The liveable and adaptable home
- Your household, activities and needs may change over time. It is a good idea if your home can easily accommodate those changes.
- A liveable home is designed to meet the changing needs of most occupants throughout their lifetime. An adaptable home is a liveable home that can be easily adapted to become accessible for wheelchair users.
- Think about the design features that will allow your home to be easily changed over time. For example, can room uses be easily changed to accommodate a ground floor bedroom? Are doorways and passageways wide enough for wheelchair use? Are entries level or are steps easily replaced with ramps?
- Think about including fixtures that can be used by someone as they age. For example, low wide cupboards may be more accessible than tall thin versions, and lever door handles are easier to use than knobs.
- Kitchens, bathrooms, and laundries are areas to pay particular attention to, to ensure they can be used safely.
- If you are designing a multilevel home, ensure it can be adapted to the needs of less mobile occupants. Include a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, and bedroom (or room that can be converted to a bedroom) on the ground floor, and build in capacity for a lift or staircase lift.
Understanding liveability and adaptability
Many people, when buying or building a new home, anticipate spending many years, if not decades, living in it. The home is therefore likely to have to accommodate changing needs over its lifetime. For example, as your family grows and changes over time, the home may need to accommodate play areas for children, teenage retreats, and new entertainment and hobby spaces. It may also need to suit people working from home, and people living independently in their later years. A single space may have a variety of functions over the life of the home.
Household needs can also vary over time in relation to physical capabilities. Most people can expect temporary or permanent variations in their physical capabilities during their life due to injury, illness, or age. Longer life spans and higher proportions of older people in our society make it more likely that every home at some time will need to accommodate the needs of a person with a physical limitation, whether they are the primary resident or a visitor. The design of a home can affect the ability of occupants with limited mobility, reduced vision, or other physical limitations to perform common tasks such as carrying shopping into the home, cooking a meal, using the bathroom, or getting items from high shelves.
A liveable or adaptable home is easy and safe to live in for people of all ages and abilities, and able to respond effectively to changing needs without requiring costly and energy-intensive alterations. ‘Liveable’ and ‘adaptable’ mean slightly different things:
- A liveable home is designed to meet the changing needs of most home occupants throughout their lifetime. A liveable home follows the design guidelines set out by Liveable Housing Australia.
- An adaptable home is a liveable home that also meets Australian Standard AS4299-1995 Adaptable housing, which means it can be easily adapted to become accessible for wheelchair users, if the need should arise. An accessible home meets Australian Standard AS 1428.1-2009 Design for access and mobility.
The liveable home
The liveable home is based on the principles of ‘universal design’ — defined as the design of products and environments so that they are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. The intention is to simplify life for everyone by making more housing usable by more people at minimal extra cost.
A liveable home uses a combination of building features, fittings and products to promote ease of use and independence, benefiting people of all ages and abilities. It ensures that rooms and services within the home are of a size and type suitable for as many people as possible.
For example, slightly wider doorways or passageways are more easily navigated by users of mobility devices such as walking frames, wheelchairs or a child’s pram. Designing an entry without steps removes the need for later addition of a ramp and handrails, while improving access for children’s prams. Easy-to-use taps, handles and electrical switches can benefit everyone, especially those with limited hand function. Incorporating these fittings during construction reduces the need for retrofitting.
A liveable home does not necessarily accommodate the higher access needs of occupants who require an accessible home. However, the inclusion of liveable design features may reduce or eliminate the cost of retrofitting a home to improve access in the future.
The Liveable Housing Design Guidelines provide technical advice and guidance on the key living features that make a home easier and safer to live in for people of all ages and abilities. The guidelines were developed and endorsed by industry, community and government, and aim to improve the design and function of new homes in the mainstream and social housing market. The guidelines detail 3 performance levels for liveability — silver, gold, and platinum — which range from basic requirements through to best practice.
Photo: DLG Aluminium
The adaptable home
In addition to being designed to be usable by most people, the adaptable home has provision for further modifications should they be required to meet the specific needs of a disabled occupant. This may include modifying the kitchen, laundry and bathroom to improve access and independence, increasing lighting levels in response to vision impairment, or introducing support devices such as grab rails and additional security measures.
Australian Standard AS 4299-1995 Adaptable housing provides guidance for designing homes to accommodate varying degrees of physical ability over time. Starting from the basic premise that every home should be accessible to a visitor using a wheelchair, the standard requires the home to also be adaptable for an occupant using a wheelchair. Although such a need is unlikely in every home, the standard specifies wheelchair space requirements, as circulation and access present the greatest difficulties. By allowing enough space for wheelchairs, other equipment such as walking frames and prams can be better accommodated.
Adherence to the adaptability standard may be specified in the building contract and enables housing to be certified as adaptable to one of 3 classes based on the inclusion of essential and desirable features. It recommends that adaptable features incorporated into a dwelling be clearly documented with ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings. This avoids relying upon memory and enables the information to be readily passed on to contractors or subsequent owners. Compliance with this standard enables a design to be certified as an adaptable home, clearly identifying and recognising its adaptable features. Whether or not a designer is seeking certification, the certification document provides useful information.
