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Making homes inclusive for all

6 September 2022

A home should be a sanctuary. A place that feels comfortable, safe, happy, and above all, is suited to the residents’ specific requirements. It is important that all New Zealanders, no matter their ability, can own or rent a property that is inclusive of their needs.

Most homes tend to be designed for able-bodied adults, and too often, the needs and preferences for those who are elderly, or disabled are neglected.

According to the New Zealand Disability Survey, almost one in four in New Zealanders identified as having a disability in 2013 — a total of 1.1 million people. This is an increase of 20.0% when compared to the previous survey conducted in 2001. Although this is partly explained by our aging population, in which the survey demonstrated that those aged 65 and over had a higher likelihood of being disabled than younger adults and children, it is also applies to elderly people in general. As a person ages, their functional abilities change, which is why it is crucial for a home to be a comfortable and reliable environment that promotes independence and is suited to the residents’ needs.

So, how do we make sure that elderly people and those with a physical impairment can live in a home that is inclusive and allows them to live independently?

Creating an accessible living environment

The answer is to create accessible living environments through a concept called universal design. A human-centred approach to design, universal design recognises that a well-designed home meets occupants’ physical and other needs whilst focusing on increasing the quality of life for all. Products and environments are designed for everyone — no matter their ability.

Universal design elements can be designed in the beginning stages of a new build or applied to an existing home. Incorporating universal design elements will also make it easier and safer for family members or caregivers to assist elderly or disabled loved ones.

Paralympic bronze medallist, Rebecca Dubber, struggled to find an accessible place to live when renting in Auckland. When looking to purchase her first home, she encountered this same issue — she could not find a house built for someone with a disability.

“The whole process of finding somewhere to live that was accessible and functional to my needs was incredibly stressful, and with two already competitive markets, the pool of suitable housing for people with a disability is very small,” she said.

The Auckland local is a wheelchair user and says that education around accessible and inclusive design in homes, like universal design, is critical. She hopes to see it utilised more widely.

Principles of universal design

Universal design is not a new trend. It’s a concept that was developed in 1997 by the late Ronald Mace, who led a group of architects, product designers, environmental design researchers and engineers in creating products, systems and environments that are user-friendly and accessible for everyone.

The principles of universal design embrace human diversity and apply to all design specialities. They are:

  • Equitable to use

  • Flexibility to use

  • Simple and intuitive use

  • Perceptible information

  • Tolerance of error

  • Low physical effort

  • Size and space for approach and use.

These principles guide the design process of built environments, products, and communications. They allow systematic evaluation of designs — a checklist to measure the accessibility of building designs. The principles also assist in informing designers and users about the characteristics of other potential usable design solutions.

Universal design in action

There are plenty of universally designed products that we use every day. One example is the automatic doors in entrances of most commercial properties. These provide a ‘hands-free’ entrance that opens by sensor. The approach benefits all — from a multi-tasking mum with her hands full to a wheelchair user.

Here are more examples of universal design:

  • Task lighting and light sensors: Lights will automatically turn on when someone enters the room or off if the space is empty

  • Touch-to-open drawers and cabinets: Reduces muscular stress when pulling a drawer open from an awkward angle as it will open with just a light touch

  • Cabinet plate drawer: A large drawer that stores plates and bowls to reduce the need to reach very high or low places. Also, less clutter in the kitchen reduces the chance of accidents

  • Wider entrance and pathways: Providing space for a wheelchair user or people carrying groceries or other objects

  • Hospital beds: A bed that adjusts in height, so it’s easier for the patient to sit or get on or off the bed

  • Universal remotes: Activates and controls certain features of your home, whether it’s the television, lights, heater, or garage doors, with little to no effort.

Having an accessible home, designed according to universal design standards, increases its competitive edge by attracting a wider range of potential buyers. It also provides the reassurance of planning for the future with its ability to make buildings and homes accessible to all people at any stage of life, meeting its occupants physical and aesthetic needs, minimising compromise and ensuring its occupants’ independence.

This article was originally published in the 2022 Winter edition of Real Estate.