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What is an accessible house?

Updated: Jul 1

New Zealand is a small, progressive country with a population equivalent to Alabama. It has adopted a national policy towards home accessibility renovations and is promoting new accessible and universal housing as well. Our friends at LifeMark put less emphasis than we do on the mainstream marketability of universally designed housing. But, they have a national certification program that we have yet to launch fully. This piece from them explores some of the challenges they are facing when attempting a national standard and common definitions of accessible and universal housing:



It’s a simple question. What is an accessible house?


Let’s look at where we can get a simple answer. The New Zealand standard for access and mobility is NZS 4121, last updated in 2001.


There are definitions to assist with the design standards, but only in commercial spaces. There is no standard for residential buildings, so no standard for an accessible house.


The Building Act of 2004 establishes performance standards to ensure reasonable and adequate provision for disabled people, but these standards do not apply to housing. The review of the Building Act also excludes accessibility and the accessible house.


The Resource Management Act (now under a 2-year review) could require new developments to meet an appropriate condition such as accessibility, but then it would have to define this and so on both accounts, the accessible house is again excluded.


The Lifemark® organisation gifted a set of voluntary Universal Design standards to the country in 2012 as a mechanism to define what how an accessible dwelling would perform. This was supported by a review process and an updated set of standards in 2016.


Several councils now use this process to encourage the development of more accessible homes. Many private sector organisations also use this service and deliver accessible housing, however many do not.

A number of new developments are now on the market offering hybrid solutions.


As one builder recently said to me “we are incorporating some Universal Design features”. The problem was that those features were chosen by the builder. This meant that the accessible bathroom was on the second floor, with only stair access to that floor. “This is not Universal Design”I replied, “well, it’s what the client wanted” I was subsequently told, “it's an accessible home according to the building code”.


Which is double speak and means that as there is no definition of accessibility in that code then any definition will do.


The tragedy is that the world helped define an accessible home decades ago. The Lifemark® standards are based on global best practice and now many countries have those definitions enshrined in legislation that requires compliance, rather than rhetoric.


A decent home is described by the human rights commission as being habitable, affordable, and accessible. Let’s not waste years needlessly debating what this means and, in the meantime continuing to advance ableism.


As a starting point for most residential developments, if you can’t wheel into a home, then it isn’t going to be accessible. It’s that simple.


As always please feel free to contact me on geoff@lifemark.co.nz as we promote Universal Design to help everyone live the life they want.

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