We must build for elderly, disabled

ECO-HOUSE: This Salmond Architecture energy-efficient home can be built off site in 10 weeks.
ECO-HOUSE: This Salmond Architecture energy-efficient home can be built off site in 10 weeks.

Humans come in various configurations - young and old, married and single, the fit and healthy, and those for whom life is a struggle.

It is puzzling, then, that many homes and buildings fail to cater for human diversity. It is shocking that in Christchurch many elderly people and people with disabilities are forced to live in accommodation that is patently unsuitable for them: cold and damp, cramped, uncomfortable and unhealthy.

Now recognition is growing worldwide that designing better buildings and amenities provides big benefits not only for the economy, but for people's quality of life.

As Christchurch rebuilds, there is a huge opportunity to create accessible buildings that suit everybody. Experts from New Zealand, the United States and Britain outlined some of the challenges and solutions at a symposium on universal design in Christchurch last month.

The symposium was sponsored by Lifemark, a government-funded organisation whose mission is to make homes "easy and safe to live in - for a lifetime."

Chief executive Andrew Olsen spoke of the "silver tsunami" and the growing proportion of elderly in the population. As the baby- boomer bubble reaches retirement age, the burden of care falls on a dwindling number of the working population. Already, the strain on social welfare and the health system is evident. Japan and parts of Europe face depopulation.

Ageing in place makes sense. Ask yourself: Where would you like to live when you are 70, 80, or 90? Although retirement homes or some form of assisted living is unavoidable for some people, most would prefer to live in their own homes for as long as they can. They enjoy being part of the community.

For most of human history, multi-generational living has been the norm, and it still is in many parts of the world. People with disabilities such as restricted mobility or vision impairment also want to live as independently as possible.

However, finding a suitable place for an elderly family member to live is not always easy. Homes with an easy-care section, a downstairs bathroom, accessible kitchens and bathrooms, all at an affordable price, are not as plentiful as you might think.

Access to public transport, shops and medical care are other concerns. It is not always easy to adapt an existing house.

Flexible housing can cater for the occupants' different requirements as their circumstances change.

Lake Wanaka architect Anne Salmond has designed a Lifemark-approved modular high-performance house for Beacon Pathways. It can be viewed it at HIVE (the Home Innovation Village) site at the A & P Showground site in Curletts Rd.

"It's really all about allowing people to age in their houses, so what's good for people with disabilities, arthritis or an injury is good for everybody," she said.

Features include no sudden changes in floor height, no cramped awkward spaces and no hard-to-reach cupboards, handles, or switches. Owners can easily modify the home.

"The system allows the opportunity for homes to grow and adapt with changing family needs."

Why should people need to downsize or shift if they like their present neighbourhood?

Not everybody is part of a nuclear family with 2.5 children. Not everybody wants to live in the suburbs and commute to town. Yet many of our suburbs remain conventional and restrictive. To be vibrant they need a diverse population, and more inclusive design.

At the symposium, Richard Duncan, executive director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute in the US, spoke of the need for flexibility.

Design should be simple and intuitive. To me it seems strange that it isn't. Good design does not have to cost more. All it requires is some thought at the get-go.

Lifetime homes can be cost-effective and healthy, said Christchurch sociologist Kay Saville-Smith. In New Zealand we have an ad-hoc approach to housing.

She said accessibility affects us all. "Most people will be disabled by their environment at some point. Access is not a right but a necessity."

Designers Sam Martin, Gayle Souter-Brown and Tim Stoner spoke by video-link from London. Their message was clear: Design, including landscaping, makes the built environment better.

Salutogenic design is design for health (a term also used by Canadian architect Tye Farrow, who visited this year). Combating sprawl, decay and pollution, and boosting social, economic and cultural values are among the positive outcomes.

"Christchurch can be the most accessible city in the world," said Souter-Brown.

To turn ideas into reality, Christchurch developer Antony Gough outlined his plans to make his new inner- city Terrace development accessible for all.

It is up to the Government, councils and developers to ensure that public and commercial buildings, streets and homes are all accessible. Why shut people out?

The Press