The case for accessible homes
by Peter Tan. Posted on December 28, 2013, Saturday
“HOME is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to,” said the late John Ed Pearce, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
For many of us, home is a house we spend half of our life paying instalments for every month and very likely the biggest investment we ever make. We take pains to gradually turn it into an oasis for us to retire comfortably in many years later.
This insight to think far ahead ensures that there is a roof over our heads when we need it most is all well and good except that the vagaries of old age requires more than a shelter. With advancing age comes a host of health issues. Some are unexpected conditions that we can neither avoid nor prevent, even for those who are of strong constitution.
Stroke, arthritis and fracture of the hip are some of the risks that increase with the progression of age. At the extreme, they cause significant mobility impairments that affect the individual as well as other family members who are providing care and support.
Most, if not all, residential properties were not built to accommodate such situations. Multiple steps, narrow doorways and unsuitable layout of toilet fittings can pose considerable challenges to the activities of daily living of people using mobility aids like the wheelchair or walking frame.
A good case in point is my octogenarian father-in-law who has been living with a bad knee for almost a decade. He walks with a limp that has gotten progressively worse over the years. Of late, he has been falling down a tad too frequent even with the assistance of a walking frame.
There are two sizeable steps into his double-storey house and one step down to the bathroom cum toilet at the ground floor. The family is asking him to consider moving into the room downstairs and hopefully use a wheelchair to improve his mobility. Ramps have to be added at the entrance and in the bathroom, and the toilet layout rearranged for his convenience should he agree to use a wheelchair.
It is going to be costly and messy to renovate the house at this stage. Walls and floors have to be hacked. I understand very well the drawbacks of living in a house that is being remodelled for this purpose, having experienced it twice.
Thin layers of dust would settle on the floor and wall and on every piece of furniture that was not covered. Everything had to be mopped and wiped after the contractors left at the end of each day. The routines of the entire household were disrupted for the duration of the renovation.
We are exploring the options of minimising the inconvenience and chaos this may cause to my in-laws. The challenge now is that house is fully furnished and there is little space left to move the furniture around for the contractors to do their work properly.
If the house was built with accessibility in mind from the beginning, it would have eliminated this predicament we are in now. I did not give much thought about solving the problem at the root cause even as an advocate for an accessible environment until I was interviewed for a newspaper article on this topic.
The journalist asked if it would be better to have all the accessible features incorporated into the property when it was being built. I agreed with him that it would definitely save a lot of money in renovations and elbow grease in cleaning up after the contractors every evening.
Malaysia is set to become an ageing nation by the year 2030 when fifteen percent of the population are sixty years old and above. With disabled persons making up another fifteen percent of the total population as estimated in the World Report on Disability, we will definitely have a significant number of people requiring dwellings that are accessible.
Ideally, these properties, be they landed or high-rise, should have seamless access from the main entrance onwards with wider doorways that are safe and convenient to be used by everyone as promulgated in the seven principles of universal design.
The common arguments against building properties with these features are that more space is required, and that they are unsightly and expensive. On the contrary, research had shown that the cost of accessibility make up less than one percent of total construction costs whereas retrofitting and upgrading the building after completion incurred far more.
A good architect can incorporate these features into the design by aesthetically blending them as part of the entire structure without requiring extra space. All it takes is ingenuity and understanding of how the surroundings can be made to suit the needs of users instead of the other way around.
People will invariably grow old. Some will require all the help they can get to maintain their independence for as long as possible. Others may sustain physical impairments in mid-life like what happened to me. They too can benefit from a home that allows them to function more effectively.
The incorporation of universal design can be a main selling point to these people and those looking for a house or apartment that is truly occupant-friendly. It is time property developers level up their offerings of better designed homes to meet the demands of the time.
The government can play its part in encouraging the construction of such dwellings by providing incentives for qualified developers or even purchasers.
A move like this will ensure that there is an adequate supply of suitable homes to meet the rising demand in the run up to the year 2030.