Future-proof buildings good for all

By - , Build 186

Paula Tesoriero MNZM, Aotearoa New Zealand’s Disability Rights Commissioner, says universal design (UD) future-proofs homes so everyone, including the ageing and disabled, can live in them comfortably.

ABOUT 24% OF our population identify as disabled – that’s roughly 1 million people in Aotearoa New Zealand. But despite this, around 130,000 disabled people in this country live in homes that don’t fully meet their needs. That figure is likely to increase as our population ages.

Houses not designed for needs of all

So much of our built environment excludes disabled people because of its design. This means many disabled people are simply not able to live in houses that are suitable to their needs or access buildings in the way non-disabled people can – routinely and easily.

A study by Lifemark – a division of CCS Disability Action – looked at the application of the principles of universal design (UD) in new homes. It found that three key features of accessibility – level pathways and entrances, an easily accessible bathroom on the ground floor and wide doorways – were found in just 5% of new homes, while only 2% would comply with Lifemark’s higher standards of accessibility. The study also found that one in six people need modifications to their home.

As the Disability Rights Commissioner, my role is to protect and promote the rights of disabled people. Those rights are set out in both the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act. This country is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, and these elements combined bring a collective responsibility.

The beauty of universal design

Universal design solutions future-proof buildings for the modern world so anyone can use them – and no one is excluded. UD principles marry uber-functionality with aesthetics – homes built to these principles can easily be visually attractive as well as functional and practical. Universally designed structures work for all of us, at any stage or age. From a disability rights perspective, universal design is truly fundamental to building an inclusive society.

Lead building practitioners and designers may be in a challenging position. Although they may see the functional and aesthetic benefits of UD, clients may be reluctant or unable to extrapolate the longer-term benefits and assume considerable additional costs. From a societal perspective, this view is shortsighted because UD is all about making structures work for most people – and that includes disabled people.

UD costs less in new builds

According to BRANZ, it’s more expensive to retrofit a structure than to build it from scratch using UD principles. Its research found the cost of incorporating essential UD features in a new 150–200 m2 house was just $1,700 compared to $14,000 for a retrofit and that, in most cases, the extra costs of incorporating UD solutions is about 0.5% of the total build cost.

BRANZ also endorses UD because its concepts and solutions make sense as buildings designed with these principles are more attractive to a wider group of buyers. To calculate the cost of incorporating UD into a new build or a retrofit, visit www.branz.co.nz/UDcalculator.

Councils show it can be done

The New Zealand Disability Strategy 2016–2026 is a roadmap to help implement the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The strategy aims to influence and regulate for the kind of changes I’m advocating and lays out the outcomes that local councils, planners, designers and builders can contribute to.

There are some good examples of local government leading on UD initiatives. Thames-Coromandel District Council has incentivised new builds using UD solutions. Its modelling showed the district’s population was ageing and it was more cost-effective for builders to get it right first time than to retrofit homes to suit its ageing population.

Hamilton City Council is incentivising developers to achieve Lifemark certification in residential developments in the central city, while Palmerston North City Council’s Lifemark 4 star Papaioea Place project will have 76 new homes. Hauraki District Council has incentivised UD to recognise that we need to be designing homes that cater for the needs of the elderly and disabled people in our community.

Making universal design mainstream

Our society is undergoing quite rapid social and cultural change. The building industry could grasp this opportunity to promote UD as mainstream. There is an opportunity to pivot from a one-size-fits all approach in our built environment to creating adaptive and inclusive structures that stand the test of time. What a great legacy to leave.

My aspiration as Disability Rights Commissioner is to have 100% UD for all government new builds and eventually for all new builds. I view this as not just about the design of housing – it’s about creating an accessible world with infrastructure that supports disability and diversity. As a social indicator, housing is something we need to do better.


1. What is universal design?
a. Making a house as big as possible.
b. Making house designs generic.
c. Solutions that future-proof buildings for the modern world so anyone can use them – and no one is excluded.

2. According to BRANZ, what is the average cost of incorporating essential UD features into a 200 m2 new house?
a. $1,700
b. $34,000
c. $14,000

3. What are the advantages of designing UD into our new housing?
a. The cost will be a fraction of that required to retrofit an existing house.
b. The house becomes more attractive to a wider group of buyers.
c. It creates adaptive and inclusive homes catering for the future needs of our communities.
d. It’s just the right thing to do.
e. All of the above.

Answers: 1. c,  2. a,  3. e.

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