Designing for disability: creating a culture of accessible homes

Homeowners should be demanding accessible and disability-friendly homes, says quality assurance programme LifeMark. To celebrate International Disability Day, the organisation today launches a consumer campaign encouraging people to put pressure on builders and designers to use mobility-friendly design features in their homes.

CCS Disability Action founded its accessible housing quality assurance programme LifeMark in 2006 with an ambitious vision: to get more accessible housing available for those with disabilities.

So far only 2.6% of all homes have LifeMark certification, says LifeMark general manager Geoff Penrose.

 But meeting the housing needs of an aging population means this number has to increase significantly – possibly to 30%, he says.

And the housing crisis will only get worse unless the construction sector starts building houses to meet the needs of the country’s future population.

 He says LifeMark design features such as slip-free surfaces and step-free entrances allow people to live easily at all stages of their life.

“A house suitable for a wheelchair user is also suitable for the elderly, those with temporary disabilities, children and pregnant women,” Penrose says.

 No matter what your current abilities, having an easily accessible home will make life easier both now and in the future, Penrose says.

This will prevent people needing to move houses as they grow older and lose their mobility.

“The current housing crisis is around affordability, because in some instances houses can’t be afforded,” Penrose says.

“The issue we’re advocating is we need to build and include design features to allow people to stay in their houses longer and meet their changing needs so they don’t have to move as often.”

These changing needs include that of what he calls the incoming “silver tsunami”.

Statistics New Zealand has predicted the number of Kiwis aged 65 and over will grow to over 1.18 million by 2051. 

This is expected to increase the number of people living with a disability in New Zealand, which at present is almost a quarter of the population (24%), according to the 2013 New Zealand Disability Survey.

Just over 1500 homes in New Zealand have been LifeMark certified, which Penrose says accounts for 2.6% of all building consents in 2013.


A LifeMark certified kitchen 

The campaign launched today aims to educate consumers about what an adaptable home is about and increase this number to 30% in the next five years, Penrose says.

“30% in the next five years is an ambitious target, but if we don’t get that number we’re going to have another housing crisis in 15 years time.”

Ross Meggett, a Christchurch-based architect and founder of the firm that shares his name, says in architecture, often “eye candy” is awarded over sensible design.

“Many award-winning buildings, particularly in housing, have not had as much attention paid to access for those with disabilities as there should be. Often fashion has been more important than practicality,” Meggett says.

He says the feedback he’s had from clients is planning for unforeseen circumstances in home design pays off.

“A number of my LifeMark clients have had subsequent operations, such as hip replacements, and they were so pleased that they didn’t had to make any alternations to their lifestyle because of the foresight.”

The five design principles each LifeMarked home has to incorporate are:

1. Usability: thoughtful design features, such as easy to use taps and reachable power points.

2. Adaptability: being able to change to meet the house occupant’s needs as they progress through time, such as bathroom and kitchen features that can be added in later.

3. Accessibility: the house can be accessed by anyone, with features such as level entry and wider doorways.

4. Safety: intelligent design features that prevent injuries, such as non-slip surfaces and better-designed stairs.

5. Lifetime value: the home isn’t expensive or complicated for designers and builders to create and for people to live in.

See below: LifeMark design features

Level entranceway Level entry shower Flat surface leading to front door Wide hallways


Penrose says a lot of these design features are invisible and people don’t necessarily notice them until they come to need them, such as a door widths being 86cm instead of 76cm.

“When you walk through a doorway, you don’t notice the width, but if you had to go through in a wheelchair but you would notice it,” he says.

However, making a home adaptable and accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that LifeMarked homes are ugly.

Sandra Davies, a contract architectural designer for companies such as Spanbild Architecture, says she doesn’t believe creating a LifeMarked home sacrifices the overall look – it improves it. 


A LifeMark certified bathroom

“It’s all about the ease of getting around and the space. I don’t think the designs compromised at all. It’s enhanced, actually – because you have more space, as well as better indoor and outdoor flow as it’s level access,” she says.

An independent study in 2011 by BRANZ found it was ten times cheaper to install LifeMark features at design stage over an already built home.

Penrose estimates the additional costs of LifeMark features are around $1000 when at the design or building stage.

 Although it costs extra, LifeMark promotes the certification as adding sales value to the house.

 Pat De Pont, director of SGA Architects says having a LifeMark certification will help with the resell. 

“If you’re looking at it from a marketing point-of-view, you have a wider market as the house will be useful for anyone, whether they’re five-years-old or 95-years-old,” he says.