Sustainability, as defined by the 2013 Sustainable Australia Report, is about ensuring that the wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians is maintained or improved over time. Designing livable homes that meet the needs of current and future residents is smart as well as sustainable.
Many new homes are being designed with solar orientation in mind. They incorporate green materials and are full of clever design ideas that maximise space and minimise resource consumption. They also integrate smart energy- and water-saving technologies. But there is currently a blind spot in sustainable residential building design. If a resident cannot access their house if they break their leg; is it really sustainable? Is a home that is hard to enter with a stroller really supporting the needs of parents with young children?
While Australia’s homes have undergone a green makeover in recent years, much less attention has been paid to those aspects of design that make a home livable for occupants of all ages and abilities. Yet, the social aspects of sustainability – which encompass livability, equity and diversity to deliver a high quality of life for all members of a community – have powerful implications for the design of our homes.
‘Livability’, in its simplest form, is a home that is suitable, habitable and comfortable to live in. It is the new buzzword in the sustainability space. Livable housing design delivers a home that is not only sensitive to the occupants’ needs over their full lifespan, but it is also environmentally responsive. A livable home includes common sense, easy access features and excludes the common barriers that restrict the ease, comfort and safety with which home occupants can access facilities. A livable home caters for all people in a home – from young children to ageing grandparents. By limiting the extent of future renovation necessary to rectify poor accessibility, a livable home makes clear social, environmental and economic sense.
Not surprisingly, many people fail to realise that their homes lack these small design refinements and are shocked when they realise how costly they are to retrofit. According to the Productivity Commission, investment in housing remains the single biggest financial commitment that Australians make in our lifetime.1 However – our lifetime investment is not designed or built for a lifetime’s use. International research has found that it is 22 times more efficient to design your home to meet your changing needs upfront, than it is to undertake an expensive retrofit.2 Despite this, few people consider livability when they are buying or building a new home.
As an occupational therapist, I have a first-hand understanding of the disbelief people experience; when they realise their home cannot accommodate them after undergoing an operation or recuperating from an accident. Everyday tasks such as navigating the front door step when on crutches, manoeuvring through small internal doors and corridors, hopping into showers with hobs or even opening doors and cupboards can become impossible.
Ensuring your home is livable is not just about preparing for a potential traumatic event. Most people prefer not to think about what would happen if they acquired a disability. Australians like to consider disability as something that happens to others; despite the fact that one in five Australians currently live with a disability. There are one in ten households in which a person would benefit from livable homes.
Most of us will live long enough to grow old. While 14 per cent of Australia’s population is currently over 65, by 2056 this proportion is predicted to rise to one in four.3 This group of ageing Australians wants to ‘age in place’ and they are planning ahead. Increasingly, adults in their 40s are thinking about how they can stay in their current homes and communities for as long as possible. This ageing population will drive demand for more flexibility and choice, forcing architects, builders, planners and policy makers to examine livability like never before.
Livable design is not just for the aged or those with disabilities. Around 20 per cent of people aged over 65 years are also primary carers for their grandchildren while their own children work. This means the homes of these older people also need to be child friendly. In fact, most accidents in the home involve children under the age of five. A recent Victorian study found that children under five had twice as many serious falls as any other age group,4 with the most common reasons for falls being split-level steps and stairs between rooms.
The truth is Australian homes are not designed with safety and comfort of the whole family in mind. What happens when you break your leg and cannot manoeuvre into the shower? What happens when you have small children who must navigate precarious stairs or when your grandmother who uses a walking frame wants to visit? As the late UK Parliamentarian Andrew Rowe MP said, ‘if you are male, fit and aged between 18 and 45 years, not overly tall and not overly short, and are right handed, you are the lucky ones, as you represent the 18 per cent of the population that housing is actually designed for.’ The remaining 82 per cent of the population tolerate what is forced upon them by the market and live in homes that do not meet their needs.
A future-proofed investment
Increasingly, consumers are concerned about ‘future proofing’ their properties to meet higher levels of sustainability and livability. By ensuring their property appeals to the most potential buyers, they understand that it is an investment in maximising the resale value. Fortunately, the features that make a home livable (and ultimately sustainable) can be easily and inexpensively integrated into any home design. Research both here and internationally has found that livable design features bear low or no cost if undertaken at the point of construction. Urban Growth NSW found that the investment in livable design features at the design stage was minimal. However, if the same features were retrofitted later to detached project homes, they would cost as much as 15per cent more.
The national Livable Housing Design Guidelines, developed in collaboration with industry and government, outline 16 design features that make a home livable. There are three levels of performance – Silver, Gold and Platinum – and LHA is working with industry to ensure Silver level requirements are integrated into all new homes built in Australia.
The features are ‘common sense’ design principles such as providing at least one level entry into the home. This is sensible for parents wanting to push the pram through the house and toddlers bringing their bikes inside. This also removes trip hazards for ageing grandparents and enables a friend or relative in a wheelchair to pop by for a visit. Larger door and corridor widths make it easier for people bringing in bags of groceries or moving furniture, while ensuring that people with temporary or permanent mobility challenges can move around the house with ease. Having a bathroom and living space on the entry level is another smart design feature which enables residents to remain in their homes if they are unable to use stairs due to injury, illness or disability.
Craig Stoll, of Stoll Long Architects, designed one of Australia’s first Platinum certified projects, in Werribee Victoria, using the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. Designed for Yarra Community Housing, the project includes a safe and step-free entrance into the home, internal doors and corridors that facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces, and bathrooms designed for easy and independent access. Light switches, power points, handles and taps are easy for everyone to reach and use. Window sills are located at a height that enables residents to view the outdoors from both a seated or standing position. Floor coverings are slip-resistant to reduce the likelihood of slips, and falls in the home.
Craig Stoll says the process of working with the Livable Design Guidelines was easy, and that ‘the actual cost premium, if integrated into the original concept design, is minimal.’ ‘A little bit of planning and simple detailing at the conceptual design stage can result in a highly practical and quality outcome for the residents in the future – and for a minimal impact on the budget,’ Stoll says.
The Victorian Government has also been a strong supporter of livable design initiatives in the past, particularly through industry and consumer education initiatives such as the Built for Life and Welcome publications. Currently, Dennis Hogan, Acting Director – Technical and Regulation at the Victorian Building Authority, is a Director on the Livable Housing Australia Board. This reflects a five year investment from the Authority in this national program of housing transformation.
‘Livability is all about inclusion,’ says Sophie Pickett-Heaps, Stockland’s National Design Manager and a registered architect.
Stockland is working with Livable Housing Australia, as a corporate partner, to promote new industry best practice benchmarks and to advocate the adoption of the voluntary Livable Housing Design Guidelines.
‘People’s needs change throughout their lives and their priorities shift from ensuring a home is safe for small children to allowing them to live independently as they age. A livable home is inclusive because it caters for all stages of a person’s lifecycle, as well as that of their friends and family. Really, livable design is just common sense,’ Sophie has said.
‘Silver level certification is not difficult to achieve,’ Sophie explains. ‘Many of the principles – such as having a generous entry or bathroom on the ground floor – are just lifting the bar on good design, and can add to the value of your home.’
A livable home is really about good design. As a home is the most important investment that most Australians will make, it is important that we consider our needs not just today, but every day.
Amelia Starr is the Executive Director of Livable Housing Australia (LHA). A qualified occupational therapist, Amelia has held senior advisory roles with the Centre for Accessible Design in London, the Disability Council of NSW, NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet and National Disability Services Australia.