Benefits to the owner
Occupants can remain in a liveable and adaptable home for longer, because their needs can be met over a greater period of time. This reduces the likelihood of having to relocate to alternative housing, which can cause significant disruption and break community ties. Liveable and adaptable homes provide attractive housing options for the greatest number of people and are therefore a sound investment for resale and rental.
Design for adaptability enables rapid response to changing life needs which can be swift and unexpected. It also increases the building’s serviceable life span before renovation, with associated financial, energy and material savings.
To cater for your household’s changing needs over the longer term, you might be interested in exploring designs that allow you to independently accommodate adult children or ageing relatives, or share your block with family or friends when you downsize, subject to planning approval. This approach can build economic resilience and community ties. Collaborative housing is well established in northern Europe and parts of the United States. Though relatively new to Australia, it is gathering momentum.
Making your home liveable and adaptable
In the early stages of designing a new home or renovation, consider what type of use may be desirable and discuss your choices with your architect, designer or builder. Consider the following:
- How might the use of space change over time?
- Can the design be expanded or changed to meet future household needs?
- Will the home need to be accessible for elderly friends and relatives who have a disability?
- Will the home need to be accessible for an ageing or disabled occupant?
- What fixtures can be easily incorporated to increase liveability for ageing or disabled occupants (for example, easy-to-use taps and handles)?
- What design features can be easily incorporated to increase liveability for ageing or disabled occupants (for example, ramps, wider openings)?
When designing your home, you might want to think about its potential to be reconfigured later to suit changes in the size and composition of your household. For example, you may want a design that can be converted into 2 smaller homes, subject to planning approval.
The following provides general guidance about how spaces in and around a home can accommodate both liveable and adaptable housing principles. They should be read in conjunction with the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines and Australian Standards AS4299-1995 Adaptable housing and AS 1428.1-2009 Design for access and mobility.
Access and entry
An adaptable home should:
- provide easy access from both the street and car parking spaces in all weather and light conditions, with a safe and step-free continuous path of travel
- include at least 1 level entrance into the building
- avoid stairs and use ramps only where essential
- size ramps and stairs in compliance with Australian Standard AS 1428.1
- construct access paths from well-drained, solid, nonslip surfaces that provide a high colour contrast to surrounding garden areas
- light pathways with low-level lighting directed at the path surface, not the user
- protect paths and entries from weather
- avoid overhanging branches and plants.
For security, the home entrance should be visible from the entry point to the site or the car parking space. The entry itself should provide a level sheltered landing that is sized for wheelchair manoeuvrability and is adequately lit for visibility from inside the home. Entry door locks and lever handles should be fitted at appropriate heights and be able to be used with one hand. Ensure there are no obstructions or level changes that would limit access by a wheelchair user, or are a tripping hazard to others.
The interior of the home should allow easy movement between spaces. Often, this simply means slightly widening internal doors and passageways. Ideally, access should be easy throughout the entire home, but it may be considered necessary only in some parts such as between living spaces, kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom. At entry level there should be a toilet with easy access, plus a bedroom or a space that could be later used as a bedroom.
Internal doors should have a minimum unobstructed width of 820mm and passageways a minimum of 1000mm, but any additional width is beneficial. Doorway width is measured from the face of the open door to the opposite frame. Circulation space around doors is required to allow wheelchair access, with special attention given to providing enough space to reach and operate the door lever.
Electrical outlets are best placed at a minimum of 600mm above the floor; for light switches and other controls the ideal height range is 900−1100mm. Switches and controls should be placed no less than 300mm from an internal corner (in plain view) to allow easy access by wheelchair users. The use of 2-way switches is desirable at each end of corridors and where spaces have more than one entry.
Window sills should be low enough to allow unobstructed views to the exterior from standing, sitting and lying positions where appropriate. Window handles should be located no higher than 1200mm from floor level. Where different floor surfaces meet, they need to be level and fitted with cover strips to prevent tripping. They should be similar colours or tones to avoid the perception of a step or height difference.
Lighting design needs to respond to the specific use of different spaces by evenly distributing light to avoid shadows, especially over work surfaces. Lighting should also be able to provide stronger illumination when required for those with impaired vision.
Living spaces should be comfortable and accessible to all residents and visitors. To accommodate a range of activities and tasks, it is advisable to install air-conditioning and other services to suit a variety of furniture layouts. Australian Standards recommend:
- a minimum of 4 double electrical outlets
- a telecommunications outlet adjacent to an electrical outlet
- 2 TV antennae outlets, all located at appropriate heights
- clear circulation space within the room of at least 2250mm diameter for wheelchair manoeuvrability.
As a person’s physical abilities deteriorate over time, the kitchen is one of the main rooms in the home where the impact of physical limitations is felt. The design of a kitchen should enable a person’s independence and ought to be adaptable to accommodate a specific individual’s needs. Detailed documentation for designing kitchens and joinery for wheelchair users is widely available; however, people’s maximum reach and strength vary greatly, even among wheelchair users. Kitchens designed specifically for people with disability vary greatly too.
