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Moving Towards the Universally Designed Home: Part 1

The private dwelling is in many respects the last frontier for the general regulation of universal design in buildings. There is an appropriate reluctance to impose more requirements on these private areas, especially when they are considered costly and of doubtful significance.

Still, we know that many building regulations that apply to private houses effectively protect the construction, residents, neighbors, and the environment. Accessibility and universal design have become part of the requirements for some dwellings both in the US and many other countries, while the justification for these requirements differs a bit. In the US, non-discrimination is the rationale behind certain types of accessible housing requirements (e.g., in multifamily projects) while welfare for the citizens has been the motivation in the Nordic countries.

Moving from a policy of social care to self-determination.

The non-discrimination legislation in the US is widely acclaimed, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has been an inspiration and a model for similar legislation throughout the world, including the Nordic countries.

The 1988 Amendments to America’s Fair Housing Act of 1968 increased the accessibility of multifamily housing in the US, via seven accessibility requirements for entrances to some buildings with dwellings, the public use areas, doors, routes, environmental controls, bathrooms and kitchens.

Figure 1 Loeren is a fast-growing new residential area in Oslo. Universal design is mandatory for the design of the apartments. The development towards universally designed dwellings started in the 1960ies. Photo: Olav Rand Bringa

In the 1960’s and 70’s the housing policies in the Nordic counties changed, largely due to the work of organizations for people with disabilities who argued for inclusion and equal treatment. The move away from institutional care and the creation of housing for people with disabilities had started. In a white paper to The Storting (The Norwegian National Assembly) in 1977 the government explained the new policy:

In all dwellings there will, in shorter or longer periods, live persons with a disability. All dwellings should ideally be usable for all regardless of age or degree of mobility.  Preferably the dwelling should be designed in a way that people could live in their dwellings even if the life circumstances and use requirements change.

Integrating people with disabilities in ordinary environments became a main objective of the housing policy for people with disabilities, and accessibility to ordinary residential buildings was the instrument.

In 1976 a set of accessibility requirements was included in the Norwegian building regulations.  The requirements resembled, with some distinctions, the amendments to the Fair Housing Act of 1988 and initiated the development of successive improvement of accessibility to dwellings.

While an improved design of the residential bathroom is essential for people with reduced mobility to live in a dwelling, the 1976 regulations did not, in fact, have those requirements. A soft requirement came in 1985 when a toilet that was accessible and usable for people with reduced mobility was allowed. Research showed that this was ignored by builders and local authorities as was a little bit stronger wording in the 1997 revision of the building code.

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