Although you might think that the front line, so to speak, for disability campaigners would still be in dealing with issues like visibility and awareness of disabled people or accessible public spaces and so on, you might be surprised to ﬁnd that some are looking at how domestic dwellings can be improved for disabled people. The ‘home front’ if you like.
Lots of disabled people will identify with a desire to live independent lives in their own home, perhaps with occasional support from family or healthcare workers or well-chosen adaptive technology and so on. Adaptations that help disabled people (such as stairlifts) are usually applied to the home as an ‘aftermarket’ concern. However, more people are beginning to think differently, perhaps in the wake of successful public builds that there might be another way of looking at things. What if buildings were designed to be accessible from the start? How can people (disabled or not) get the best out of a building over the course of a lifetime?
A new trend among campaigners has seen them champion inclusion into the original architectural design of buildings with the hope that more of us will be able to enjoy life in our own homes, for longer. Even though the vast majority of us live in an older house (rather than a new-build) it’s still a battle worth ﬁghting since we may, at some point, need to relocate for reasons relating to disability – not to mention that we should also support changes to our traditional housing development policies to a more universal model that works for all.
The process is a slow one but progress is coming along. If there is an obvious difficulty it’s that in an age of housing shortage, ‘details’ such as accessibility and sustainability of buildings are seemingly being put to one side in favour of speed of delivery.
Able Magazine spoke with architect, Vaila Morrison, who at this year’s Naidex disability event entitled her Home, Design & Build Summit seminar: ‘Shouldn’t All Homes Be Inclusive?’ While it sounds like there’s a very obvious answer to that question, it’s currently not quite as simple as all that.
“The main change in recent years has been that building regulations have absorbed a lot of housing standards for accessibility,” she told us positively, adding that: “Before it was random – different places, different standards. The main one that we used to work to was the Lifetime Homes standard which outlines ‘adaptability’ (the notion that a building is ‘adaptable’) and then there’s the Wheelchair Housing Design Guide (produced by housing association, Habinteg). Those two standards have broadly been brought into the building regulations and there are now three categories in there for access. Category one is ‘visitable’ – very basic access – level threshold if you can, downstairs toilet, if you can – and that’s the default that developers have to aim for.
Category two is similar to Lifetime Homes but it doesn’t have features such as designing a space on the access level that could be used as a bedroom if someone had an illness. We (also) used to have to allocate a space where you could put a vertical lift if it was needed in the future. (Neither are in building regulations.) Category three is full wheelchair access but it’s only category one that’s the default.”
You might assume that since parts of the Lifetime Homes standard are written into ‘building regulations’ that the problems are solved. Sadly, it’s a little more complicated than that – and doesn’t altogether eradicate the postcode lottery element of availability of accessible housing stock. The fact is that planning and building regulations are linked together. If planning policy states that a certain number of dwellings have to conform to one of these categories then, of course, the developers have to commit to deliver them or risk being refused planning approval for their projects.
Vaila also adds: “There are different levels of planning and the main national planning is very vague with broad brush statements, whereas individual planning authorities set their own: the ‘local plan’ and that’s the policy that local authorities work to. Things like this (accessibility) should ideally be in the local plan.” In other words, different authorities can pick and choose which elements to uphold.
Despite this disappointing backdrop, there are areas of the country where local authorities are ‘doing the right thing’ – and it might surprise you to find out where they are.
“Although it’s split up into boroughs, the Greater London Authority (GLA) have what they call the London Plan. Since 2004 they’ve had 90% Lifetime Homes standard and 10% wheelchair accessible. That’s now switched to category two and category three – so London have done it. It tends to be metropolitan areas. The argument for me is that, well if the places where they’ve got the higher land values and the higher build costs can manage to do it, why are we not doing it everywhere? It just seems crazy!” explained Vaila.
Campaigners like Vaila are still pushing for accessible policies to be properly enshrined and enforced in building regulations since they have “More teeth” when developers don’t come up to scratch.
Perhaps the thing that will really start to accelerate change is a shift in public perception. For the majority of new home purchasers the word ‘accessible’ doesn’t sound homely, it sounds clinical. Vaila agrees, saying: “There’s got to be a marketing shift. We watch all of these home design shows on the telly and they talk about green issues all of the time. I think we should also be talking about accessibility, flexibility and inclusivity as well, as part of that sustainability for the future. Society has to catch up and realise that it’s good for everybody not just for the individual.”
The good news is that there are already local authorities and developers prepared to lead the way on the subject as Vaila concludes, saying: “There was a review last year on disability and the environment which recommended that category two become the default standard for all local authorities and that a certain percentage be category three, wheelchair accessible, but the Government didn’t really respond to that which was quite disappointing. There is movement but it’s slow. It’s a matter of encouraging local authorities to up their game and follow the examples that have already been set.”