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August 2004

Adaptable, Accessible or Adjustable?

Level entrance at front of hous and adaptable kitch.

By Jane Bringolf,
Independent Living Centre NSW.

In New South Wales, many local councils demand that developers include a certain quota of accessible and adaptable homes within the development site. However, construction industry personnel sometimes confuse "accessible" and "adaptable", and when confronted with "adjustable" components within a home, the three "A" words become further confused.

Accessible housing is generally a purpose built dwelling for a person or persons with a disability. This may be a new dwelling or one that is modified to suit the user. Adaptations made during home modifications are not to be confused with "adaptable housing".

Adaptable housing refers to dwellings with design features that are easily adapted at a later date to flex with the changing needs of the occupants. A simple example is tiling the kitchen floor before fitting cupboards, so that if a cupboard needs to be removed to provide knee-space under a bench later on, the floor remains intact. This means the adaptations require less work at less cost.

Adjustable features refer to fittings within the home, such as an adjustable height bench that can be moved up and down, manually or electronically, to suit the height of each user in the home.

When dealing with construction industry personnel and local council officials, it is important to clarify their use of terms. Accessible, adaptable and adjustable are sometimes used interchangeably. For some, it is probably easier to visualise specially designed accessible homes for people in wheelchairs, than to comprehend the concept of adaptable homes that are more easily modified later to suit the abilities of all family members over time.

The ILC NSW knows of at least one developer who, in trying to meet the local council's criteria of adaptable housing, built accessible units instead. The main issue here is that fully accessible dwellings are more costly for the developer, and investors who have bought off the plans find themselves with a niche market dwelling to sell, or a home that is totally unsuitable for their lifestyle. However, this error was due to all parties, including the local council, not being clear about which elements were required from AS 1428 (Access and Mobility for People with Disabilities), AS 4299 (Adaptable Housing), and the NSW SEPP 5 within the development site.

AS 1428 is aimed at public access for people with disabilities and some elements are required in major housing developments for public areas. AS 4299 focuses on the actual dwelling itself. AS 4299 provides guidelines on adaptable housing and is arranged in four sections covering the: scope and general information; objectives and performance requirements; siting; and design of residential accommodation. The Standard lists 119 features which are divided into three categories.

The first and "essential" category includes drawings of the dwelling before and after adaptation; continuous path of travel; adequate circulation spaces; appropriate fittings and their placement. The second category is "first priority desirable" and includes covered car parking space, gently sloping site, and accessible common facilities. The third category, "desirable" includes additional adjustable fixtures, hard surfaced pathways and clear signage throughout developments.

A 'Class A' adaptable house incorporates all 119 features, a 'Class B' adaptable house includes all 55 essential features, all 42 first priority features and at least three desirable features. A 'Class C' house includes the 55 essential features.

Building or modifying a home for a person with a disability is seen as a niche market activity. However, the aim of the adaptable housing movement is to move away from building special accommodation for different community groups to making all dwellings adaptable. The principles of adaptable housing are based on cost, choice, visitability, and ease of adaptation.

The additional cost of incorporating adaptable features is usually less than five percent of the overall construction cost. In many cases, the cost is virtually nil. Adaptable features are an added bonus, as they do not impinge on the integrity of the general design, yet they offer flexibility for change later on. This also means minimal cost and inconvenience if alterations are needed.

Visitability is a fairly new concept and means that friends and relatives with disabilities can visit with ease. It is often forgotten that wheelchair users, for example, may have their home modified, but they cannot visit their friends' homes. This brings social costs of isolation, loneliness and decreasing independence to all concerned. The time has come for all Australian housing to be designed as adaptable by including AS 4299 in the Building Code of Australia.


The author, Jane Bringolf, has recently been awarded a 2004 Churchill Fellowship to travel overseas to research housing developments in America, England and Europe.

The official description of her studies is "to evaluate organisations promoting the benefits of accessible environments, universal design and assistive technology with emphasis on implementation, funding initiatives and political issues". The project aims to set up a national centre in Australia for accessible design and assistive technology, similar to those overseas. The centre will bring together the efforts of many disability groups, in promoting accessible environments and the efficacy of appropriate assistive equipment. It will also serve as an information and education point for the construction industry, designers, rehabilitation engineers, health professionals and the general public who want to know about "design for all".

Jane will be departing on 30 September and will travel to the USA to visit the Centre for Universal Design, RESNA, IDEA Center at Buffalo, and Rehabilitation International in New York, as well as other local programs. In the UK she will visit the Disabled Living Centres Council, Disabled Living Foundation and the Centre for Accessible Environments. The Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe has its secretariat in Denmark and this will be her last visit before returning home mid November.

Jane's report will be available on the Churchill Fellowship Trust web site after it is submitted. In the meantime the ILC NSW Products Database has details of housing publications and programs, including:

More information is also available on e-bility's link directory under adaptable housing

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