David Russell: Let's make houses that say welcome

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Houses that work well for people of every age and ability are hard to find, says David Russell.

New Zealanders are beginning to demand house designs that are accessible to all people. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle
New Zealanders are beginning to demand house designs that are accessible to all people. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle

ACC and the Ministry of Health spent more than $33 million on housing modifications in the past year. Without this help, these homes would have become unliveable for their disabled and aged owners.

Despite this substantial funding, demand for housing that works for people as our needs change is set to rise significantly over the next 30 years.

By 2061, life expectancy at birth will have increased by about six years and the 65+ age group is predicted to account for 27 per cent of the population.

Disability rates will increase with age and this means New Zealand will have more people with sensory impairments and mobility issues as they grow older.

Unfortunately, the design of most New Zealand houses does not take into account this dramatic shift in demographics.

Around 45 per cent of older people have a disability and it is estimated that between 45-50 per cent of disabled adults live in homes that are not modified for their needs.

Attitudes are changing and New Zealanders are beginning to demand house designs that are accessible to all people.

The movement in New Zealand is known as Lifetime Design. It has established standards that prescribe home and product designs that deliver ease of use for most people, no matter what their age or disability. The test of Lifetime Design's innovation and international respect was shown at the Australasian Housing Institute annual conference this month where it assumed a lead role in the debate and discussion on future housing needs.

Lifetime Design is all about five key principles - usability, adaptability, accessibility, inclusion and lifetime value. These principles aim to make homes fit around people, rather than making people fit around their homes.

The unique feature of this approach is the flexibility to change the home or product over time according to the owner's needs, and to ensure communities and homes are welcoming and inviting to all our friends and family. Homes that work well for people of every age, stage and ability are harder to find than you might think.

I am known for my role as former head of the Consumers Institute, but what's less well known is my passion for house design that works well for everyone.

That's why I am absolutely delighted to be the ambassador for Lifemark, the building sector's equivalent to Tourism New Zealand's Qualmark, and this country's vehicle for the Lifetime Design movement.

It is a seal of approval that will give confidence that your home will continue to work for you and your family over time.

Homes awarded the Lifemark have 33 design features including a level entry, widened doors and passageways, all aimed at making the house accessible for everyone and easy to adapt as needs change.

The entrance is designed to give you trouble-free access while the well-lit and generous doorways make it easy for parents carrying children and shopping from the car or for older people using a walking aid. In the kitchen, the emphasis is on safety as well as convenience.

There is enough space around appliances and cupboards to move around easily while the layout, fixtures and fittings all help you to cook and clean in comfort even when using a mobility device or wheelchair.

The living room is designed for everyone in the family to enjoy. Switches, power sockets and other controls are at a handy height in order to avoid unnecessary bending or reaching.

The bathroom comes prepared for the future and is designed and equipped to adapt to your needs. The strengthened walls are ready to be fitted with a handrail and the shower is large enough to fit a shower seat. If parents visit, or someone in your family is temporarily disabled, there's very little extra effort to accommodate them.

In the bedroom, the space makes it easy to move around so parents can help children, people using wheelchairs can manoeuvre and there's space for a walking frame by your bedside.

Constructing new homes to the Lifemark design would mean an end to the expensive task of retrofitting housing in New Zealand. British studies show retrofitting an existing house is considerably more expensive than designing with the future in mind at the point of construction.

A report by the Ministry of Social Development underlines what is at stake for New Zealanders. The Economic Effects of Utilising Lifemark at a National Level report found the housing sector could save up to $60 million a year by choosing this design and build approach for new housing.

The analysis revealed private homeowners, taxpayers, housing developers and government could benefit from significant savings if Lifemark was incorporated into new home design. ACC could save $2 million a year if just 10 per cent of those disabled through accident injury were living in a Lifemark house.

Companies are embracing the Lifetime Design philosophy and Lifemark. Summerset Retirement Villages became the first retirement village operator in New Zealand to sign up to the programme when it opened the Lifemark-approved retirement village in Manukau this year.

Crucially, Lifemark has secured the support of the Ministry of Social Development, which has recognised Lifemark will be of major benefit to those designing homes that meet the needs of New Zealanders today and tomorrow.

Let's not waste this opportunity to ensure that New Zealand's homes are welcome homes for everyone.

* David Russell is ambassador for Lifemark and a former head of the Consumers Institute.

- NZ Herald

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