Modifiable homes aren’t something new. They’re not your regular sprucing up of a space, but more like a life-changing home reno. For people of sudden or prolonged disability, the potential to change their abode is a lifeline. Their homes need adjustments to make their everyday environment liveable and maintain their independence.
Unexpected industries intersect, pull together and create something we take for granted: an ergonomically safe and useful space. For clients, the usability of their homes takes on heightened importance in their recovery towards a new normal. It’s mind blowing that often to gain approval for something as simple as a bathroom rail, it requires a process collaboratively implemented by skilled health and design industry professionals, who aim to then better someone’s quality of life.
I like learning about unnoticed architecture and design. I’m the type of person that will sit in a café, note whether the height of tables or stools accommodate my tall stature, or even how the acoustics have either achieved the subtle rhubarb rhubarb effect or have instead produced a sharp collision of music or harsh echoes as people chatter. I wonder what materials have contributed to the atmosphere I’m experiencing, and how they’ve influenced the space. So when I came across Gippsland-based Occupational Therapists (OTs) working with architects to create homes for clients of mixed abilities, I excitedly sought to learn more.
I was surprised to learn that OTs are educated in basic design and architecture, and, conversely, architects learn about the body. Thinking further, this makes sense, as both professions need this knowledge to purposefully create livable environments. And really, any space requires such consideration to make it functional. It’s also pretty cool that two seemingly disparate professions can collaborate — again proving that modern jobs have to be more versatile with their skill sets.
There are rehabilitation teams across Gippsland’s hospitals with OTs that focus on improving their patients’ ability to best function in their environment. Charlie Davine is part of the team at Bass Coast Health. He has worked with a range of clients and projects from Inverloch to Poowong. Charlie kindly shed light on the opportunity Gippsland has in supporting its ageing population, people with disabilities and in general, smarter housing.
“We are time-limited in inpatient rehab. Unfortunately, the health industry requires timely discharges to ensure the service can be utilised by everyone. Funding is a main challenge of mine. Home modifications are very expensive, and with a sudden change to a person’s physical function, there need to be timely changes to their environment. Most people don’t have this sort of money saved [nor] prepared for this type of event. There are options to receive government funding but these have insane waitlists and are a convoluted process”.
Small modifications entail add-ons such as railings. Complex modifications require more inbuilt structures or reconfigurations like a ramp or adjusting heights of kitchen bench spaces. For small modifications, there are subsidised options through My Aged Care (MAC) and the local council, usually with a short turnaround time to facilitate a quick discharge. Bigger projects go through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), where the process, required approvals and existing waitlist can result in changes taking up to 12 months to be installed. The long waiting time takes an emotional strain on top of the experiences of coping with a new disability.
“People lose their sense of self and have a shift in their personal identity when they are confronted with a traumatic change to their functional capacity. OT originated as a mental health discipline and even working in physical dysfunction, we still have strong foundations of mental health therapies, strategies and rehabilitation.
“Positive patient outcomes are the most rewarding aspect of my role”, Charlie continued. “Seeing someone return to an activity they enjoy, returning home to a safe environment or being able to do everyday tasks independently is a very satisfying feeling”. Frequent positive patient outcomes, regardless of the size of the project, is something to work towards.
Luckily, new options are being explored. Architecture & Access is a Melbourne-based design firm that focuses on home modifications, and Gippsland is a region they frequently work in. Toby Osborn, an OT Consultant at Architecture & Access has noted, “There is a move within the housing industry to construct homes that are more liveable and adaptable, so that they can better meet the lifetime needs of all Australians”. The shift to create ‘smarter’ homes and spaces isn’t only occurring in Gippsland, but in the architecture and design community nationally.
To list a few:
1. Transitional housing — These are short-term, affordable and accessible housing for people in crisis situations. In Gippsland, Salvocare and Quantum are leading in this space, but the service is still limited. As a result, even young people with disabilities waiting on modifications have been stuck in a hospital or placed into nursing homes while they wait. Increased availability of this housing option means that a patient’s quality of life can still be improved while waiting to return to their modified home.
2. Registering local builders to the NDIS — Charlie mentioned that with the rollout of the NDIS, there is currently a large gap in the market for people who require significant home modifications, particularly in regional areas like ours. “This gap is being filled by organisations based in metro areas and I would like to see these services being offered by locals”.
3. Livable Housing Design (LHD) Guidelines — These have been developed to assist the residential builders, property industry and governments to better understand how to incorporate easy living features into new housing design and construction. Addressing the LHD Guidelines means that homes are designed to be more flexible and easily modifiable to meet specific disability-related needs. Despite these not being mandatory or enforceable, knowledge of them in the context of Gippsland’s housing demand can create better design and spaces that are easily modifiable.
4. Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) — The ABCB are currently undertaking a national consultation in relation to accessible housing. The purpose of the consultation is to explore the possible inclusion of a minimum accessibility standard for housing in the National Construction Code (NCC). If there are accessibility standards incorporated into the NCC, this would create a legal requirement for new homes to achieve accessibility at a minimum level.
Whatever the scale of the modification, the impact will be significant if it can improve something most of us take for granted when opening our front door — a functional and comfortable living space. Gippsland already has some excellent health care services, but we could make our region more liveable to people of all abilities. The resources and actions listed above intend to make homes more adaptable to the changing needs of our community.
To learn more on NDIS, MAC, LHD and ABCB, information can be found here:
NDIS — www.ndis.gov.au
MAC — www.myagedcare.gov.au
LHD — www.livablehousingaustralia.org.au
ABCB — www.abcb.gov.au/Resources/Publications/Consultation/Accessible-Housing-Options-Paper