Inside and outside living is one example of universal design in housing. Image from Malcolm Davis Architects

It’s been more than 10 years since Australian government ministers agreed to pursue making homes more accessible for elderly and disabled people through provisions in the national building codes. 

In April of this year, measures including wider door frames and corridors, stepless entryways and showers, and reinforced bathroom walls finally found their way into the updated 2022 National Construction Code (NCC). 

However, with individual states and territories having the option to opt out of the changes the country is split, largely along political lines, as to who will step in to avoid them becoming state law. 

So far five of the eight states and territories have agreed to accept the reforms, NSW and South Australia have said they will oppose their adoption, and Western Australia said it will not oppose the changes but will not yet commit to allowing them. 

Last week, Master Builders Victoria, came out in strong opposition, calling for them to be scrapped pending extended periods of consultation and transition.  

Master Builders Victoria takes an axe to building reforms. Again

Dr Margaret Ward

Experienced architect, advocate and convenor of the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD), Dr Margaret Ward, said opposition by the various Master Builders associations and the Housing Industry Association (HIA) was nothing new. Although both had been relatively quiet of late. 

As for the states, Dr Ward is hopeful that once key “champions” of the reforms, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT adopt the changes, others will be forced to go along for the sake of national consistency. 

“If you’ve got builders having to do one thing in NSW and another thing in Queensland it’s going to drive them nuts,” she said. 

It is believed WA will not vary out of the changes, although Dr Ward described the state as a “bride in the bathroom” not yet formally committed either way. 

How we got here

In April, accessible building advocates celebrated the decision to mandate the Livable Housing Design Silver Level for all new housing in the NCC. Although, discussion remains ongoing regarding the details, with a final version due for release in May, 2022. 

“When I’m talking to the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) they say it’s pretty well over the line, except for two little things. One is some detailing around the step-free entry, and some detailing around the step-free, hobless shower. That’s it, everything else is all agreed,” Dr Ward said. 

Breakthrough for accessibility in Australian building codes

The NCC itself has no legal standing, but functions as a standard for deciding state legislation and creating consistent building practices across the country.

States have the option of doing nothing, in which case the NCC standards will automatically be incorporated into state legislation, or taking action to avoid that outcome, known as “varying out”. 

“To vary out of parts of the NCC goes against the spirit of the code, so they’ve got to give a good reason why they’re going to vary out,” Dr Ward explained. 

NSW and South Australia have both stated in formal responses to inquiries from Dr Ward they intend to vary out of the accessibility reforms. While acknowledging the benefits of accessible housing, both cited concerns over additional costs.

“Whilst South Australia is supportive of encouraging the ongoing voluntary adoption of these standards where they will have the greatest impact, the implications on housing affordability are of primary concern,” said Vickie Chapman, SA deputy premier and minister for planning and local government. 

NSW minister for better regulation and innovation Kevin Anderson said while he recognised the benefits of accessible housing to the community, his state was taking separate initiatives to increase supply.

“The NSW government has policies in place to ensure that all new social and affordable housing built by government is constructed to silver accessibility standards,” Mr Anderson said.

“We have also put in place policies requiring at least 20 per cent of all medium to high density dwellings developed by Landcom to meet or exceed the silver accessibility standard.”

According to Dr Ward, NSW’s ad hoc and largely voluntary approach means it will continue to fall short of meeting state and national commitments to deliver more accessible homes. 

“Most states and territories have recognised their failure to meet this commitment, and will now implement the mandated standard in the NCC,” she said. 

“The hopeful part of me is that this will go ahead. There will be early adopters and there will be later adopters.”

A finalised version of the 2022 NCC is due for release in May of next year, while the adoption of the new code is scheduled for 1 September 2022.

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  1. It’s perplexing as to why some parts of the industry have fought so hard against these changes (and still doing so). The building industry must have really high levels of injury and they will all need these homes eventually, even if not now. And if not for themselves then for their parents and friends and relatives with mobility issues. It’s personal. I don’t get it.
    Fortunately, farsighted smaller builders have seen that it cost little, if any, with a few design tweaks to add simple features like a step free entry and a step free shower. It’s the big players that seem to be stuck in 1950, save for a few fancy taps. Our lives have changed a lot since then.

  2. I bought a house/land package, Because of polio and live in the southern part of the continent, I chose a house without full floor to ceiling windows. My front door was usual size and wood. On the same side was a double glass door over which I built a corrugated roof that extended over my carport. It was wider for bumping in furniture.
    I had the window size option. I would never have chosen full length windows. Mainly, they conduct heat and cold from S/W, making the rooms unliveable. They don’t offer privacy for elderly and disabled and you can’t put furniture there.
    I had a double glazed sash window fitted in the toilet ( separate room, West) which could be cleaned on the outside by pulling in the bottom half by controls on the side of the frame. You could lock the windows partly open, up or down. They reduced the sun’s heat but not noise.
    When I redesigned my bathroom, unlike now in my off-the-plan unit with a glass door that stops when it hits the corner of the basin, I found glass doors that folded back from the corner when you pushed one. Great for one arm and space saving.
    My front door had a small frosted glass peep-door which opened to reveal the caller behind an ornamental, iron grid that was built in to the main door.
    I liked the open plan with square arch doorways. Bifold doors were added in one. The other I screened off with a, light Chinese folding screen between lounge and computer room.
    I am sure basic housing could offer a walk in pantry rather than deep shelves that go to the ceiling. Wheelchairs and arms could manage better with the surround environment.
    My current pantry has shallow shelves to accommodate a water heater behind. I use a ‘reacher ’ to grab light packets from the top.

    I believe a lot of innovative ideas could be included/excluded for permanent, affordable housing.
    It is the concepts builders need to think about.
    My current bathroom has a folding door. There is no room for a hinged door to swing.
    A lot of offices have automatic, or light-touch sliding doors. More time is spent at home, where you might now have your office, why not make a home more liveable?
    Finally, my grandmother’s house in Melbourne was long and narrow. From the front door you could look down the passage to the backdoor. I remember seeing her on her knees, waxing and polishing the brown Lino each side of the runner. It was built at the turn of 20th century.
    They can still be seen in some new builds!