Push for accessible housing regulations

A network of designers, researchers, people living with disability and seniors are calling on Australian governments to introduce regulations mandating that new houses meet accessibility standards.

At a key meeting on Friday state and federal building ministers will consider a draft options paper which, if approved, will be released for public consultation as part of COAG’s commitment to undertake a regulatory impact assessment.

In 2010, Australia’s construction industry agreed to voluntarily apply universal design principles to housing design that would ensure properties are accessible to people with disabilities and seniors, but advocates say that system isn’t working and regulations are now required.

They say a review in 2015 found the voluntary system will deliver just 5 per cent of an agreed target of 100 per cent by 2020.

Their calls come as the Commonwealth rolls out its disability and aged care reforms, which are largely community-based and rely on services being provided in a care recipient’s home.

Margaret Ward

Dr Margaret Ward from the Australian Network on Universal Housing Design said an agreement reached between the construction industry, community sector and government in 2010, which resulted in the voluntary scheme, was a key element of the Commonwealth’s National Disability Strategy.

“While the industry can walk away from that, government cannot, because it is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities,” Dr Ward told Government News ahead of her presentation at the upcoming Universal Design Conference.

“In 2017, COAG acknowledged that only 5 per cent of the target would be met so they asked for a regulatory impact assessment to be done,” said Dr Ward, an architect and former public servant.

The network, which represents researchers, designers and people affected by the universal design issue, is calling for the gold level of the Liveable Housing Design guidelines, which are the current voluntary framework, to be mandated in new regulations.

If approved by the building minister’s forum on Friday the options paper canvassing the level and type of regulation would be released for consultation, while it’s expected the regulatory impact assessment would be published for discussion early next year, Dr Ward said.

Asked what a mandated minimum level of universal design in new homes would look like, Dr Ward described it as:

  • a step-free path from the front boundary through the ground level of the dwelling,
  • corridors and doorways that are wide enough to allow for a wheelchair,
  • one bathroom that allows a person with limited ability to shower and use the toilet, and;
  • reinforcement in the bathroom walls to allow for the installation of grab rails at a later date.

“There are four groups that need to contribute to the consultation – the building industry, buyers and investors, people who live in that housing and are affected by it, and services and government that are paying for the consequence of poor design, such as disability and aged-care providers. We’ve advocated that this needs a broad consultation,” said Dr Ward.

While cost is often raised an argument against mandating universal design in new home construction, advocates say that research shows the practice is often cost neutral, while there are cost savings over a property’s life through a reduction in falls and reduced admissions to hospitals.

Dr Ward points to a Victorian study in 2010 which found that to modify an existing dwelling to the silver level of the Liveable Housing Australian standards cost 19 times more than to include the accessibility principles during the design phase.

“This is a long-term strategy because we only built 2 per cent of housing a year,” she said of the campaign for new regulations.

“If we had agreed to regulation in 2010 there would be two million new dwellings out there that were accessible.”

The Universal Design Conference takes place from 4-5 September in Brisbane.

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