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Universally speaking



Above: Benevolent Society CEO, Richard Spencer.

By Stephen Easton

The winds of change are blowing through the construction sector, with plans for the needs of older and disabled people to be incorporated into the design of all new dwellings by 2020.

A new national non-profit organisation, Livable Housing Australia, will be set up soon as part of the government’s $1 million commitment to promote universal design standards that would make community aged care a viable option for more people.

Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers, Queensland Senator Jan McLucas, announced the establishment of Livable Housing Australia on Monday, to “promote greater understanding of the value of universal housing design within the community and promote universal housing design practices throughout the residential building and property industry”.

The standards were developed last year by participants in the National Dialogue on Universal Housing Design, set up in late 2009 by the former Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten. 

National Dialogue participants included the Local Government Association, Human Rights Commission and consumer advocacy group COTA Senior’s Voice, alongside stakeholders from the building and property industries and disability care sector, such as owners of retirement living and aged are assets, Stockland and Lend Lease.

The announcement has received early support from the Benevolent Society, whose CEO Richard Spencer said the guidelines were about considering long-term needs by building adaptable homes.

“When building the family home, people often don’t consider their own needs for the longer term, but as we age, the homes we enjoyed in our younger years often become unmanageable because there are too many stairs, narrow corridors, or other features that make access difficult,” Mr Spencer said.

“Three quarters of people aged over 50 want an alternative to nursing home care, and building houses using universal design means more older Australians will be able to continue living in their own homes instead of moving into high-cost nursing homes, even if they need mobility aids or are in a wheelchair.”

General manager of ageing, Barbara Squires, said the Benevolent Society welcomed the broad coalition that had joined forces to push universal design principles, the benefits from which, to the entire health and welfare system, would “far outweigh a small addition to initial building cost”.

“We have to stop thinking in very narrow categories, and take a ‘big picture’ view of the whole system of housing, transport, health and welfare and realise everything is interrelated,” Ms Squires said.

Senator McLucas said Livable Housing Australia would also identify ways to achieve the milestones and targets set out in the National Dialogue strategic plan, launched by Mr Shorten in July 2010.

These aims include lobbying state and federal governments to make sure people on low incomes share the benefits of the new standards, by requiring all new subsidised affordable or social housing projects to meet first the silver level, and eventually the gold standard. 

The National Dialogue participants wanted the silver standard to apply to all new residential housing by 2020, and for all state and territory public housing providers to commit to building all new public housing to gold standard by 2019, when the strategic plan was released last year.

COTA Chief Executive, Ian Yates, said that after one meeting, the group had come to the obvious conclusion that widespread universal design would be of particular benefit to older people, as more would be able to access high quality community care. 

“When you have aged care at home it’s also a workplace,” Mr Yates added. “So the more accessible it is, the easier it is for an aged care support worker to work safely and appropritately in the home workplace.” 

The guidelines define three levels of universal or ‘livable’ housing, based on minimum core design elements that include wider doors and passageways, ground-floor toilet and bathroom facilities, wheelchair access and strengthened walls to allow the future installation of grabrails.

Dwellings that meet the basic core standards will receive a silver level rating, while gold and platinum will be awarded to housing that meets the required enhanced standards – options that either cost more or require more space.



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