Design for access and sustainability

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Design for access and sustainability

  Image: Cartoon by Damian Callanan

While architecture in Australia has embraced important aspects of sustainability over recent years, an equally important challenge it now faces is providing universal access. This report prepared by the Australian Institute of Architects — National Access Work Group.

Recently there has been a great deal of publicity about the Federal Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme. For those with initiative and imagination, this latest logical step in providing funds and facilities to serve the needs of the more than 20 percent who are either temporarily or permanently disabled is a dramatic development likely to increase demand for the design skills of architects. NDIS highlights the need for a drastic reassessment of sustainable building design: without built-in accessibility for all, buildings will require periodic retrofitting and are therefore not sustainable.

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute is quoted as saying: “A sustainable world society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations” Architects play a significant role in reconciling current and future human needs with a sustainable future. Their, aims and objectives and their designs have always reflected changes in public opinion, taste, developments in technology together with the need to provide accommodation for a wide variety of occupants and functions in buildings. The most recent of these is the perceived need to design buildings that take full account of the principles of sustainability. Having said that, there will always be constant basic human needs to be taken into account. The words of Vitruvius – “Firmness commodity and delight” – come to mind in this discussion. 

Firmness – has many nuances, but here includes strength, stability and longevity.
– use of appropriate materials and a concept of ‘fitness for purpose’.
– ‘satisfaction and aesthetic pleasure’ are most apt.

All of these three qualities are compatible with global sustainability. The third is often, and, by definition, very largely an outcome of the first two; the second is the most challenging for architects. Some structures are purpose designed to house equipment and manufacturing processes with no access to the public and access for a limited number of people servicing or operating the plant and equipment housed. Most, however, are built environments with a significant human focus.

Building Regulations have developed progressively typically in response to catastrophic events such as the Great Fire in Rome in 64AD, destruction by fires such as the fire of London in 1666, and sometimes as a result of unsafe workplaces. Regulations have been developed to provide safe environments on the basis of equity of use and to sustain the quality of human life. The Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 (Premises Standards), which came into operation on 1 May 2011, are no exception. They are the logical outcome of the operation of the Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) which prohibits discriminatory action. It extends its scope to include the principle of dignity of individuals in their use of spaces in buildings and requires building owners and managers to provide a safe and equitable environment. It is enforceable by complaints being heard by a Federal Court.

Most buildings serve to house the activities of people with a wide range of ages and abilities and ‘fitness for purpose’ is of primary importance in achieving ‘satisfaction and aesthetic pleasure’. Buildings designed with sustainability in mind generally have a longer life than their occupants with the result that it is close to 100 percent statistically likely that, at some stage, a number of their occupants and visitors will be either temporarily or permanently disabled. Accessibility is therefore an important aspect of sustainability.

When implemented correctly, design for accessibility allows people to be where they need to be independently, efficiently and with dignity, and in doing so frees their own and others’ time resource. Further it allows for building use when a transitory disability occurs and provides a less dangerous environment. Retrofitting to meet individual needs can largely be avoided and in any case suitable structural provisions should be made so that retrofitting, if required, is least costly.

The Building Code of Australia and associated Australian Standards have progressively introduced requirements to improve access but improvement in the overall level of access has been slow. There has been little evidence of a proactive approach from the building industry to voluntarily fully address its responsibilities under the DDA. Use of the DDA complaints mechanism with resolution (or otherwise) on the basis of isolated legal disputes has not delivered an holistic approach to access. Systemic change has therefore not been possible as people who have been discriminated against have reportedly found the complaints and Federal Court process too daunting.

At long last the perceived need for all people, irrespective of their ability/mobility, to be able to enter and move freely in and around buildings has been codified. There are many examples of what is proposed already extant in numerous regional shopping centres and cinema complexes. In these buildings, the owners and operators have seen a commercial advantage in providing the means for people to be able to enter and move freely in and around their premises. Transport infrastructure has similarly been progressively upgraded an accordance with the provisions of the Transport Standards that have been operating since October 2002.

Our communities include a huge range of people, with a wide range of abilities. Some ‘disabilities’ are permanent, others are temporary, due to accidents, illness etc. and include such limitations as those experienced by parents with young children in strollers etc. All people have the basic human right to participate in the broadest range of social activities. In addition to providing access through building solutions there is a need for adequate provision for wayfinding, both inherent in the design by logical flow of spatial arrangements, and by readily identifiable, clear and intelligible signage. It is incumbent upon building designers to make provision for this broad range of building occupants and visitors.

The DDA’92 in Section 32 says, simply, “It is unlawful to contravene a disability standard.” Therefore to comply with Federal Law, all buildings identified in Section 2.1 of the Premises Standards (PS) which are the subject of an application for a building permit on or after 1 May 2011 must meet the Access Code, regardless of the version of the BCA which the building surveyor uses to assess the application. It should be noted that there is no provision for a ‘period of grace’. And importantly, it is not the BCA 2011 that requires compliance with PS 2010 but the Federal Act DDA through Premises Standards 2010 (where Clause 2.1 (1) (b) and Clauses 2.1 (4) and 2.1 (5) requires relevant buildings to meet the Access Code, which involves compliance with BCA 2011 (and later issues) where applicable).

None of this affects the right of persons who consider they have suffered discrimination on the grounds of their disability to complain about a building design. This remains enshrined in the Act, but compliance with the Premises Standards will mean a complaint in respect of matters covered by the Standards cannot be upheld.

Australian Standards AS 1428.1 and AS 1428.4, both of which have been updated over a number of years, were re-published in 2009 and amended in 2010 as part of an agreement to align the technical requirements of the BCA, DDA and Australian Standards. AS 1428.4 was renumbered as AS 1428.4.1. The updated standards were altered to accommodate a wider range of the population than was included in previous editions and are now reference documents to the Access Code and the BCA.

AS 1428.1 and AS 1428.4.1 address the built environment. AS 1428.2 which is being re-written to cover furniture, internal fitout and equipment, is currently on the agenda of Standards Australia to be completed by the end of 2016. While currently not legally referenced by legislation, the publication of this standard would provide some guidance for designers and building owners and operators. AS 1428.4.2 Wayfinding and AS 1428.8 Accessible Housing are also listed for finalisation by the end of 2016. Other standards that may be developed by Standards Australia in the future include access to the external environment. This information will provide consistent principles for designers and building owners and managers as the DDA includes external as well as internal environments.

Similarly to BCA 2011 and the Access to Premises Standard, principles of sustainability are progressively being enshrined in legislation. Since 2006, BCA Section J, The Building has included minimum provisions for energy efficiency for all Building Classes. For housing the BCA requires minimum energy ratings using the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS).

There have been many and varied repercussions of recent very significant steps forward in both the access and the ‘green’ agendas. An in-depth investigation of the interrelation between these two critical social movements will no doubt be the subject of many more detailed future commentaries and investigations.

Why is this a critical topic for all practitioners, not only those working in health or aged-care related areas? Because in the words of Daniel Libeskind: “Good Design should be for everyone.”

Guideline on the Application of the Premises Standards – Version 2, prepared by the Australian Human Rights Commission, was published in February 2013 and is available on its website.

The Australian Institute of Architects National Access Work Group was set up in July 1998. Reporting to the National Practice Committee, the group has representatives from all states and territory Chapters, together with representatives of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, the Australian Property Institute and the Association of Consultants in Access Australia. It prepares practice notes and design guides on access design for Acumen — the Australian Institute of Architects practice advisory service for architects.

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