How Accessibility-Focused Housing Design Benefits Everyone
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How Accessibility-Focused Housing Design Benefits Everyone

Two years ago, changes to the Ontario Building Code upped accessibility requirements for multiunit residential buildings.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

As municipal and provincial governments continue to work out what inclusionary zoning will mean for Ontario, another set of regulations is already transforming new homes across the province. Two years ago this month, changes to the Ontario Building Code came into effect that increase accessibility requirements for multiunit residential buildings.

The rules don’t apply to houses, but because towers increasingly define Toronto’s skyline, the regulations will have a direct impact on quality of life in the city. Statistics Canada indicates that 1.6 million Ontarians live with a disability while seven per cent of all Canadians have a disability that limits mobility.

The changes to the Building Code affect new construction as well as major renovations, and they cover everything from the way buildings connect with the sidewalk to the configuration of individual units. For starters, an accessible side door is no longer good enough: the principle entrance must be barrier free. The requirements also ensure access to common spaces, including pools and rooftop amenities. In addition to advancing social inclusion, these regulations also improve safety by making visual fire alarms mandatory.

As for living space, 15 per cent of all new units must incorporate basic accessibility features and reflect the sizes of suites found throughout a building. These units offer a barrier-free route to a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room. Bathrooms must be large enough to allow a wheelchair to turn around and feature reinforced walls to accommodate grab bars and other assistive devices.

These measures are not exhaustive since a barrier-free environment looks and feels different to each person. Even with the new rules, kitchen counters remain unreachable for some while acoustics present challenges for others. The important thing is that the changes make universal design mandatory for new developments even as renderings depict affluent, young residents.

Similar tensions between marketing aspirations and individual accessibility are at work in the United Kingdom but London provides a rare example of leadership in this area. Since 2004, mayors of all political stripes have committed to accessible housing with the result that one hundred percent of new homes are built to meet barrier-free design standards and ten per cent have additional features to support people who use wheelchairs. In contrast, only seven percent of homes across England incorporate basic accessibility measures.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this lack of national oversight, Habinteg is an organization that makes the case for why barrier-free housing benefits everyone. Based in London with sister associations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Habinteg promotes and provides accessible, affordable housing across the U.K. In addition to managing a portfolio of more than 3,400 units, Habinteg has developed and implemented standards for accessible homes that meet the needs of people with disabilities, their families, and an aging population more broadly.

Habinteg also goes one step further to explain why accessible homes are a good investment for public funders, private developers and individual households. Their research shows how well-designed housing can meet the needs of an aging population by enabling people to age in place rather than relocating to secure supports. Appropriate housing also reduces social isolation and improves the economic participation of people with disabilities.

From extended hospitalization to long-term unemployment, the social costs of unmet housing needs outweigh the upfront costs of constructing barrier-free homes. In fact, the research also suggests that there is a market for accessible housing in England, with people wiling to pay for a home that facilitates dignity and self determination.

Although comparable figures are not available in Canada, findings from the United Kingdom confirm that universal design pays dividends. Making wide doorways and tactile surfaces mandatory creates housing options for people with disabilities and prepares for the needs of an aging population.

But building standards are only one part of the solution: Habinteg’s integrated approach to accessible housing reveals that ensuring affordability and providing supports onsite increases independence and reduces the need for help from family and friends. Neither monthly rent nor day-to-day assistance are issues for the Building Code, but they are two more conditions that must be met in order for people of all ages and abilities to feel at home in Toronto.