Universal Design is good design that applies to people with or without disabilities

Why Universal Design is Fundamental

Universal Design is a reasonably well-used term with regards to housing or buildings, but I would say the concept is relatively misunderstood.  Universal Design is fundamentally good design that accommodates all users, with or without any disabilities.  It is general in context and applies to residential, civic or commercial applications, but it is important, much like the Disability and Discrimination Act, to ensure fair and equitable access for all.

History of Universal Design

The late 20th Century brought a heightened awareness to civil and human rights.  With increased life expectancy and veterans returning from the Second World War, (many with disabilities from injuries), the needs of these groups led to the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation.

In the 1970s a general concept of accessible design emerged, affecting the design of products, services and physical environments. Related areas such as Assistive Technology and User-Centred design also gained momentum.

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

These principles were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers at North Carolina State University.  The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products, processes and communications.

The principles are summarised as follows, and full details of the 7 Principles can be found on the USA Center for Excellence in Universal Design website.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

  • • The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

  • • The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

  • • Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

  • • The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

  • • The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

  • • The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

• Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Why Universal Design is Fundamental in Housing

There is a myriad of examples where alternative spatial design frameworks exist in conjunction with minimum Standards.  Such frameworks include Design Guidelines provided by developers for specific housing types or developments, Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) Guidelines for the NDIS – refer to a previous Alchemy Blog post; “How Specialist Disability Accommodation will Shape the Future of Design” or the Livable Housing Australia Design Guidelines.

These guidelines are generally not mandatory and exceed minimum statutory spatial design requirements.  In the case of the SDA, they are required for Enrolment of dwellings in the NDIS.  In other instances, they can be used as a marketing tool by developers to attract potential purchasers of dwellings or to provide more appropriate housing to satisfy a social need of the community.

Joe Manton, Director of The Access Institute, an experienced consultant, educator and collaborator on the NDIS Specialist Disability Accommodation Guidelines has recently commented on minimum standards for accessibility in her writing “Minimum Compliance Means Missed Opportunities and Mediocrity“.  Joe contends that the minimum access standards do not serve all users, whether with a disability or those who may have other accessibility requirements, including prams, strollers, deliveries to premises, shopping trolleys or other needs.

I agree with Joe’s position.  The requirements for spatial allocation in the design of buildings should be determined and influenced by a number of factors, to be assessed and interrogated by the Architect (or building designer), including the proposed use of the building for the Owner and potential future use of the building. 

It is not good enough to design strictly in accordance with the Minimum Standards and certainly not acceptable to cut corners or routinely seek exemptions to minimum Standards.  It is fundamental that Architects design spaces to accommodate all users and reasonable spatial expectations. 

Alchemy Consulting is an accredited specialist disability accommodation

How Specialist Disability Accommodation will shape the future of design

In this Insight, we explore the positive impact that Specialist Disability Accommodation will have on future design.

As of 2019, it was recorded that more than 4 million disabled Australians receive Commonwealth assistance, social housing, or are homeless.  To put it into perspective, that’s approximately 15% of our entire countries’ population1.

Amazingly, our Australian Government has committed $700m each year for the next 20 years under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS is designed to support Australians who have a permanent or significant disability.  For many people, incredibly, it will be the first time they receive the disability support they need.

One aspect of NDIS support is the provision and funding of housing suitable for those with disabilities. Known as Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA), last year we saw over 12,000 people receiving financial assistance for Specialist Disability Accommodation.  It’s expected that more than double that number will ultimately receive assistance for housing2.

Unfortunately, though, there are still too many Australians, with some form of disability, who are not living in appropriate housing which is safe, assistive or spatially large enough to cater for their disabilities. Steven Bayer from Alchemy Consulting wants to help as many Australians as possible live in the right sort of housing to cater for their needs, or disabilities if that is the case.


Aspects of enhanced housing design

With a focus on developing specialist solutions for varying types and levels of disabilities, the following classifications are part of the SDA Guidelines:

Improving Liveability

Developing housing that will enhance the overall liveability for people with sensory, intellectual or cognitive impairments such as providing spaces that allow ease of circulation or accessibility, safety and physical features. This will allow NDIS Participants to live independently, with value and integration with others where appropriate.  This generally will include spatial allowances or allowing for vision or perception impairments through the use of colour, luminance contrast or surface materials.


Designing housing that is very resilient, or which may have additional ‘breakout’ spaces, to reduce the likelihood of reactive maintenance. This will reduce the risk to the tenant with more obvious behavioural disabilities disabled tenant and/or others who may live in the dwelling or visitors.

Fully Accessible

Developing housing that provides appropriate accessibility for people with significant physical impairments. Incorporating additional width in doorways, spaces and circulation areas, together with enhanced design of kitchens and bathrooms to allow fixtures and fittings to be useable by those in wheelchairs.

High Physical Support

Ensuring that the housing has been designed to support people with significant physical impairment and requiring very high levels of support. This could include the provision of lifting hoists in bedrooms for assistance in access to beds, or the requirement for enhanced spatial heating/cooling or the inclusion of emergency power to avoid unsafe situations in times of power failure.

1. Australian Institute of Health + Welfare: People with disability in Australia: In brief.  2019

2. NDISP:  ndisp.com.au:

Do you need an SDA Assessor for your project?

If you are seeking to provide accommodation that is funded through the NDIS, you will need your housing to be certified by an Accredited SDA Assessor and registered with the NDIS.

Steven Bayer is currently involved in the provision of SDA housing in NSW and Queensland, working with developers in the design of approved accommodation and also NDIS Providers that work with NDIS Participants, who are the occupants of housing and recipients of NDIS funding.

Steven is also a qualified SDA Assessor who can review and certify that housing meets the requirements of the SDA Design Guidelines.   

If you would like to discuss an SDA housing project, or understand more details about this important community housing, don’t hesitate to contact us for more information. Alternatively, take a further look at our Accessibility services via the links below.

The Fine Line Around Development

The fine line around Development

What is the best solution for proposed developments in existing communities? The answer is not black and white, but the result must be a positive change. We explore the fine line around development in this opinion piece.

Prompted by a recent media article regarding a new residential tower overshadowing existing traditional houses, we have considered this matter further – it is an issue that continually raises its head and causes debate.

Two sides of the development coin

There are generally two sides – those supporting the proposed and those in the existing community that feel the proposed development will have a negative impact on the immediate surrounds.

We are the custodians of the land for a comparatively short time. The property has had a long history which will continue into the future. All parties need to respect the site, independent from any proposed development.

There are many issues to be considered. How does the development comply with the objectives and constraints of Council planning regulations? Are there State government compliance requirements? What impacts are there on traffic?

Does it overshadow existing dwellings, at what time of the day does this occur and for how many hours? Will the new development result in other loss of amenity, such as privacy, or will it create noise and glare issues?

Are there Traditional building considerations? Is the site in the Council Traditional building Overlay area? Are houses in the street pre-1946 or pre-1911, which will have an impact on what new development is permissible?

From the pro-development aspect, the cities need to grow and commercial projects need to contribute to their community, whilst having an appropriate return on the risk and investment. The proposed development may result in desirable commercial space or housing, such as Specialist Disability Accommodation or Affordable Housing.

Seek the best solution

All issues need to be considered very carefully. As Architects, we need to be reasonable and provide the best possible solution for our clients. However, this must not be at the absolute detriment to the site, the adjacent properties, the immediate location or the region.

Any development needs to respect the abundant complex factors. There is never a black and white result: there will always be a compromise.

Talk to Alchemy Consulting about your development projects and allow us to demonstrate how we will provide highly professional services incorporating creative and considered solutions.