To accommodate a wheelchair user or other seated occupant, portions of the work surfaces should be constructed at a lower level than those for standing users, with leg room provided under work benches. To facilitate such changes, kitchen joinery can be installed using modular components that allow for easy removal or modification of individual parts rather than the reconstruction of the entire joinery layout. Install such components after the nonslip floor finish is completed.
Design the kitchen with safety considerations in mind, including:
- appropriately sized workspaces to the side of all appliances such as the cooktop, oven, microwave and fridge
- short distances between the cooktop, workspaces and sink
- contrasting colours between bench tops and cupboard fronts to assist the visually impaired
- appropriately designed task lighting
At least one bedroom in the home should be accessible to a person using a wheelchair. This means it should have both a wide enough doorway and be sized to enable them to manoeuvre within the space. Additional services such as 2-way light switches, telephone outlets, additional electrical outlets and TV outlets are recommended to ensure maximum usability and security. Designs should ideally allow direct access between an accessible bedroom and bathroom, or allow for easy adaptation to this configuration later.
In the design of all wet areas such as toilets, bathrooms and laundry:
- ensure adequate sizing for access and circulation
- locate storage for easy and safe use
- install nonslip surfaces to minimise accidents
- install task lighting near mirrors
- design showers without hobs (a curb that must be stepped over)
- reinforce stud walls around the shower, bath and toilet to allow later installation of grab rails.
If possible, make the entire bathroom fully accessible for a wheelchair user.
If separate bathroom and toilet facilities are preferred, install a removable wall between the toilet cubicle and the bathroom during construction. To reduce the amount of work required later, install the wall as a non-loadbearing partition after the floor and wall finishes are completed. Similarly, install items such as vanity cupboards, toilet bowls or shower screens which may require relocation or modification, as removable fixtures after all surrounding surfaces are completed.
One of the most common adaptations in residential bathrooms is the installation of grab rails for support and stability. To avoid demolishing sections of wall to insert support points, fix 12mm structural plywood to any stud wall framing behind the finished wall materials. In addition, allow leg space around hand basins and locate items such as mirrors, electrical outlets and controls so they can be used by people either standing or seated.
In the laundry, provide:
- a minimum circulation space 1550mm deep in front or beside appliances
- taps located to the side, not the back, of any laundry tub
- sufficient storage shelves, at a maximum height of 1200mm.
Access to external drying areas should consider mobility issues and the need to use clothes baskets and trolleys. Ensure there is space for a drier for those who are unable to hang washing outside.
Activities such as mail collection, rubbish storage, car parking and enjoyment of outdoor spaces should also be considered in designing for full accessibility:
- Make rubbish bins, recycling storage, letterboxes, clotheslines and garden tool storage accessible along paths refer to Access and entry for more information.
- Locate car parking close to the entry with at least one covered parking space sized to enable wheelchair access.
- Install electronically operated garage doors.
- Use movement-activated sensor lights.
- Ensure that home or unit numbers are clearly visible from the street.
- Provide easily accessible private, sheltered outdoor areas with access to northern sun in winter, visible from inside the home.
- Allow for raised garden beds in the initial garden layout.
- Allow secure space for future storage and recharging of medical equipment, a wheelchair or other mobility device such as a scooter.
Although single-level homes seem an obvious choice for accessible housing, 2- or more storey homes and apartments can also be suitable for adaptation. The ground floor of a multilevel home can be accessible to visitors with a disability or even accommodate an occupant with a temporary disability. The ground floor should include a living area, kitchen, accessible bathroom and a space appropriate for use as a bedroom.
To facilitate multilevel access, stair flights should be straight and floor plans should allow for the future installation of vertical lifts or staircase lifts. A vertical lift requires space for a hole through each floor adjacent to circulation space on all levels. Initially the hole in the upper floor can be filled in or the space used for storage until adaptation is required. A stair lift requires ample space on top and bottom stair landings.
References and additional reading
- Australian Network for Universal Home Design.
- Friedman A (2002). The adaptable home: designing homes for change, McGraw-Hill, New York.
- Goldsmith S (2000). Universal design: a manual of practical guidance for architect. Prepared with PRP Architects, Architectural Press, Oxford.
- Government of Western Australia, Liveable homes: designs that work for everyone.
- Liveable Housing Australia (2017). Liveable housing design guidelines [PDF], 4th edn, LHA, Sydney.
- North Carolina State University (2006). Universal design in housing, The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, College of Design, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Office for Ageing Well (2019). Housing for life: designed for living. SA Health, Government of South Australia, Adelaide.
- Explore Preliminary research for ideas on where to start when buying or building a home
- Review Designing a home for more information on what to think about when designing a liveable home
- Visit Design for climate to find out how to make your home more energy-efficient, as well as liveable
Original authors: Jasmine Palmer and Stephen Ward
Updated: Jasmine Palmer 2013, Laura Wynne and Caitlin McGee 2020