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.
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.
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.