a regulatory approach is long-overdue, but most welcome.
Demand for accessible housing will continue to rise as our population ages, but making up for the shortfall in supply for housing that allows Australians to “age in place” now seems possible.
The new regulatory approach will result in “significant and lasting benefit to Australians who need access to homes with accessible features”, according to the communique released following the building ministers’ meeting.
Building ministers agreed to include in the NCC the seven accessible design features in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG) Silver standard:
- A safe continuous and step free path of travel from the street entrance and / or parking area to a dwelling entrance that is level.
- At least one, level (step-free) entrance into the dwelling.
- Internal doors and corridors that facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces.
- A toilet on the ground (or entry) level that provides easy access.
- A bathroom that contains a hobless shower recess.
- Reinforced walls around the toilet, shower and bath to support the safe installation of grab rails at a later date.
- Stairways designed to reduce the likelihood of injury and also enable future adaptation.
Including these seven features as standard in all new homes will transform housing in Australia, and improve the quality of lives of the millions of people who have a temporary or permanent mobility limitation, or who want to remain in their homes for as long as possible as they age.
As the recent Aged Care Royal Commission highlighted, preventing early and “inappropriate admission” to aged care is important, but only possible if there is increased supply of accessible housing. From September 2022, this supply will begin to increase as mandatory standards future-proof Australia’s housing for coming generations, and help address some of the challenges identified by the royal commission.
In the lead up to the building ministers’ meeting, the Summer Foundation and La Trobe University conducted a survey of occupational therapists (OTs) investigating the specific accessible features that people with mobility limitations regularly require in their homes. It was premised on the fact that a lack of accessible features in homes makes the process of discharging patients from hospitals slower, and also makes it harder for seniors to age in place.
The study found that over 40 per cent of the OTs’ clients had a delayed discharge from hospital, as they waited for home modifications to be completed, resulting in over 20 extra days spent in hospital. The cost of these delayed discharges was estimated to range between $1.7 billion to $3.2 billion per annum. The survey also revealed that some key features to include in new homes – based on their impact on speeding up hospital discharge and helping people age in place – were step-free entrances to dwellings, step-free showers, and a toilet on the ground floor.
As a result of the shift from a voluntary to regulatory approach in the NCC, some of the accessible features identified through the survey as being particularly important for accessibility will now be included as standard in many new Australian homes. This will not only greatly improve the lives of the people directly affected, but also decrease the costs accrued through delayed hospital discharge, or retrospective modifications to homes as more Australians choose to live at home for longer.