NATSPEC Universal Design TECHnotes

Emma Green , 27 October 2020

Australia’s ageing population means that the principles of universal design in residential design and construction are increasingly important. NATSPEC recognises the importance of universal design with the release of three new TECHnotes.

The principles of universal design in residential design and construction are particularly important in the context of Australia’s ageing population. Between 1999 and 2019, the proportion of the population aged 65 years or over rose from 12.3% to 15.9%. Over the same time period, the proportion of the population aged over 85 increased by 117.1%, compared to a total population increase of 34.8%.

With an ageing population comes an increasing demand for aged care and, in particular, residential aged care homes. Yet research shows that the majority of the elderly population would prefer to remain living in their own home and their own community. The advent of COVID-19 has created greater impetus to find alternatives to aged care homes.

Universal Design From the Outset

Universal design is an important factor that allows people to continue living in their own home when their mobility is reduced. However, universal design is often introduced at a later stage through home modifications. Simple changes can dramatically increase a person’s ability to live independently. Minor home modifications include levelling a doorstep or installing handrails on both sides of a staircase. Major modifications that may be required include ramps, widened door frames and new bathrooms. 

Of course, these modifications are far more difficult and more expensive to introduce after the initial design and construction process is complete. Documenting universal design elements in specifications from the very beginning of a project reduces cost and means that the final construction will be usable by a far greater number of people. Small decisions made in the initial design process can have a significant positive impact in the final construction. For example, specifying floor finishes, the type of door handles, and the height of handles and switches can help more people access and use a building in a comfortable, independent way.

People with disabilities or mobility restrictions are rarely considered to be part of the mainstream housing market. However, the vast majority of the population will benefit from universal design at some point in their lives, whether that’s due to illness, injury or old age. Universal design helps make housing inclusive for visitors, tenants and owners of all abilities. This increases people's ability to live independently and prevents the isolation and marginalisation associated with a lack of inclusive housing.

NATSPEC Universal Design TECHnotes

NATSPEC recognises the importance and the necessity of universal design. Three new TECHnotes released with NATSPEC's October update focus on universal design. These include an introduction to universal design and specific TECHnotes on slip resistance and trip avoidance.

The new additions to the Design series explain universal design goals and related requirements in the NCC and Australian Standards. The TECHnotes also look at specific issues linked to universal design. For example, trips can cause a person to lose balance and fall, which may lead to injury or hospitalisation. Uneven walking surfaces, low obstacles and poor lighting all increase the likelihood of a person tripping. Universal design can be applied to reduce trips and falls, therefore preventing more serious consequences.

Universal design is just that – universal. It benefits everyone by increasing safety and independence, giving people the freedom to live how and where they want to.

For more information on the new TECHnotes, head to the NATSPEC website.

NATSPEC is a not-for-profit, Government- and industry-owned organisation. It maintains the National Building Specification and has been a valued part of the Australian construction industry for 45 years.