livable housing design
Photo: Taylor'd Distinction

OPINION: In December the Building Ministers’ Meeting will finalise the section of the National Construction Code relating to basic easy access features in all new homes. The decision to include these features, referred to as the Silver standard, was made in April this year. But this is not a done deal. Contrary to the spirit of a national building code, New South Wales and South Australia are refusing to adopt the Silver standard. They say it costs too much.

The Silver standard includes wider doorways, stepless entryways and showers, and reinforced bathroom walls. However, policy-makers tend to think of these features as only suiting people with mobility limitations. We are all going to get older and we all have older relatives. Accessible housing is convenient for everyone. It is not a niche product for “others”.

The persistent reference to extra and unaffordable cost won’t go away despite well-researched evidence to the contrary. It is common for industry stakeholders to pluck figures out of the air and quote them as fact. Regardless, these figures omit two things: who pays and who benefits.

Two years of research found that any additional cost is far outweighed by the benefits to society. This is why the Building Ministers agreed to the Silver standard earlier this year.

Although some costs are inevitable, the benefits to society were found to be greater than the costs. The overall value to families as well as savings for government in terms of residential aged care and unnecessary stays in hospital was clear. But just what are those costs? Well, that depends on who you talk to. The figures quoted range from $300 to $30,000 per dwelling.

Some smaller builders are already implementing the Silver standard in their designs. Any extra costs will be low for them. That’s because their teams can do it without mistakes or loss of time for rectifications. The $300 estimate potentially relates to the reinforcement in the bathroom walls. All other costs are designed out.

Builders, particularly volume builders, who are not implementing the standard will need to change their plans and train their teams. They are likely to have extra costs in the short term. It’s difficult to know how the figure of $30,000 was arrived at, but a guess might be extensive excavation to level a building lot. If that were the case the exemption clause would apply.

Regardless, the standard gives builders a clear guide about what is required. When everyone is working to the same standards the costs will fall because consistency and certainly are what the industry demands for cost efficiencies.

Clearly the Silver features are not onerous. The Summer Foundation found that a handful of volume builders were already including some Silver features in their home designs. This highlights the problem with the voluntary approach – that is, the inconsistent application of features.

Unfortunately, it might be a while before everyone is working to the same standards if New South Wales and South Australia lag behind with the implementation. Minster Kevin Anderson is the NSW building minister, and he argues that NSW is doing enough. In a NSW Senate Estimates Committee meeting he stated, “The NSW government is doing significant work in relation to providing accessible housing for those that need it.”

However, his office is unable to provide evidence of actual dwellings, which is a different proposition to “doing significant work”. Instead, he refers to Landcom, which “encourages” 20 per cent of Silver standard.

Interestingly, the minister might not have read Landcom’s Housing Affordability and Diversity Policy. It states in the appendix that “Silver performance level presents minimal cost according to a Department of Planning study”. This leads to the next point, NSW’s housing policy, which Minister Anderson may not be aware of.

Housing 2041: NSW Housing Strategy has a grand vision. Within that vision is a statement that “Homes in NSW are accessible and suitable for different stages of life or changing circumstances”. One of the actions is to drive the application of universal design across the housing sector. The Silver standard is an embodiment of universal design principles and it would be easy to meet this target by adopting the changes to the NCC.

In practical terms it is likely that the Silver standard will gradually creep over the Queensland, ACT and Victorian borders creating more industry confusion, particularly at trades level.

There is yet another, often unspoken policy. The Silver standard would help bring NSW in line with the National Disability Strategy and our commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. NSW and South Australia could tick the box on both of them if they were to sign up to the Silver standard along with other jurisdictions.

In practical terms it is likely that the Silver standard will gradually creep over the Queensland, ACT and Victorian borders creating more industry confusion, particularly at trades level.

It will take several years for households to feel the benefits of the Silver standard. When they do, they will have more choice about where to live. People in their 30s and 40s today will have a home they can stay in for as long as they like. People with mobility limitations will, at last, be able to visit family and friends in their own homes.

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  1. Although I empathise with the need for more affordable housing, I found the NSW Land and Environment Court’s recent decision to approve a new boarding house in my local area of Blacktown placed developer concerns above both the will of council and the better judgment of the community.
    Despite council’s refusal of the project twice, the court, headed by senior commissioner Susan Dixon, approved what I consider to be an over-developed boarding house, constituting 15-bedrooms, on the site of a current 3-bedroom house.
    In relation to local government. policy, it is not adequately supported by the existing land, environment and infrastructure, and contradicts Blacktown Council’s standpoint, objections of the neighbouring Catholic Primary School and Catholic Diocese as well as nearly 200 petitionary local signatories. Overall, the community was ignored by the court.
    I am concerned about the anti-sustainable, anti-democratic, anti-health, anti-security and anti-local actions by the NSW Judiciary, whereby, over-developed buildings, resembling ghettos, are unjustly approved.
    Evidently, the court supports foreign profit-based developments, exploitative of the land and natural environment. Plus, Blacktown residents are being treated like second-class citizens. We are expected to support such over-developments, somewhat of our own backs and corresponding land, when the developer does not have ample land and infrastructure to comfortably develop their own. We are expected to provide them with parking?
    Please refer to my article: