A man’s home is his castle, until it isn’t

Is the phrase “they’ll have to take me out of here in a box” realistic when we get older?

Image source: Working Dog Productions/So Perth

The picture of an old man or woman, living alone in a large house, unable to get around, surrounded by dogs and piles of old newspapers is a scene we all have imagined of people other than ourselves.

We’re too savvy for that to ever be us, aren’t we?

As the number of boomers explodes, you would expect that more and more older Australians would be seeking housing that is more suitable as they age. But research shows that many don’t, preferring the comfort and familiarity of the family home.

It’s perfectly reasonable that someone would want to live out their final years in the home they built for themselves and their families over many years.

And is a sentiment that was the main theme in the classic Australian film The Castle.

But what if our homes aren’t designed to cope with us when we get older? Many aren’t.                                     

Is there something better?

There’s an important question about whether the stock of new housing is meeting the demands of the ageing population. And no, I’m not here to sell you a retirement village.

Many people don’t know that state and federal governments are considering whether the current building code provides adequate minimum standards for accessibility to ensure the supply of what’s commonly known as ‘accessible housing’.

Accessible housing is defined by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) in its Accessible Housing Options Paper as:

…any housing that includes features to enable use by people either with a disability or transition through their life stages.

While people with a disability have an obvious need for accessible housing, so too do people at different parts of their life stage, most importantly, those with mobility challenges brought about by age.

With pressure mounting on government to better support older people to stay in their home and out of residential aged care, there is growing need to ensure housing is available to assist this objective.

Accessible Housing and the National Construction Code (NCC)

Changing the National Construction Code (NCC) could make new housing age-friendly and facilitate more downsizing options. But what needs to be done to achieve this?

What many don’t realise is that minimum standards for building design are set nationally through the ABCB. The ABCB is a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) standards writing body that is responsible for maintaining and updating the NCC. It addresses issues such as:

  • safety and health;
  • amenity and accessibility; and
  • Sustainability in the design, construction, performance and liveability of buildings.

The NCC provides a nationally consistent set of minimum standards, which are ultimately regulated by state and territory governments.

At the behest of the Building Ministers Forum (BMF, it was proposed that the ABCB undertake a Regulation Impact Assessment or cost/benefit analysis to assess various options for strengthening accessibility design standards in the NCC.

Options for changing the NCC

Currently, there are different accessibility standards available through the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG). Unfortunately, adoption of these standards is voluntary. As such, they are failing to meet the aspirational goal of 100% of new housing built to a minimum accessibility standard by 2020.

In fact, it’s been estimated that this figure is likely as low as 5%.

Several options are currently being assessed by the ABCB to strengthen the NCC in terms of accessibility. These are based on the silver and gold voluntary standards in the LHDG.

This includes changing the NCC to include such minimum standards (among others):

  • At least one step-free entrance door (silver)
  • Wider internal doors and corridors (silver)
  • Toilet on ground level (entry level) (silver)
  • Bathroom and toilet walls to support grab rails (silver)
  • Kitchen space to support ease of movement/adaptation (gold)
  • Space on ground/entry level suitable for a bedroom (gold)
  • Light switches at easy to reach heights (gold)

The ABCB is considering what level of accessibility standard it should recommend, if any, as part of the ongoing Regulation Impact Analysis process.

It will make recommendations to the Ministers involved in the BMF, who will ultimately decide whether a change to the NCC should be made as part of the regular review of the NCC in 2022.

Better Housing Campaign

National Seniors supports including minimum standards for accessible design in the NCC and has incorporated this into our Better Housing campaign as a key priority.

We will be monitoring and contributing to the ABCB review with the hope to encourage the adoption of minimum standards in 2023.

If you're interested in supporting more accessible housing, then please sign up to the campaign here.