In a well-meaning attempt to increase accessibility for those that need it, State and Federal Government Ministers have recently signed off on new minimum standards for accessible housing, to be enacted via the National Construction Code 2022. These new mandates will require all residential dwellings to meet, as a minimum, the Silver Standard as prescribed by the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG).
Here, as with all regulations, there is complexity, precise measurements, confusing terminology, and compliance codes. Yet, the Government’s new minimum standards falter in their blanket approach.
It is not that they are too prescriptive, or too specific, but that they lack the careful planning and long-sightedness that would otherwise make such regulatory measures truly beneficial. In effect, they will enforce blanket rules that will increase development time and costs, and — as a result — property prices. In so doing they will effectively constitute a disability tax on residential development.
Prior to the implementation of these changes already a proportion of all apartments being developed are required by Councils development plans to be adaptable and to include accessible features as specified by the National Building Code. In addition, minimum accessibility provisions for apartment developments must include accessible access across the boundary, from the principal pedestrian entrance, and from any accessible parking space; accessible access to the front door of any apartment at ground level (or to the top level where lifts are included); and accessible access to common areas (or at least one common area where multiples of the same amenity exist).
Importantly, before the implementation of these new regulations, there currently exist no access requirements for free-standing houses, townhouses or villas with on-grade parking. Under the new regulations, all residential dwellings are to meet the Silver Standard as prescribed by the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG).
This requires such specifics as:
- A continuous, step-free pathway from the street entrance and/or parking area to a dwelling that is level; At least one level, step-free entrance into the dwelling;
- Minimum clear widths for doors and corridors (820mm and 1,000mm respectively);
- Clear zones in bathrooms (900 x 1,200mm for toilets, 900 x 900mm for showers);
- Reinforced bathroom walls to facilitate future grab rails; and Provision of handrails for stairways with a rise of 1m or more.
Even a cursory glance of the new mandatory requirements should ring alarm bells for any experienced developer, and indeed those with disabilities for whom the regulations are designed to benefit.
I’ll briefly highlight four of the main issues that stand out.
The first is the obvious issue of level ground. There are many streets and neighbourhoods where any development will simply not be able to proceed based solely on the topography of the site, since in many areas street gradients will preclude the provision of accessible access. Far from increasing access, this will put more areas out of reach before they are even considered, and before novel design solutions can be attempted (much less found).
Attunga Street Woollahra
Second, the inclusion of the LHDG guidelines is almost certainly going to cause unnecessary confusion in the design process. Which accessibility requirements are to take precedence? SEPP Seniors? DCP Requirements? LHA Requirements? Unclear guidance on how and what to prioritise leaves a large margin for preference, confusion, and error.
This leads to the third, related issue, that such regulations may result in unintended design solutions, for instance, where ramps may criss-cross frontages to provide an accessible path of travel.
Point Claire NSW
Wilberforce Street Rose Bay
Finally, since the work required to complete accessible dwellings will greatly increase, the cost of construction will increase. Bathrooms will now need to be significantly larger. Wall reinforcement will add cost, as will rails and ramps. Beneficial as these inclusions may be, the outcome of such a rise in costs is inevitable: more expensive construction = more expensive housing. It’s certainly necessary to make homes more accessible, but an accessible home that no one can afford (or wants to purchase) is of help to no one.
What Could Be Done
While the bill addresses — or attempts to address — the issue of supply, by increasing the number of dwellings with accessibility provisions, it does not go far enough to address the issue of access. If we’re going to improve accessibility, we need simultaneously to improve the ability to identify those buildings and locations where accessible dwellings exist. To this end, a central database of accessible and adaptable buildings should be developed.
In addition, Site Compatibility Certificates should be provided for each new development. Those sites which are not suitable should not be required to satisfy the additional accessible design features. Accessible sites should be located in close proximity to town centres, commercial precincts and to locations where there is access to reliable public transport.
Where a site has been determined to provide accessible dwellings, a maximum of 10-20% of all dwellings should be required to be accessible/adaptable or include universal design features. The South Australian Government, for instance, has proposed that 20% of all new dwellings be delivered to this Standard.
Most importantly, for these regulations to be effective, they need to correspond to the facts. According to the latest 2016 Census data, 17.7% of the total Australian population has a disability. Of these, approximately 19% of all persons with disabilities are reliant on mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walking frames or walking sticks. Blanket approaches in which all dwellings are sized specifically for wheelchair users, may not be serving the best interest of the overall community.