24 January 2010

What is universal design?

Someone asked me recently what universal design is.  
If I were impatient and direct and - you know - Australian - I would say "It's the bloody way all buildings, houses, apartments, transport, recreation areas etc should be designed".  Of course, I am getting old and have learnt the hard way the necessity and art of politesse.
And ok, it's a fair question. So ...
Universal design principles have been around since the 1970s, originating at the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State University.
As the name implies, universal design (UD) homes (or UD education systems - stay tuned) are accessible to the widest number of people irrespective of their abilities.
UD rule #1 - barrier-free entry.
You can have an entry like this >>>
Which many people can’t enter.
Or apply UD rule # 1 – barrier-free entry. 
NO STEPS.  Think ramps or paths.  

In fact, just think.  Do you need steps?  A no-step entry allows you to actually get in the door of your home if you have or develop physical mobility issues (disabled, broke your leg ski-ing, dragging toddlers/furniture/shopping bags, unsteady on your feet, bad hangover).  Or if any of these apply to your visitors.
Yes visitors.  To me, that's the sustainability and social inclusion value of UD homes.  So those of us with restrictions of physical movement are not socially isolated from their friends, their community, their world, all because of a few steps. 
There is no such thing as confined to a wheelchair.  Wheelchairs offer freedom of movement.  Steps eliminate freedom.
Barrier-free entry means anyone can get in the home’s entrance door because there are no steps.  You can walk on two legs, hop on one leg, use a walking frame, wheelchair, stroller, pram, bike, scooter, skateboard.  You can even crawl through, as Sportivo and Gia (Australian kelpie - smarter than the whole family combined) used to love doing they were stalking each other. 
And then have a little nap, blocking the entry to all.

UD rule # 2 – getting to the bathroom – next blog entry!

18 January 2010

I wish ... building codes complied with universal design

Had a preliminary meeting today arranged by our architects with a certifier and engineer to discuss the best (as in fastest) way to progress our housing plans with the local council. 

Getting people together to consult is great - enables us to explain verbally and in writing (before the meeting) why we need an accessible house and also why the world needs universal design.  And we learn from the rest of the team the issues they need to address and why.

We identified some key challenges and worked out an action plan along with a contingency plan, which I suspect will become the action plan.

But I felt depressed.  Depressed that we spent considerable time and incurred costs to discuss the minutae of shifting the property maybe 20cm to comply with building codes.   

Do the building codes address how important it is now and in the immediate future to modify and create houses that meet changing demographic needs?  

Nah, what our team needs to know is how to manage house location within 20% of average surrounding setback ... or something like that.  Because that's what the local building code specifies, so that's what's important.  If our team can do that they can help us get into our house faster.  For which we are grateful.

But I wish I when I contacted the planning authority initially to discuss all this, someone could have said:

"You're modifying a family home in a growing city using universal design principles?  What foresight you show!  How can we help you achieve your goal and create a house that anyone of any ability can live in?"

Why do we need houses that anyone can live in?  I'll leave it to Queensland Action for Universal Housing Design to answer that:

  • Queensland has a growth rate, currently at 4.25 per cent, consistently higher than the national average for more than 13 years.
  • Queensland experienced the highest positive net interstate migration with a gain of 20,000 persons in the last year.
  • Queensland is projected to experience the largest percentage increase in population (in Australia) between 30 June 2007 and 2056, more than doubling the 2007 population of 4.2 million to 8.7 million people by 2056. It is projected to replace Victoria as Australia's second most populous state in 2050.
  • With South Australia and Tasmania, Queensland has the highest percentage per capita of people who are ageing or who have a disability and this percentage is expected to rise.
  • Queensland will face the greatest challenge if we don’t get it right.
    The time to act is now. If included from the start, universal housing design will cost no more

07 January 2010

Casa di cuore – Italian for inclusive home?

The simple timber house we bought bears a discreet brass plate entitled Casa di cuore - home of heart. 

We need a home with heart. 

And one that meets our ordinary human need for sharing and privacy, indoor functionality and outdoor lifestyle.  Ease of movement and independence.  A haven from the world and a home office.  Whether we are old, young, fat, thin, disabled or temporarily able bodied.  

A truly inclusive home for our family – hubby, me, uni student daughter, Iced Coffee Queen and sports-mad high school son, Sportivo.  Plus the mad kelpie dog @#%*. 

We are doing what we wish Australian policy-makers would do: we are being sensible and actively planning for the future.  We are researching, designing, personally funding and creating a functional, flexible home which anyone – regardless of ability or age – can be welcomed into and move around freely. And we're building another, smaller multi-function house adjacent to where our renovated house will be. Both houses could meet the needs of: 
  • Grandma and Grandpa (because home is important to them too)
  • House guests from interstate and overseas
  • Exchange students
  • Visiting friends of all levels of physical mobility, from 1 year-old Florence to 82 year old Betty
  • Families learning physical rehabilitation therapy
  • Home office
  • Us when we’re old and grump(ier)
  • The kids when they have partners and should have moved out but can’t afford to
  • Support workers
  • Tenants when we need rental income, because we have spent all our earned income on disability equipment and services.  Because unlike other countries where people with disabilities have a legislated right to the aids, equipment and technology they require for daily living, no such right exists in Australia. 
We’re thinking flexibility.  Accessibility.  Ageing in place.  Visitability.  Universal design principles.  Life-time housing.  Sustainability.  Responsibility.

We’re hoping the planning authority is thinking that way too.  We’re hoping we don’t have to fight for every extra square centimetre of indoor circulation space or outdoor hard surface that makes wheeled movement easy or even enjoyable.

Because we are really, truly sick of fighting for everything, just because one of us has a physical disability.

We’re hoping the planning authority places as much importance on independence, inclusion and accessibility as it does on grey water, insulation and urban footprint.  And maybe, just maybe, thinks what we are doing could be a useful housing model for other local residents, now and in the future.

Because we think what we’re doing is true sustainability.  We are creating a house that we can all live in as long as we want to, regardless of how our abilities change.  Not much point in having a greywater toilet system if you can't get over the threshold of your house ...

03 January 2010

Down the garden path

There's something beguiling about a shady path, wherever it leads to. We love paths.  We're not keen on steps.

Our path in 2010 is leading to our new home.  It's currently an old timber house on one side of a big block of land. Upstairs is the living accommodation; downstairs used to be stables.  We've got big plans for those stables ...

Deep down the back of the property is a wild garden which needs some love.  On the other side of the block we will build another, smaller house, with many many uses.

This is our journey, our path, to our inclusive home.