Flexible & functional

Stuart Reynolds of AKW discusses how social landlords can build flexibility into their housing stock for both able and disabled tenants

A major piece of research by the Smith Institute forecasts that by 2034 there will be 170,000 more residents with mobility problems living in housing association properties. In addition, according to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report demand for accessible housing is increasing, with insufficient supply across all tenure types. It’s therefore imperative that housing associations and social landlords ensure they include bathrooms suitable for all possible tenants.

Increased demand for accessible housing

In the social rented sector in England alone, the total of tenants aged over 55 living in social housing is projected to increase from 1.6 million to over 2.2 million by 2035 (if social housing maintains its current share of the housing market). In addition, disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to be social housing tenants and almost half (48.5 per cent) of all social rented households have at least one person whose illness or disability limits their activities. This is much higher than other tenures. With this in mind, in the next 10-20 years, many more older and disabled people living in private rented properties, or homeowners with insufficient equity, will need to try and find more suitable, adapted accommodation. Inevitably, many of these will apply for social housing, putting further significant pressure on housing managers.

Taking a different approach to making housing stock accessible

According to the Equality and Human Right’s Commission, there are some local authorities who are leading the charge for accessible housing provision by putting disabled people’s needs at the heart of planning, and reaping the benefits. But they are the exception rather than the rule. For the majority of local authorities and housing associations, the challenge is how to refurbish and renew ageing adaptations and equipment while they still have available budgets. This short-term investment is offset by the long-term savings in maintenance costs for sizeable pieces of kit such as stairlifts. Manufacturers are responding well to this, offering a wide range of cost-effective home adaptation solutions. Companies such as AKW offer detailed advice to OT’s specifying particular pieces of equipment and have an experienced technical support team on hand to advise OT’s, local authorities and housing associations on technical support, services, level access showering solutions and accessible kitchens.

The accessible bathroom dilemma

Although a level access showering room enables those with mobility issues to maintain their independence and promotes long-term safety, this type of bathroom can cause difficulties when general-needs accommodation is re-let and the next occupants require a more traditional bathroom layout. Even in sheltered housing, or other accommodation designed for older people, standard wetroom solutions do not always work. Not all older people want showers, either because they are not used to them, or because they enjoy alleviating their aches and pains by soaking in a warm bath. ‘Personalisation’ is a common buzzword but it is expensive to deliver in practice. So, what can housing providers do to provide both value-for-money and flexible solutions to keep all tenants happy? It’s clearly a big challenge that urgently needs to be addressed. To help build greater flexibility into housing stock, AKW has been working with many social housing providers to overcome this issue with their ‘bathroom for life’ option. This solution is a conventional bathroom layout that includes a bath; however the difference is that the bath can be very quickly and easily adapted to become a level access wetroom showering area (and back again if required). The bath effectively becomes more like a piece of furniture, so it is possible for landlords to keep it in place for families or remove it for older people or those with disabilities, as required. This type of alternative solution minimises any adaptation costs for a housing provider by reducing the amount of building work needed. It also reduces disruption to tenants. Once installed, it takes approximately half a day to either install a bath or take the bath out and return it to a wet room, making it easy for new residents moving into a property, as they can have the choice of a bath or shower depending on their needs or preference. Typically, the price difference between a Bathroom for Life installation and a traditional bathroom refurbishment or new build is £500. Although there is increasing pressure on housing stock to become even more accessible, manufacturers are working hard to help social landlords provide ‘real-world’ solutions. Thanks to these companies, many housing providers are saving time and building long-term flexibility into their housing stock.

Stuart Reynolds is head of product and marketing at AKW